Conductors and Conducting

The musician who directs a group of singers or instrumentalists without participating in the actual singing or playing is essentially the creation of the early 19th century; the one who makes a full-time career of such leadership is the product of the final decades of that century.

Alexander Brott, musician
Brott is known for musicianship, artistic flair and innovative programming (courtesy SSC Photocentre/Phototeque).
Macmillan, Ernest
Sir Ernest MacMillan (courtesy Miller Comstock).

Conductors and Conducting

The musician who directs a group of singers or instrumentalists without participating in the actual singing or playing is essentially the creation of the early 19th century; the one who makes a full-time career of such leadership is the product of the final decades of that century. Thus one may assume that the orchestral performances given in Québec City in the 1790s were still cued by the principal first violin or the harpsichord player, and that the hundreds of choir- and bandmasters of Victorian Canada made their living from music teaching, playing a church organ or running a music store, if entirely from music at all.

Musicians of exceptional talent might gain prestige, though hardly a livelihood, as organizers and conductors of the philharmonic societies that specialized in oratorios and cantatas. Guillaume COUTURE and the English-born Frederick Herbert Torrington, in Montréal and Toronto, respectively, are late 19th-century examples. Conditions were not ripe for assembling and financing permanent orchestras and OPERA companies, but by the turn of the century choirs and bands flourished. Outstanding leaders were Augustus Stephen VOGT, founder (1894) of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and Joseph Vézina, organizer of many bands and first conductor of the Société symphonique de Québec (1903, now Orchestre symphonique de Québec), the oldest surviving orchestra in Canada.

In the early 20th century, orchestras, partly or fully professional, became the leading musical ensembles of most large cities. The pioneer orchestra builders were usually immigrant orchestra players or church organists turned conductor by the Canadian opportunity, such as Joseph-Jean Goulet and Douglas Clarke in Montréal, Donald Heins in Ottawa, and Luigi von Kunits in Toronto. Immigrants were also prominent in the choral field: Herbert Austin Fricker succeeded Vogt, Hugh BANCROFT was active in Winnipeg and Vancouver, and Frederic Lord formed the Canadian Choir in Brantford, Ont, to mention but a few.

At the same time, Canadians made a name as conductors in the US: Bruce Carey and Gena BRANSCOMBE in the choral field and Wilfrid PELLETIER at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. For many years a coach at the opera house, Pelletier became one of its conductors in 1922, specializing in the French repertoire. Beginning in the mid-1930s he played an important role in organizing and conducting orchestras in Montréal and Québec. Pelletier was also a pioneer in designing concerts for young people.

Pelletier was born in 1896; Sir Ernest MACMILLAN in 1893. Although close contemporaries and the most famous conductors Canada has produced so far, they came to conducting in different ways. MacMillan had been an organist and music educator with only occasional conducting experience when in 1931, on the death of von Kunits and on the strength of his musicianship, he was appointed conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Over a 25-year period he led the orchestra to its first flourishing, excelling in the music of Bach but introducing a wide range of repertoire. MacMillan guest-conducted in all parts of Canada and occasionally abroad, and in 1942 he also assumed leadership of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Both immigrants and native Canadian conductors enriched concert life and raised performance standards in the mid-20th century. The Europeans brought experience in the standard orchestral and operatic repertoire, while the Canadians often became experts in the new field of studio conducting, a by-product of the developing broadcast and film technologies. The studio conductor rarely conducts to impress a watching audience; his concerns are with the microphone and the clock. The stylistic scope of broadcast programming is limitless, including concert, incidental and background music. Conductors heard mostly on CBC broadcasts, such as John AVISON, Jean-Marie BEAUDET, J.-J. Gagnier (better known as a band director), Roland Leduc and Geoffrey WADDINGTON, did indeed develop great adaptability and versatility. Related was the recording studio conducting of Rosario BOURDON and Percy FAITH, mainly for Victor and Columbia. Fame was also won by 2 conductors of light music, Guy LOMBARDO in the US and Robert FARNON in England.

