Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra

Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. Orchestra founded in 1960 as the Lakehead Symphony Orchestra. The first concert was given at Lakefield High School. Its players were 40 amateurs and one professional musician, drawn from the Fort William-Port Arthur area.

Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra

Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. Orchestra founded in 1960 as the Lakehead Symphony Orchestra. The first concert was given at Lakefield High School. Its players were 40 amateurs and one professional musician, drawn from the Fort William-Port Arthur area. When those cities amalgamated in 1970 as Thunder Bay, the orchestra changed its name accordingly. Prior to 1967 its conductors were René Charrier and Douglas Dahlgren (the orchestra's founders) and, 1964-7, C.H. Bateman.


Under Boris Brott, 1967-72, the orchestra began to import players on a per-concert basis from the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the orchestras of Duluth, Minneapolis, and St Paul, Minnesota. This practice undoubtedly raised the calibre of performance but proved to be costly and was thought eventually to be inhibiting the development of Thunder Bay's own resources. Under Brott, however, the orchestra began a musicians-in-residence program, engaging the Princeton String Quartet to live in Thunder Bay and teach in the city's first Symphony School of Music. The orchestra's next conductor, Manuel Suarez (violinist, b Mexico City 4 Feb 1943), put greater emphasis on the employment of local players and continued to develop the instrumental teaching programs. Some players still were brought in for concerts, however.

Suarez was succeeded in 1974 by Dwight Bennett. Under his leadership, 1974-89, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra Chorus was formed to present works such as the Verdi Requiem, Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and the orchestra consolidated its position as one of the foremost community orchestras in Ontario, with a resident professional musician in every principal chair. In 1978 the orchestra had 53 members, of whom 22 were full-time; by 1988 there were 30 professional players, and it augmented its forces as with local and other players as required. Several operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Hansel and Gretel, Carmen, Madama Butterfly) were also staged.

The orchestra played in the Lakehead Exhibition Centre and schools and churches until 1985, when its principal venue became the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium. During the 1987-8 season it presented some 20 orchestral, choral-orchestral and children's programs.

Glenn Mossop was musical director 1989-95; in 1990 Howard Cable was principal pops conductor and Peter McCoppin was principal guest conductor. Under Mossop, the orchestra offered Masterworks, Pops, Family, and Confederation College Candlelight series; a concert version of Carmen was also presented.

Difficult Times and Recovery
In 1994-5 the orchestra had a budget of more than $1,330,000, which dropped to $1.2 million the following year.

The 1995-6 season marked significant difficulties for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. It began the season with a debt of $100,000, which rose to $140,000 (but it had been as high as $269,000 in 1990-1), and uncertainty about its ability to mount a full concert schedule. General manager Erik Perth had departed, and the orchestra lacked a permanent conductor. While applicants were auditioned during the year, Stéphane Laforest was staff conductor. He won the job of music director, holding it through 1998-9. During that period, a Classical series was added to the existing Masterworks, Pops and Candlelights concert series. Venues 1995-6 included the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium and Confederation College.

After Laforest's departure in spring 1999, the orchestra once again auditioned music directors over the next season; David Bowser was interim staff conductor 1999-2000. The orchestra's financial situation, too, worsened due to several factors: a dispute over musicians' pay deductions led to the orchestra being assessed a large back-tax bill. As well, it lost its charitable lottery licence. By summer 1999, its debt approached $450,000 (despite a Save our Symphony campaign that raised $200,000), and staff were laid off. The orchestra went bankrupt in July 1999, but when Revenue Canada accepted its second proposed repayment plan, it was able to continue to operate.

Geoffrey Moull was appointed music director in 2000, and the orchestra proceeded on more secure footing. By 2004-5 it offered 25 main concerts. Conductors-in-residence included Richard Lee 2003-5, Jason Caslor 2005-7, and Stéphane Potvin 2008 and 2011. Stéphane Potvin also held the position of Artistic Administrator during the 2009-2010 season. In 2010, Arthur Post assumed the position of music director and conducted his first concert in that role in October of that year.

In 2007 the orchestra's budget had risen to $1.5 million; it supported a 24-week season of more than 50 concerts (series plus outreach and educational) and a staff of eight. It presented several concert series, entitled Classical Plus, Masterworks, Cabaret, Pops, and Family.


As the only professional orchestra in the region, the TBSO serves northwestern Ontario. Quartets, quintets, a chamber orchestra and the full orchestra have travelled annually since 1981 to Kenora and other northwestern Ontario towns to give concerts.

Guest soloists with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra have included many Canadian singers and instrumentalists, eg Peter Appleyard, Michael Burgess, Pierre Djokic, Mark DuBois, Angela Hewitt, André Laplante, Natalie MacMaster, and Monica Whicher. Among the guest conductors have been Tommy Banks, John Kim Bell, Victor Feldbrill, Laszlo Gati, and Harman Haakman.

Commitment to Canadian Composers

The Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra has demonstrated a long commitment to performing works written by Canadians. Concerts have often featured a Canadian piece, eg by Malcolm Forsyth, Jacques Hétu, Elizabeth Raum, Harry Somers, or North Bay composers. Works commissioned by the orchestra include Micheline Saint-Marcoux'sLuminance, premiered in 1978; Alexina Louie'sSongs of Paradise, premiered in 1983; Steven Gellman'sLove's Garden - A Song Cycle for Soprano and Orchestra, premiered in 1987; Harry Freedman'sDance on the Earth, premiered in 1990; Aris Carastathis' A Giant's Dream, Harold Wevers' Night Passage and, co-commissioned with the Hamilton Philharmonic, John Weinzweig'sDivertimento No. 11, all in 1991; and the concert suite of Heather Schmidt's Petra: The Awakening of Myth, 2006, among others. The orchestra presented a Canadian Composers' Night in December 1998, a Canadian Composers Workshop concert in February 2001, and a National Emerging Composers Workshop in January 2004. Howard Cable conducted a pops concert featuring the work of Canadian songwriters 13 Apr 1996.


Sounds of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. Glenn Mossop conductor. 1992. 1234TBSCD

Peter and Margaret. Stéphane Laforest conductor. 1998. TBSO-1998-CD

A. Louie, A. Carastathis, R. Lavasseur, J. Ryan. Variations on a Memory. Geoffrey Moull conductor. 2004. TBSO2004

Further Reading