Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

 Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. An Edmonton Orchestral Society of about 15 players existed as early as 1913, but the first organization to use the name Edmonton Symphony Orchestra made its debut, 52 players strong, at the Pantages Theatre 15 Nov 1920 directed by A. Weaver Winston. After Winston's departure that year, the orchestra was conducted by Henri Baron and Vernon Barford 1920-9, then F. Holden Rushworth until the orchestra's demise in 1932.

During the 1940s, orchestral concerts were provided by the Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestra (founded in 1941 by Abe Fratkin and Ranald Shean), and the Edmonton Pops Orchestra, conducted 1947-ca 1951 by Lee Hepner. Edmonton Philharmonic conductors were Fratkin 1941-8 and Edgar Williams 1948-51.

In 1952 members of these two orchestras amalgamated into a 60-member second Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (ESO). A moving force behind its creation was Mrs Marion Mills, founding president of the Edmonton Symphony Society established in 1952. The reconstituted orchestra's first concert was 30 November 1952 at the Capitol Theatre under Hepner, who remained as conductor until 1960. During the initial season the orchestra offered a subscription series and two children's concerts. Soloists included Lois Marshall, Patricia Rolston, and Soulima Stravinsky. In 1957, the orchestra moved to the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, its home until 1997 and the opening of the Francis Winspear Centre for Music.

Music Directors 1960 to Present

After Hepner resigned, Thomas Rolston served as acting conductor for four years, succeeded in 1964 by Brian Priestman (b Birmingham, Eng, 10 Feb 1927, founder of Birmingham's Opera da Camera and Orchestra da Camera, music director 1960-3 of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). During his four years in Edmonton, Priestman introduced main series concerts and 'Little Symphony' performances by groups drawn from the orchestra. In 1968, he helped instigate, with the assistance of the Alberta Cultural Development Branch, a National Performing Artists Competition. The winner of the only competition (1968) was Arthur Ozolins.

Priestman was succeeded in 1968 by Lawrence Leonard (b London 22 Aug 1923, d 2001, a cellist at 16 with the London Symphony Orchestra, and assistant conductor 1963-8 of the Hallé Orchestra). Under Leonard's leadership the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra had developed by 1971 into a full-time ensemble and one of Canada's major orchestras. It premiered two of Leonard's compositions (an adaptation of Machaut's Grande Messe de Notre Dame and Group Questions for Orchestra), in 1972 and 1973 respectively. About 1973, it was decided to maintain the orchestra as a full-time classical-sized (45-player) ensemble. Over the next 30 years, the orchestra expanded to 56 full-time musicians, with additional players as repertoire demanded.

Pierre Hétu succeeded Leonard in 1973, serving as artistic director and conductor until the end of the 1978-9 season, and as principal guest conductor 1979-80. Peter McCoppin, assistant conductor 1978-9, was named resident conductor in 1979; Uri Mayer was music director and principal conductor 1980-94.

Under Mayer's direction, the ESO made 10 recordings for the CBC. The first, Orchestral Suites of the British Isles, won the Canadian Music Council's Grande prix du disque for best orchestral recording (1985); the second, Great Verdi Arias, was nominated for a Juno (1986); and, in 1987, Atayoskewin won a Juno award.

Grzegorz Nowak (b Poznan, Poland, 15 Aug 1951, winner of the 1984 Ansermet Conducting Competition in Geneva and European musician of the year 1985) succeeded Mayer 1995-2002. Nowak's debut recording with the ESO, Electra Rising: Music of Malcolm Forsyth, won a 1998 Juno award.

Meanwhile, David Hoyt doubled as principal horn, resident conductor, initiator (1994) and artistic director of the outdoor festival Symphony Under the Sky. From 2002 to 2004, he was interim artistic director of the orchestra, a significant role during the search for a new music director. While the orchestra introduced audiences to a series of established and emerging guest conductors, principal guest conductors Franz-Paul Decker and Kazuyoshi Akiyama provided leadership and continuity.

In January 2005, William Eddins (b Buffalo, NY, Dec 1964, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music) became the orchestra's newest music director.


Award-winning Canadian composer John Estacio was the ESO's first composer-in-residence 1992-9. He produced many new works both for the ESO and ensembles across the country. Among his ESO commissions were Frenergy (1998), Wondrous Light (1997), and A Farmer's Symphony (1994).

Allan Gilliland, who followed Estacio, wrote several commissioned works for the orchestra, including a Violin Concerto for concertmaster Martin Riseley; Gaol's Ruadh Ròs: A Celtic Concerto for Two Harps and Orchestra; On the Shoulders of Giants, which won first prize at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's 2002 New Music Festival; and Dreaming of the Masters, a clarinet concerto premiered both in Edmonton and with the Boston Pops (2003) by James Campbell.