The varied contributions of immigrants ranged from developing orchestras (eg, Allard de Ridder and the Vancouver Symphony Society) to establishing opera (eg, Nicholas Goldschmidt and Ernesto Barbini) and to specialization in certain branches of musical literature. Thus Ettore Mazzoleni introduced many English works, Boyd Neel cultivated baroque music and Heinz Unger broke ground for Bruckner and Mahler. Foreign-born musicians have occupied nearly all the major symphony orchestra positions and continue to do so, a policy that has received some criticism. World-class orchestras deserve first-rate conductors, and often foreign musicians have the advantage of training and the benefit of old tradition; on the other hand, some show little commitment to musical life in Canada in general and to the Canadian composer in particular. There is no doubt, however, that Canadian orchestras owe their excellence in large measure to men such as Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit (Montréal), Seiji Ozawa, Karel Ancerl and Andrew Davis (Toronto), Kazuyoshi Akiyama (Vancouver), Piero Gamba and Bramwell Tovey (Winnipeg), Heinz Unger (Toronto) and Franz-Paul Decker (Montréal, Calgary), to name but a few.

In the choral field, Canadian-born (or -educated) conductors occupy most leading positions. Charles Goulet was founder (1928) and conductor of the Montréal choir Les Disciples de Massenet, Leslie BELL's female voice choir achieved a nationwide reputation, and Elmer Iseler's Festival Singers, more recently replaced by the Elmer Iseler Singers, have received international praise. Elmer ISELER has also enhanced the reputation of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which he led from 1964 until his death in 1998. Brian Law, Georges Little, Chantal Masson, Wayne Riddell and Jon WASHBURN have also been outstanding choir leaders.

The fact that Canada has produced many singers, pianists and string players, but only very few conductors of world reputation, may be related to insufficiencies in the training system as well as the lack of opportunities. The older among the living Canadian conductors are often string players by training: Alexander BROTT, director of the McGill Chamber Orchestra (retired), Eugene Kash, conductor of the Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1950s, Ethel Stark, founder of the now defunct Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra, and Victor FELDBRILL, for many years leader of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and until its demise in 1995, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. Feldbrill's great merit is his indefatigable championing of new Canadian works.

Most conductors born since about 1930 appear to have the background of pianist. First to be named is Mario BERNARDI, whose conducting experience began with the Canadian Opera Company and led to the Sadler's Wells opera company in London, and in 1969 to his appointment as conductor of the new National Arts Centre Orchestra, followed by positions in Calgary and Vancouver. Similarly wide-ranging is the career of Boris BROTT, who has been a regular conductor of orchestras from Regina to Halifax and Newcastle, Eng, but whose closest association was with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra (1969-90) and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

Pierre HÉTU was associated with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO) for many years; Uri Mayer was also with the ESO from 1981 to 1995; Françoys Bernier in the 1960s and Simon Streatfeild in the 1980s have conducted the Orchestre symphonique de Québec; Peter McCoppin has been with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra since 1989; and Raffi Armenian, who came to Canada after studies in Vienna, was active in Stratford and Kitchener and is currently with the Montreal Conservatoire Orchestra. Armenian was a finalist at the Besançon (France) International Competition for Young Conductors, as have been Pierre Hétu and, in 1986, Gilles Auger. Among several scholarships to young conductors in Canada is the Heinz Unger Award, issued annually.

Other conductors of note are Jeanne Lamon, music director of Toronto's TAFELMUSIK orchestra, Yuli Turovsky of Montréal's I Musici de Montréal string orchestra, and Georg Tintner, an Austrian who conducted Symphony Nova Scotia from 1987 to 1994 and the National Youth Orchestra on many occasions from 1971 until his death in 1999.


Further Reading

  • Directory of Conductors in Canada/Annuaire des Chefs d'orchestra au Canada (1977); Encyclopedia of Music in Canada (1981).