Niagara Symphony Association

Niagara Symphony Association (Niagara Symphony Orchestra). Founded in 1948 as the St Catharines Civic Orchestra by Jan Wolanek, noted for his pioneering efforts in establishing community orchestras in the US and Canada.

Niagara Symphony Association

Niagara Symphony Association (Niagara Symphony Orchestra). Founded in 1948 as the St Catharines Civic Orchestra by Jan Wolanek, noted for his pioneering efforts in establishing community orchestras in the US and Canada. Initially a community orchestra, its governing body assumed the name St Catharines Symphony Association in 1963 and changed it in 1978 to Niagara Symphony Association to reflect increased regional responsibilities. During the 1970s the Niagara Symphony Orchestra became a fully professional ensemble - its membership by the early 1990s was 60 per cent local - and the only musical organization in the Niagara peninsula offering the full range of symphonic and choral repertoire. The Association supports the Niagara Symphony Orchestra and the Niagara Symphony Chorus.

Leonard Pearlman (b Winnipeg 12 Jan 1928; pupil of Hans Swarowsky) took over the orchestra in 1958 (after an interim year under F.R.C. Clarke), soon supplementing the regular series with performances of small-scale baroque and contemporary works at Rodman Hall. It was during Pearlman's tenure that the Niagara Symphony Chorus began in 1963 its fruitful collaboration with the orchestra. He was succeeded in 1964 by Milton Barnes, who mounted the first opera production (Der Freischütz, 1966), and made a conscious effort to attract young people to symphonic music. In 1972 Leonard Atherton (b Harrow, England, 25 Oct 1941; conductor National Symphony Orchestra of Bolivia 1964-6) became music director. He enlarged the scope of both orchestra and chorus, introducing new series and founding groups such as the Cantata Choir and the Madrigal Singers (St Catharines, Ont). During Atherton's tenure the orchestra's membership became professional. A regular series of four pop concerts, held at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was inaugurated in 1976. Atherton's departure in 1980 was followed by three seasons of guest conductors. Ermanno Florio became music director in 1983 and Ian Grundy was named chorusmaster. Michael Reason served as music director 1995-9. In 1999 Daniel Swift (b Shawinigan, Que, 14 Jul 1950; B MUS History (Laval) 1979, M MUS (Laval) 1984) was appointed to succeed Reason. Swift was apprentice conductor with the Hamilton Philharmonic (1982-3), assistant conductor with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1983-5), music director of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (1985-92) and music officer of the Canada Council (1992-9).

In addition to its regular music directors, the orchestra has been led by Uri Mayer, Victor Feldbrill and Howard Cable. Laura Thomas became associate conductor in 2004, supported by the Canada Council.

Soloists have included Robert Aitken, Peter Appleyard, John Arpin, Atis Bankas, Bernadene Blaha, Howard Cable, Corey Cerovsek, Mark Fewer, Maureen Forrester, Rivka Golani, Glenn Gould, Ofra Harnoy, David Hetherington, Norbert Kraft, Anton Kuerti, James Milligan, Mischa Mischakoff, Walter Ostanek, Arthur Ozolins, Ruggiero Ricci, Teresa Stratas, and Valerie Tryon.

Concertmasters have included William Hose (1957), Deryck Aird (1958-92), Erika Beston (1992-3), and Valerie Sylvester, appointed in 1994.

Noteworthy Events

For 21 years the orchestra presented its major series at the Palace Theatre, then moved to Brock University and expanded that series from three to four concerts. Faced with a financial crisis in the 1980s, the Association made drastic cuts in its programming, but by 1987 was ready to expand its operations again. The double Masters series was resumed, and a gala concert was held to celebrate the orchestra's 40th anniversary. During the following season, a new children's series of three 'Carpet' concerts was established, held first at the St Catharines Public Library, then at Ridley College. In 1989 the chorus was enlarged and revitalized by its new and first full-time director, Robert Cooper, and moved its concerts to St Thomas' Anglican Church. As did many Canadian orchestras, the Niagara Symphony experienced trouble again in early 1997, with a projected operating deficit precipitated by reductions in donations and government grants; several board members resigned and a new board was elected. The symphony successfully weathered this crisis.

In 1999 the Niagara Symphony Orchestra became the orchestra in residence at Brock University, and moved all of its concerts to the university's Sean O'Sullivan Theatre. In 2001 the Niagara Symphony initiated a summer concert series, performing in St Catharines and Niagara Falls on Canada Day and appearing at outdoor locations including Old Fort Erie and Fort George. In addition, the Strings in the Vineyard series visits several wineries each year.

In 2000, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra embarked on a partnership with the professional theatre company Carousel Players. Members of the orchestra perform with the theatre company in a new production approximately every other year. In 2005, the orchestra commissioned Silverwing from Denis Gougeon, based on the novel by Kenneth Oppel, for one of these co-productions.

By 2005 the season had expanded to include four "Masterworks" concerts and eight pops concerts each year. The orchestra had a core group of 52 contracted musicians, presented 12 main stage concerts a year plus a summer series, and operated on an annual budget of $650,000.

Canadian Compositions

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra has presented much new Canadian music, including works by Pierre Mercure, Harry Somers, Oskar Morawetz and Stewart Grant, and has commissioned Milton Barnes's Psalms of David (1973) and Ronald Tremain's Seven Medieval Lyrics (1974). In 1981 James Vincent Fusco was appointed its first composer-in-residence, a post he held until 1994 and which was sponsored entirely by the orchestra. Several of Fusco's works have been premiered by the orchestra.

In 1976 Ontario Federation of Symphony Orchestras funded on behalf of the Niagara Symphony Association Norman Symonds's Forest and Sky, written as a tribute to board member Albert Jarvis (1916-75), whose leadership had a lasting impact on the association. Other board members who have made significant contributions include Winnifred Sankey, Elizabeth Lampard, Joseph West, Wallace Laughton, Lloyd Goodwin, and Howard Phillips.

Educational Initiatives
The organization has, almost from its inception, been involved in education, providing in-school concerts, a teaching program, children's series (begun in 1960), and an annual summer school (begun in 1965), which provides training for over 300 young musicians annually. The St Catharines Junior Symphony (now the Niagara Youth Orchestra) was founded in 1965 by Paul van Dongen, and later directed by Richard Grymonpre and Tak-Ng Lai; it became an independent organization in 1980.


Further Reading

  • Kohlhaas, Alide. "Area MPs lobby cash for Niagara symphony," St Catharines Standard, 24 Feb 1987

    Ritz, Linda. "Niagara Symphony has five-year plan," St Catharines Standard, 6 Oct 1989

    Sankey, A. Winifred. The Niagara Symphony: Its First 30 Years 1948-1978 (Gloucester, Ont, 1993)

    Murphy, Angela. "Key change," St Catharines Standard, 10 Sep 1994

    - "Fiscal woes won't stop shows," St Catharines Standard, 6 Feb 1997

    - "Symphony gets new look," St Catharines Standard, 22 Feb 1997