A 107-year-old handcrafted harp stands in Carla Furlong’s living room, still making beautiful music in the hands of its owner.
The enduring grace of the instrument and its player represents the humanity at the heart of this story — one that began during the darkest period in modern times.
Peeling back several layers of history reveals how a Memorial scholarship first awarded in 2016 traces its origins to pre-Second World War Europe, and how the people connected to it helped inspire the classical arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Carla Furlong and Andreas Barban Bursary in Music was created by Michael Grobin, through a gift left in his will to support young musicians at Memorial University. A lifelong friend of Ms. Furlong, Mr. Grobin passed away in 2015.
At the age of 95, Ms. Furlong continues to instruct harp students from her home. A Juilliard-trained concert musician, she has been teaching music in various capacities for almost 70 years. She recalls in vivid detail how the scholarship came to be.
“It’s a story of friendship among three families in St. John’s, but it really began in Europe,” she said.
This story begins just before the Second World War, at a time when Jewish people were being systematically persecuted, imprisoned and murdered in various parts of Europe and the world.
When Wulf Grobin, Michael’s step-father, was studying medicine in Switzerland and returned to Latvia in 1938, he approached his home from the train station to witness Stalin’s Red Army taking his parents away. Dr. Grobin escaped to England and, from there, found his way to a position as a community doctor in Brooklyn, Bonavista Bay, N.L.
Also in 1938, a young music student named Andreas Barban was studying piano at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in Germany. He, too, had a close brush with death when he was taken by the Nazis to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His father succeeded in having him released; from there, Mr. Barban fled to Shanghai, China. Along the way he met and married Betty Berljawsky, a young Jewish girl also escaping Nazi persecution in Europe.
By 1953 Dr. Grobin had moved his practice to St. John’s, where he married and became the adoptive father of his wife’s young son, Michael.
The Barbans, at the urging of another family member living in Canada, moved to St. John’s in 1947 to fill a desperate need for music specialists in the city.
Andreas Barban would eventually become a pillar of the classical music scene in St. John’s, a contribution for which Memorial University recognized him with an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1985. During a long and successful career, he hosted a classical radio program, taught extensively, adjudicated and became one of the first conductors of what is now the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.
‘Value of music’
Ms. Furlong recalls that the Grobins, Barbans, and her family, the Emersons, became close while living near her family home on Winter Avenue in the 1950s.
Her father, Frederick Emerson, a well-respected lawyer, was also an accomplished linguist and musician. He spoke Russian and German, the mother tongues of Dr. Grobin and Mr. Barban, but was also fluent in the universal language of music.
“I think [Michael] would be delighted to know this scholarship is already making a difference in the life of a young musician at Memorial.”
Ms. Furlong notes that the celebration and joy the families experienced when it came to playing and listening to music together added to the feeling of peace and belonging they enjoyed in St. John’s.
She believes that Michael Grobin’s support of Memorial’s School of Music stems from those memories.
“Michael appreciated the value of music, and a music education, because it was so pervasive in all our lives,” she said. “I think he would be delighted to know this scholarship is already making a difference in the life of a young musician at Memorial.”
Notes of hope
Margot Rodgers is a voice student in her third year in the School of Music and is the first recipient of the Carla Furlong and Andreas Barban Bursary in Music. She says she is “extremely grateful” for the difference the gift is making in her life.
“It’s particularly important for music, because the degree is so worthwhile, but doesn’t always translate immediately to a job,” she said. “When people give to music education, it not only provides financial support, but it’s also reassuring that others in the community believe in the program and in people like me.”
In her lifetime, Ms. Furlong has been witness to families torn apart by strife and cruelty.
She has also seen fellowship restore humanity, often in notes of music shared among friends. Ms. Rodgers continues that legacy — not only as a dedicated student with a goal to pursue medical school, but as a volunteer in the community.
“I do volunteer work with autistic adults once a week, and they are mostly non-verbal,” she said. “One of the girls I visit really responds to music, so we just sing together. There isn’t a Newfoundland song she doesn’t know. Music is powerful that way. It gives us hope.”