Conductors and conducting | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Conductors and conducting

IntroductionConductors and conducting. The practice of beating time with hand, foot, stick, bow, or rolled-up sheet of paper to co-ordinate group performance is centuries old.

Conductors and conducting

Conductors and conducting. The practice of beating time with hand, foot, stick, bow, or rolled-up sheet of paper to co-ordinate group performance is centuries old. It was common practice for the dominant performer in an instrumental group to direct from a position at the head of the violin section, at the keyboard of the harpsichord, or at the console of a church organ. Some composers, eg Lully of France in the 17th century, conducted their own compositions. It was in the 19th century that the specialized position of conductor, a person having conducting as his or her sole function, became well-established.

Most of the first stand-up orchestral conductors, in the modern sense, were composers (eg, Weber, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, and Nicolai) whose instrumental and vocal writing was of a complexity requiring careful direction. By the end of the 19th century, probably in response to the enormous expansion of the orchestra and its literature and the popularity of opera and ballet, a new breed of virtuoso had sprung up: the full-time interpreter-conductor of orchestra, choir, or opera who either had given up or never had undertaken a career as composer or performer.

Because Canada was slow in developing major orchestras and opera companies, it was slow in producing major conductors. Marching bands and church choirs, because of the regularity of their functions, did require leaders and these were forthcoming (though closer to the old than the new tradition in conducting). But in Canada, high-budget symphony orchestras and choirs regularly and frequently before the public were too few, especially before the mid-20th century, to stimulate the emergence or support the ambitions of a native school of career conductors.

A very few early Canadian musicians had the innate ability, strong ambition, and opportunity, without specific training or experience as conductors, to assume major conducting positions - Ernest MacMillan and Wilfrid Pelletier being prime examples. And conversely, the proliferation after 1956, particularly in Ontario, of community orchestras (Canada's nearest approximation to the small opera houses that spawned the great European conductors) began to provide young conductors with platforms for the testing of their gifts and the development of their skills.

But self-made giants were few; and the products of the community orchestra system have seemed too modest in the eyes of orchestra boards shopping for box-office-stimulating charisma in their leaders. In 1991 the conductors of the 14 major symphony orchestras in Canada (ie, those with budgets over $1 million) still were predominantly foreign, the exceptions being Mario Bernardi of the Calgary Philharmonic, Victor Feldbrill of the Hamilton Philharmonic, and Peter McCoppin of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra (Uri Mayer of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, was a naturalized Canadian). By the early 2000s prospective conductors enjoyed greater training opportunities at home, and Canada was producing greater numbers of qualified conductors.

To World War I

The printed concert programs and concert announcements of pre-Confederation Canada identify the featured soloist more often than the conductor. The first Canadians who may be considered conductors (part-time) of a band, a choir, or an orchestra included Jean-Chrysostome Brauneis I, James Paton Clarke, Richard Coates, Stephen Codman, Antoine Dessane, F.-H. Glackemeyer, and at least two Canadian-born musicians, Charles Sauvageau and François Vézina. For most, conducting was an occasional, if glamorous, emergence from a modest existence as organist, choirmaster, and music teacher.

This is true also of the many bandmasters and leaders of musical societies in the later decades of the 19th century. The most distinguished bandmasters included John Bayley, Edmond Hardy (active until the 1930s), Charles Lavallée, Ernest Lavigne, George R. Robinson, and Joseph Vézina; outstanding leaders of philharmonic societies and choirs were A.-J. Boucher and Guillaume Couture of Montreal, John Carter of Toronto, Edward Fisher of Ottawa and Toronto, Charles H. Porter of Halifax, F. H. Torrington of Montreal and Toronto, and Theodor Zoellner of Berlin (Kitchener). Calixa Lavallée, equally skilled as bandmaster, choirmaster, and opera conductor, both in Canada and the USA, was in a class by himself.

The beginning of the 20th century was a period of musical expansion and prosperity; large choirs flourished in many cities, and orchestras had at least precarious existences. Among the great choral leaders of this period were Edward Broome, Bruce Carey, Alexandre-M. Clerk, Albert Ham, Charles A.E. Harriss, and A.S. Vogt; among the pioneer orchestra conductors were J.-J. Goulet, Max Weil, and Frank Welsman, and two previously known mainly as bandmasters, Ernest Lavigne and Joseph Vézina.

Early Women Conductors
Among the first women conductors were Bertha Drechsler Adamson of Toronto, Gertrude Huntly Green of Victoria, and Gena Branscombe, an emigrant to the USA.

