John Henry Patrick Avison, CM, conductor, pianist (born 25 April 1914 in Vancouver, BC; died 30 November 1983 in Vancouver). John Avison began his career as a superb solo pianist and accompanist and was named the first conductor of the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra in 1938. During its 42 years under his versatile direction, this polished, innovative ensemble performed works of all periods, specializing in the 18th-century repertoire and premiere performances of new Canadian works. With that ensemble, Avison conducted the first orchestral concerts ever given in the Canadian Arctic and recorded over 20 albums. He also recorded with many other Canadian organizations, and composed and arranged music for CBC radio and television programs. He was made a member of the Order of Canada and received the Canada Music Citation and the Canadian Music Council Medal.
Early Years and Education
After studying piano with J.D.A. Tripp in Vancouver and earning his ATCM diploma in 1929, Avison graduating with a BA from the University of British Columbia in 1935 and with a BM from the University of Washington in 1936. After serving in the Second World War, he resumed music studies at the Juilliard School in 1946, at Columbia University in 1946–47 and with Paul Hindemith at Yale University in 1947. Avison began performing with orchestras in Vancouver in 1936, and toured western Canada and the United States as accompanist to such performers as Lauritz Melchior, Szymon Goldberg and Joseph Szigeti.
In 1938, he was hired by Ira Dilworth to be the first conductor of the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra. Though he continued to conduct that orchestra until his retirement in 1980, he appeared with many others, including the London Philharmonic (1959) and orchestras in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Québec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Seattle. In 1956, he declined an invitation from William Steinberg to become associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In 1971, as conductor of the Vancouver Radio Orchestra (the touring name of the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra), he directed the first orchestral concerts given in the Canadian Arctic. In 1966, he became the regular conductor for the CBC Talent Festival.
Avison appeared as a solo pianist, as a duo pianist with Norma Abernethy and Victor Babin, and as an accompanist to such performers as Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall and, on an RCI series of folk recordings, Emma Caslor. He composed and arranged music for CBC radio and TV programs, including River of the Clouds and The Journey in 1965; in 1966 he was host of the six-part CBC TV series Man and Music. He was associate director of the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado (1952, 1954, and 1956), a part-time lecturer in orchestration at the University of Victoria (1967–69), and a member of the Canada Council’s arts advisory committee (1968–71).
A versatile conductor who was especially proficient in 18th-century music, Avison also conducted a vast quantity of 20th-century music, including premieres of such Canadian works as Murray Adaskin’s Serenade Concertante (1954), Udo Kasemets’s Violin Concerto, Opus 41 (1967), Bruce Mather’s Music for Vancouver (1969) and Talivaldis Kenins’s Violin Concerto (1974).
Honours and Awards
In 1961, he and the CBC Vancouver Chamber Orchestra received a commendation for services to contemporary music from the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, England. He also received the Canada Music Citation from the Canadian League of Composers (1970), the Canadian Music Council Medal (1980), and was made a Member of the Order of Canada (1978). The CBC Vancouver Orchestra presented a series of three concerts entitled The Avison Series to mark its 50th anniversary in 1988. In 1994, Avison and his wife were both posthumously inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and honoured with plaques on the Starwalk outside the Orpheum Theatre.
Conductor and teacher Bryan N.S. Gooch, a pupil of Avison’s, said that Avison was “a truly sensitive and gifted musician; his knowledge of the repertoire was broad and detailed, and his performances were distinguished not only by an insistence on standards but by his own very real love for — and penetrating understanding of — his material. He was indeed a brilliant pianist (his reading was superbly accomplished); his energy and leadership are much missed.”
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.