Obituary: Elinor Watson Bell, music philanthropist, dies at 91

  • Article by: TRUDI HAHN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2002 - 11:00 PM

When Elinor Watson Bell turned 90, she received a rare gift. Principal musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra agreed to go to Belford, her home in Wayzata, to play.

Bell had opened her home on many occasions to fundraising efforts for the orchestra and other arts groups. The living room, which could seat 40 to 50 guests, had the acoustics meant for chamber music.

The musicians, accustomed to listening to themselves in large concert halls, played one of her favorite pieces, Schubert's Octet.

"It's not a piece they get to play often," said her son, Dr. Ford Bell of Wayzata. "They loved playing it because they could hear themselves so clearly."

His mother, an accomplished pianist who devoted her life to music philanthropy, died Oct. 16 of complications from Parkinson's disease. She was 91.

Bell received a bachelor's degree in 1933 from the University of Minnesota and a master's degree in piano in 1947 from Hamline University in St. Paul, studying under the avant garde Austrian composer Ernst Krenek.

Her first husband, Dr. Porter Madeira Hoidale, whom she married in the late 1930s, had died, and in 1948 she married James Ford Bell Jr., a Red Owl grocery executive whose father had founded the modern version of General Mills in the 1920s. He died in 1981.

The demands of being an executive's wife took away from her practice time, said her son, and she didn't pursue a full-time performance role.

But she gave piano recitals, specializing in the repertoire for two players at one or two pianos, often with Martha Ivory, her piano partner of 40 years. Many of the recitals were fundraisers held in her living room, which had two Steinway grand pianos.

"She would say, what's the point of having a house like this if you can't share it?" said Deborah Brown, director of planned and major gifts for the Minnesota Orchestra.

At a 1980s event that benefited the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Bell was under the baton of Pinchas Zukerman, who played first violin to her piano in Brahms' Piano Quintet.

By 1996, Bell's health prevented her from performing, so she started the Belford Series to keep live music playing in her home, her son said. She and her household staff planned and catered musical events that benefited more than two dozen smaller nonprofit arts groups such as the Milkweed Press, the James Sewell Ballet and the Minnesota Boys Choir.

"She took a real joy in people," said Brown, a frequent guest at Belford who loved Bell's gift for deep friendship and sense of fun. "How does a person get to be that age and still know how to play?" she asked.

When a piano fellowship worth about $15,000 was established in 2000 in Bell's name at the School of Music of the University of Minnesota, she honored the memory of her piano teacher Krenek by stipulating that competitors must play a movement of their choice from his Second Piano Sonata, her son said.

The Minnesota Orchestra will honor Bell by dedicating its Nov. 13 concert to her, including the world premiere of a work by Sir John Tavener.

In addition to her son, survivors include sons Kevin Hoidale of Minneapolis and Cecil Bell of Medina; daughter Louise Reinhardt of Millbrook, N.Y.; stepsons Peter B. Bell of Cuernavaca, Mexico, and James Ford Bell III of New York City; 14 grandchildren, and a brother, James A. Watson of Minneapolis.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. next Friday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 12th St. and Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.

-- Trudi Hahn is at

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