Visitors to Canada
A few of the earliest international star orchestral conductors to visit Canada were: Wilhelm Gericke, Victor Herbert, André Messager, Emil Mollenhauer, Artur Nikisch, Emil Paur, Anton Seidl, Theodore Thomas (1873), and Arturo Toscanini, most visiting from the USA with their regular orchestras. A choral conductor who made a strong impact was Sir Alexander Mackenzie who led the Cycle of Musical Festivals in 1903, and was the first visitor to conduct both Canadian orchestras and choirs.

The 1920s to World War II

Professional or semi-professional orchestras in the period 1919-39 usually were entrusted to (or established by) European-born musicians. Many of these were string or keyboard players who became conductors only in Canada: Luigi von Kunits and Reginald Stewart in Toronto, Douglas Clarke in Winnipeg and Montreal, Donald Heins in Ottawa, Allard de Ridder in Vancouver and Ottawa, Gregori Garbovitsky in Calgary, Graham Godfrey in Hamilton, and W. Knight Wilson in Regina.

Among the few Canadian-born symphony orchestra conductors embarking on careers between the two wars were Jean-Marie Beaudet, Eugène Chartier, and J.-J. Gagnier in Montreal, Ernest MacMillan in Toronto, and Edwin Bélanger and Robert Talbot in Quebec City.

Far more numerous outlets for conducting were provided by the theatre, movie, and hotel orchestras and by the broadcast-studio orchestra. Notable conductors in these areas (many still active after World War II) were Giuseppe Agostini, Jack Arthur, Rex Battle, Alexander Chuhaldin, Henri Delcellier, Percy Faith, Howard Fogg, Bruce Holder, Armand and Maurice Meerte, Henri Miro, Marjorie A. Payne (considered the first woman to conduct on radio, in Halifax), Luigi Romanelli, Joseph Shadwick, Jerry Shea, Herbert Spencer, Edmond Trudel and Geoffrey Waddington.

Among the most gifted choral conductors may be counted W.H. Anderson, Joseph-Arsène Brassard, Dan A. Cameron, H. Whorlow Bull, Berkley E. Chadwick, Harry Dean, Charles E. Findlater, H.A. Fricker, Charles and Jean Goulet, Filmer Hubble, H.K. Jordan, Frederic Lord, Bernard Naylor, Hugh Ross, Alfred Whitehead, and Healey Willan; the names of Ernest MacMillan and Reginald Stewart deserve to be repeated here.

Outstanding bandmasters included J.-J. Gagnier, Charles O'Neill, and John Slatter (for a longer list see Bands 1/Introduction).

A few Canadian conductors made names for themselves in the USA: Rosario Bourdon as a recording-studio conductor for RCA Victor, Bruce Carey as a choral director, and Wilfrid Pelletier at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (though assuming an important role in Montreal after 1934 and in Quebec City later).

Post World War II

Despite the difficulties mentioned earlier, a number of young Canadians persevered in making conducting their major or only specialization. Unlike the many musicians of the previous generation whose conducting ventures never quite got the upper hand over their orchestral occupations - one thinks of John Adaskin, Samuel Hersenhoren, Eugene Kash, Paul Scherman, and Albert Steinberg - the younger ones often succeeded, aided undoubtedly by better educational facilities and the wider opportunities offered by the expanding needs of the CBC and by orchestras, choirs, and music festivals all over the country.

Among the Canadian-born symphony orchestra conductors of the post-war period were Jacques Beaudry, Mario Bernardi, Françoys Bernier, Alexander Brott, Boris Brott, Raymond Dessaints, Victor Feldbrill, Pierre Hétu, Sylvio Lacharité, Peter McCoppin, Paul Robinson, Gilles Bellemare, and Ethel Stark, the first Canadian woman to guest-conduct major orchestras in Canada and abroad.

Orchestra conductors whose centre of activity was the radio, TV, or film studio included Lucio Agostini, Louis Applebaum, John Avison, Jean-Marie Beaudet, Howard Cable, Neil Chotem, Morris Davis, Jean Deslauriers, André Gagnon, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Roland Leduc, Gordon Macpherson,William McCauley, Neil Harris, Robert McMullin, Art Morrow, Albert Pratz, Ivan Romanoff, Morris Surdin, Maurice Durieux, Geoffrey Waddington, and Eric Wild.