Tours, Collaborations and Special Performances

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has often toured Western Canada and the North, eg, in 1980 for Alberta's 75th anniversary and an ambitious Northern Lights tour in 1994. The orchestra has had considerable coverage on CBC Radio and TV and performed at Vancouver's Expo 86.

An acknowledged part of the city's cultural landscape, the orchestra marked its 50th birthday in 2002 with several special performances. Then, on 6 Jun 2003, British organist Christopher Herrick helped celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. A festive concert 9 Oct 2004 linked Edmonton's centenary with that of orchestra patron Harriet Winspear. As well, the orchestra performed music by Alberta composers during Alberta Scene, April 2005, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra frequently collaborates with the Richard Eaton Singers and other local choirs, and accompanies Edmonton Opera and Alberta Ballet performances. Many of its players also perform in smaller ensembles, such as The Millcreek Colliery Band, the Alberta Baroque Ensemble, and, formerly, the Harlan Green Players. For the opening of the Winspear Centre in 1997, the Calgary Philharmonic joined the Edmonton Symphony for Mahler's Eighth Symphony. In November 2005, the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) visited Edmonton and performed with the ESO. Featured among the 116 musicians were the NACO's Jessica Linnebach and Amanda Forsyth, former Edmontonians.

Each year the ESO aims to satisfy both mandate and audience, offering everything from the masters to country, Sunday showcases introducing ESO musicians as soloists, symphonies for children and educational concerts. Each school year, approximately 25,000 students experience the Winspear Centre. With composers-in-residence as mentors, selected students have written orchestral works and heard them in performance. Extravaganzas featuring particular composers, in June, and the annual Symphony Under the Sky, in September, end and launch the orchestra's season.

Soloists and Guest Conductors

Many prominent and emerging Canadian and international soloists have performed with the orchestra. Those in the 1980s included Victor Bouchard, Corey Cerovsek, Angela Cheng, Jane Coop, Janina Fialkowska, Judith Forst, John Hendrickson, Norbert Kraft, André Laplante, Joseph Rouleau, and Alain Trudel. Subsequent soloists have included such luminaries as Kathleen Battle, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Rivka Golani, Ben Heppner, Angela Hewitt, Ofra Harnoy, Marilyn Horne, Nigel Kennedy, Anton Kuerti, Jens Lindemann, Yo-Yo Ma, Jon Kimura Parker, Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, and Shauna Rolston.

Guest conductors have included Kazuyoshi Akiyama, Mario Bernardi, Alexander Brott, Boris Brott, Gabriel Chmura, Charles Dutoit, Ruben Gurevich, Richard Hayman, Brian Jackson, Bob Lappin, Thomas Sanderling, Peter Schenck, Simon Streatfeild, Walter Susskind, and Yuval Zaliouk, who was interim chief conductor 1980-81.

Beginning in 1987, the orchestra has held an annual concerto competition for young artists; winners have included the cellist Amanda Forsyth (1987), the pianist Jamie Parker (1988), and Jens Lindemann, trumpet (1990).

Commissions and Recordings

Works commissioned and premiered by the orchestra include Applebaum's Concertante, Archer's Prelude-Incantation, Sinfonia, and Evocations for Two Pianos and Orchestra, George Fiala's Overtura Buffa, Malcolm Forsyth's Symphony No. 2 '... A Host of Nomads...' (composed for the orchestra's 25th anniversary), Gary Kulesha's Dreams, Luedeke's Tales of the Netsilik (commissioned jointly with five other Canadian orchestras), Rod McKuen's Ballad of Distances, A Suite for Orchestra, François Morel's Neumes d'espace et reliefs, Chan Ka Nin's Memento Mori (1998), Manus Sasonkin's Musica post prandia, and Robert Turner's Shades of Autumn.

The orchestra's first commercial recording, a 1971 collaboration with the British rock group Procol Harum (released 1972), sold over one million copies. During the 1975-6 season, the orchestra took part in a series of internationally syndicated TV programs with such pop stars as Charles Aznavour, Roberta Flack, Tom Jones, Henry Mancini, Anne Murray, Neil Sedaka, and Paul Williams. Special concerts drawing sold-out houses have featured, among others, k.d. lang in 1985, and Tom Cochrane and Red Rider in 1989. This tradition of incorporating musicians from other genres has continued into the 1990s and 2000s.


The ESO functions under a board of directors. Financial backing for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has been provided by the Canada Council, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Edmonton Arts Council, and private and corporate donors.

General managers of the orchestra have included Leonard David Stone 1966-7, Jorgen Holgersen 1967-77, Michael Engelbert 1978-9, W.R. Palmer 1979-82, Gordon Neufeld 1982-85, Michael Ritter 1985-86, and Tim Rendell 1986-89. Bob McPhee succeeded Rendell in 1989. John David Sterne was chief executive officer 1999-2001; in October 2001, Elaine Calder became managing director.