Post-War Choral Conductors
Choral conductors after World War II, in addition to several still active from the pre-war era, included Hugh Bancroft, Derek Bate, Leslie Bell, Lloyd Bradshaw, Richard Eaton, Henry Engbrecht, James Fankhauser, Marcien Ferland, Emil Gartner, Fernand Graton, Elmer Iseler, René Lacourse, Marcel Laurencelle, Louis Lavigueur, Brian Law, Georges Little, Victor Martens, Chantal Masson, Leonard Mayoh, Brock McElheran, Glenn Pierce, Wayne Riddell, Sherwood Robson, Jean-François Senart, John Sidgwick, Karel ten Hoope, Stewart Thomson, Jon Washburn, Patrick Wedd, and Don Wright. A number of Mennonite conductors (eg Helen Litz, Howard Dyck) made significant contributions in the choral field (see Mennonites) as did conductors of Canadian ethnic choirs including Roman Toi, Eli Rubenstein and Esther Ghan Firestone. In more recent years, such choral directors as Lydia Adams, Jean Ashworth Bartle, Howard Dyck, Leonard Ratzlaff, and Ivars Taurins achieved prominence.

An Association of Canadian Choral Conductors/L'Assn des Chefs de Choeur Canadiens, was founded in 1981 (see Choral Singing).

Other Specializations
Chamber orchestra conductors of note, Canadian-born and immigrant, have included Raffi Armenian, Milton Barnes, Alexander Brott, Victor Di Bello, Ruben Gurevich, Marta Hidy, Wanda Kaluzny, Brian Law, Boyd Neel, Bill Phillips, and Yuli Turofsky.

Conductors who have made a specialty of contemporary Canadian music have been relatively few. Victor Feldbrill, Serge Garant, Alex Pauk, Walter Boudreau, and Lorraine Vaillancourt are notable exceptions.

Conductors with reputations based in large part on their work with community orchestras include Leonard Atherton, John Barnum, Dwight Bennett, Martin Boundy (also a bandmaster), Leonard Camplin, Mario Duschenes, Clifford Evens, Laszlo Gati, Stewart Grant, Harman Haakman, Matti Holli, Brian Jackson, Glenn Mossop, Stanley Saunders, Daniel Swift, and Winston Webber.

Among Canadian conductors George Crum, Ermanno Florio, Walter Babiak and Earl Stafford have specialized in ballet; John Fenwick in theatre music; Mario Bernardi, James Craig, Jean Deslauriers, Stuart Hamilton, Jacques Lacombe and Jacqueline Richard in opera. A number of former Europeans also specialized in opera, notably Ernesto Barbini, but also Richard Bradshaw, Emil Cooper, Nicholas Goldschmidt, and Alfred Strombergs. Raffi Armenian did a steadily increasing amount of opera conducting.

With the growing emphasis on youth orchestras as serious training arenas for professional musicians, an increasing number of Canadians have worked as specialists in this field (see Youth orchestras).

Canadian Conductors Abroad
In the second half of the 20th century several Canadians, among them Arthur Davison, Gregory Millar, Kirk Muspratt, Harry Newstone, and Hugo Rignold, entered conducting careers in other countries; Mario Bernardi and James Craig were regular conductors at Sadler's Wells but returned to Canada. Alexander Brott was the first Canadian-born conductor to undertake a conducting tour in Europe. Both Laurence Ewashko and the Austrian-born Agnes Grossmann conducted the Vienna Boys' Choir, the latter as artistic director 1996-8.

A few Canadians won honours in foreign conducting contests, including Raffi Armenian, Gilles Auger, Alexander and Boris Brott, Pierre Hétu, and Uri Mayer.

Women Conductors
The field of orchestral conducting is without doubt a male-dominated one. Despite obstacles, several Canadian women stood at the podium during the post-war period. Ethel Stark, conductor of the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra, was one of the best known. Among other Canadian women to lead orchestras (as permanent appointee or guest conductor) during the second half of the 20th century were Wanda Kaluzny, Véronique Lacroix, Jacqueline Richard, Rosemary Thomson, and Lorraine Vaillancourt. Women conductors from abroad included Agnes Grossmann (an Austrian), and Susan Haig (an American).

In contrast, in the world of choral conducting the numbers of skilled and sought-after women choral conductors (eg Lydia Adams, Jean Ashworth Bartle, Ramona Luengen) rose notably. Some specialized in conducting children's or youth choirs (eg Barbara Clark, and Newfoundland's Susan Knight).

There were several women conductors of community orchestras, eg Juliet Proudman (Kamloops Symphony); and Diane Persson (Edmonton Philharmonic).

Foreigners Conducting in Canada
Major professional opportunities were all but withheld from Canadian conductors during the latter half of the 20th century. The international network of artist managers and orchestra managers takes into consideration many factors besides talent and training in the shrewd and competitive marketing and placement of conductors in highly desirable positions. Symphony boards abetted in this, dazzled by the allure of exotic talent and excited by the adventure of assisting in a choice made from world talent.

A number of foreign conductors lived in Canada for various periods of time, often working with major orchestras but not making Canada their permanent home. Among them were Kazuyoshi Akiyama 1972-85 (Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), Rudolf Barshai 1985-8 (Vancouver SO), Sir Thomas Beecham ca 1940-1 (Montreal Festivals, Vancouver SO), Gabriel Chmura 1987-90 (National Arts Centre Orchestra), George Cleve 1968-70 (Winnipeg SO), Emil Cooper 1944-60 (Opera Guild of Montreal), Andrew Davis 1975-88 (Toronto Symphony), Meredith Davies 1964-70 (Vancouver SO), Désiré Defauw 1940-52 (CSM, Montreal Symphony), Pierre Dervaux 1968-75 (Quebec Symphony Orchestra), James De Preist 1976-83 (Quebec SO), Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos 1975-6 (Montreal Symphony), Piero Gamba 1971-80 (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), Sir John Eliot Gardiner 1980-3 (CBC Vancouver Orchestra), Irwin Hoffman 1952-64 (Vancouver SO), Charles Houdret 1952-64 (Montreal Festivals, etc), Walter Kaufmann 1947-56 (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), Otto Klemperer 1961-3 (Montreal Symphony), Lawrence Leonard 1968-73 (Edmonton SO), Franco Mannino 1982-6 (National Arts Centre Orchestra), Igor Markevitch 1957-61 (Montreal Symphony), Thomas Mayer 1955-60 (Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra), Zubin Mehta 1961-7 (Montreal Symphony), Otto-Werner Mueller 1951-73 (Victoria SO), Seiji Ozawa 1965-9 (Toronto Symphony), Henry Plukker 1955-62 (Calgary Philharmonic), Brian Priestman 1964-70 (Edmonton SO), Jacques Singer 1947-50 (Vancouver SO), Walter Susskind 1956-65 (Toronto Symphony), Haymo Taeuber 1963-8 (Calgary Philharmonic), and Victor Yampolsky 1977-82 (Atlantic Symphony Orchestra).

Many conductors remained in Canada (the arrival year is indicated after the conductor's name), making it either their permanent home or their base of operations. They have included Karel Ančerl 1969-73 (TS), Leonard Atherton 1972 (St Catharines SO, Niagara Symphony), Ernesto Barbini 1953-75 (University of Toronto Opera Division), Richard Bradshaw 1989 (Canadian Opera Company), Sergiu Comissiona 1990 (Vancouver SO), Franz-Paul Decker 1967 (Montreal Symphony), Charles Dutoit 1978 (Montreal Symphony), Laszlo Gati 1957 (Victoria SO), Nicholas Goldschmidt 1946 (Royal Conservatory Opera School), David Gray 1973 (Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra), Agnes Grossmann 1981 (Orchestre métropolitain de Montréal), Gunther Herbig 1988 (Toronto Symphony), Arpad Joo 1977 (Calgary Philharmonic), Vladimir Jelínek 1965-90 (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens), Janis Kalnins 1948 (New Brunswick SO), David Kaplan 1960 (Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra), Howard Leyton-Brown 1952 (Regina SO), Ettore Mazzoleni 1929-68 (Royal Conservatory Opera School), Klaro Mizerit 1968 (Atlantic SO), Boyd Neel 1953-71 (Hart House Orchestra), Simon Streatfeild 1965 (various orchestras), Alfred Strombergs 1948 (Nova Scotia Opera Association), Georg Tintner 1987 (Symphony Nova Scotia), Bramwell Tovey 1988 (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra), Remus Tzincoca 1959 (CMM), and Heinz Unger 1948-65 (York Concert Society).

Into the 21st Century

A new generation of talented, experienced and formally trained Canadian orchestra conductors began working in Canada and elsewhere, as music directors or guest conductors. They were led by a triumvirate of young Quebec podium stars (Alain Trudel, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Bernard Labadie) who rapidly earned reputations in Canada as well as abroad. Among other successful Canadian conductors leading orchestras in various capacities in the early 2000s are Rolf Bertsch, Boris Brott, Marc David, Glen Fast, Jacques Lacombe, Stéphane Laforest, Tania Miller, Kirk Muspratt, Earl Stafford, Kerry Stratton, Ivars Taurins, Rosemary Thomson, and Keri-Lynn Wilson.

Well-known Canadian choral conductors in the early 2000s included Lydia Adams, Iwan Edwards, Laurence Ewashko, Christopher Jackson, Diane Loomer, Leonard Ratzlaff, Richard Sparks, Ivars Taurins and Jon Washburn, in addition to many who had been active in the late 1900s.

In 1994, the only Canadian leading a principal Canadian orchestra was the foreign-born Uri Mayer. The same year, conductor Timothy Vernon was quoted as saying, "We would still rather hire a third-rate European than a second-rate Canadian" (Montreal Gazette, 11 Dec 1994). By 2008, however, Canadian orchestras employing Canadian music directors were more numerous: eg the Toronto Symphony (the Canadian-born, UK- and US-trained Peter Oundjian, appointed in 2004; the first Canadian since Sir Ernest MacMillan to lead the TS); Niagara Symphony (Daniel Swift); Orchestra London Canada (Timothy Vernon); L'Orchestre Métropolitain de Grand Montréal (Yannick Nézet-Séguin); Regina SO (Victor Sawa); Saskatoon SO (Douglas Sanford); and Victoria Symphony (Tania Miller).

In the early 2000s, it remained a rarity for a woman to hold the position of music director of a Canadian symphony orchestra (Tania Miller of the Victoria Symphony being the notable exception). The US-born Anne Manson became music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in 2008.

Despite the rise in numbers of native-born conductors working at home, many Canadian orchestras continued to seek foreign-born conductors. This tendency is increasingly subject to criticism. The best-known of the foreign-born conductors who led top-level Canadian orchestras in the early 2000s were Richard Bradshaw (Canadian Opera Company); Kent Nagano (Montreal Symphony); Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Toronto Symphony); Bramwell Tovey (Vancouver Symphony); and Pinchas Zukerman (National Arts Centre Orchestra). Writing in The Montreal Gazette 16 Jun 2001 about conducting vacancies, Arthur Kaptainis said, "Only in Canada are citizens of the home country tacitly invited not to apply . . . . And however much progress Canada has made, the karma of European culture remains undeniable."

Training of Conductors

Despite the existence of countless choral societies and numerous amateur orchestras that have been part of Canadian musical life from the mid-19th century, training opportunities for the aspiring professional conductor were, until recently, inadequate. (This is, however, a problem that also exists in the US.) Far fewer Canadians have made a mark as conductors than as specialists in almost any other branch of music, either in or outside Canada.

Conducting classes, workshops, and summer programs have been established at some universities, notably the University of Montreal, the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, and the University of Toronto, which established the Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting in 1998 and the nation's first graduate program in conducting in 1999. The University of Alberta offers a graduate program in choral conducting. Raffi Armenian, Ivars Taurins, and Gillian Mackay, among others, regularly teach their craft to the next generation, and Douglas Sanford led a Canadian Opera Company young conductors' training program across the country.

The arm movement technique of conducting developed by the Japanese Hideo Saito was first applied in Canada by Seiji Ozawa in 1965. Wayne J. Toews, director of the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra, edited an English translation of Saito's 1956 textbook The Saito Conducting Method (Tokyo 1988). By 1990 the method was used at five Canadian universities (in Calgary, London, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Victoria). Canadians who have studied Saito's method include Clifford Evens, Jon Washburn, Derrick Inouye, David Currie, and Alex Pauk.

By the 1990s, more orchestras were initiating conducting training, and more training opportunities were springing up. In Czechoslovakia, the first international workshop for conductors in 1991 attracted applications from seven Canadians. The National Arts Centre Orchestra held a conducting workshop in 1990 and training programs for young conductors in 1996 and 2002, and in 2001 established an apprentice position. Other orchestras, eg the Guelph Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver Philharmonic, established similar apprentice or intern positions. The Canada Council funded a 1992-3 joint training program by the Toronto Symphony, Canadian Opera Company and Royal Conservatory of Music; Orchestras Canada began its annual conducting workshops after holding an initial course in 1996. The Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute offers conductor training in period performance practice.

On the choral conducting front as of the early 2000s, the various provincial choral federations offer workshops, and many universities offer choral conducting courses. The Toronto Children's Chorus has given several choral conducting symposiums. In 1998, the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors established a National Youth Choir Conducting Apprenticeship Program.

Technology is being used to aid in conductor training; University of Calgary researchers have used motion-capture technology to map conducting gesture and performance motion.


Among incentives to young orchestral conductors have been the Heinz Unger Award administered by the Ontario Arts Council, and apprenticeship programs with various major orchestras. The Clifford Evens Memorial Conducting Award was established in 1981 to help promising Canadian conductors further their careers. The annual award, administered by the London Music Scholarship Fund, is alternately awarded in the regions of London-Windsor, Toronto, and Vancouver-Victoria. The Leslie Bell Prize for choral conducting has been offered since 1987. The Association of Canadian Choral Conductors in 1988 began offering a distinguished service award every two years.

See also Orchestras; Youth orchestras, individual orchestra entries

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