Orchestra London Canada — also known as London Promenade Orchestra (1937–45), London Civic Symphony Orchestra (1945–57) and London Symphony Orchestra (1957–81) — developed into one of Ontario’s leading community orchestras before achieving professional status in the 1970s. The orchestra commissioned and performed works by such noted Canadian composers as André Prévost, R. Murray Schafer, Harry Somers and Norman Symonds. It also gave children’s concerts and founded the London Youth Symphony to nurture young talent. The orchestra was plagued by financial problems throughout its history and ceased operations in December 2014. The orchestra's musicians then began performing in the community under the name #WePlayOn. They reconstituted as London Symphonia in 2015.
The orchestra was founded as the London Promenade Orchestra in 1937 by its conductor, the violinist Bruce Sharpe (1914–87), and gave its first concert in March 1937 at the H.B. Beal Technical Auditorium. London City Council gave approval to the name but declined requests for financial assistance.
The orchestra disbanded during the Second World War, but reformed under Sharpe in 1947. He was progressive in programming contemporary and especially Canadian composers; in the 1947–48 season, the orchestra introduced works by Barbara Pentland, Gerald Bales and Wayne Barlow. Sharpe, who often assumed the financial burden of running the orchestra himself, resigned in frustration in 1949.
Under Martin Boundy
The Kiwanis Club of London marshalled financial support and a reorganization proposal which led to the establishment of a Symphony Association and board of directors. The orchestra appointed its first professional conductor, Martin Boundy, in 1949 and received its civic charter the following year. The board undertook an ambitious program of promotion, including Symphony Week, and the inaugural performance of the reorganized London Civic Symphony Orchestra took place on 24 February 1950 under guest conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan.
During Boundy's tenure (1949–69), there were few professional musicians in the orchestra, yet it established itself as one of Ontario’s leading community orchestras. Although Boundy failed to secure semi-professional status for the orchestra, he did secure grants from the Canada Council for children's concerts and performances in regional centres. The orchestra was incorporated on 25 June 1957 and renamed the London Symphony Orchestra. Boundy expanded the season from four to 10 concerts a year, and conducted the orchestra's first pop concert in 1959.
Boundy also developed a core of young players from which the orchestra could draw. In 1952, the London Police Boys' Band supplied five out of nine woodwind players and three brass players in the orchestra. However, finding well-trained young string players posed a greater problem. In 1960, the London Youth Symphony was founded with the senior orchestra as its sponsor. Its first conductor was Donald A. McKellar, followed by James White. For most of the 1980s it was conducted by Jerome Summers. Edit Haboczki conducted it from 1988 until 1991, when Summers resumed the position. From 1967, it consisted of staff from the public and separate school music programs, the music faculty of the University of Western Ontario and the Royal Canadian Regiment Band.
The symphony continued to perform in the H.B. Beal School Auditorium until 1962, when it moved to the Grand Theatre. In 1967 it moved to Centennial Hall, opening with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which it performed with Earle Terry’s Conservatory Choir.
Under Clifford Evens
In the spring of 1969, Boundy retired and Clifford Evens became the orchestra’s music director and conductor, serving in that position until 1979. Under his leadership the orchestra achieved professional status and the number of concerts increased, as did the quality and calibre of the musicians.
New demands initially thinned the ranks of those who could not put in the longer hours required, leaving Evens free to build and strengthen the orchestra, particularly in the string section. In 1971, the violinist Gwen Thompson was engaged as concertmaster. Evens made full use of the Ontario Arts Council’s (OAC) Resident Artists Plan, through which he arranged collaborative financing of player-teachers by the orchestra, the University of Western Ontario and the OAC. He increased the orchestra's audience base and, by 1973, had developed two main concert series: Pops and Symphony.
Between 1975 and 1976, the Richard and Jean Ivey Fund donated a total of $100,000 to enable the orchestra to hire 30 full-time musicians. This professional base (which occasionally performed separately under the name Sinfonia) made the orchestra eligible for Canada Council grants; the municipal government and OAC also increased their support. During the 1975–76 season, 40 subscription and ensemble concerts were given; the orchestra also did 37 run-out concerts, at that time perhaps more than any other orchestra in Canada. Sixty run-outs were undertaken for the following season. The Swiss violinist Jean Piguet replaced Gwen Thompson as concertmaster for one year, followed by Eduard Minevich, an emigré from Leningrad (1976–87). Sinfonia first toured in March 1977, to Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Michigan, and that season began its CBC contracts (later CBC engagements involved the full orchestra).
During the 1970s, the orchestra commissioned and performed works by Peter Clements (Suite grotesque), Peter Paul Koprowski (In memoriam Karol Szymanowski), William Miller (Au bord de la forêt), André Prévost (Chorégraphie IV), Alfred Rosé (Adagio for cello and orchestra) and Jerome Summers (Images). In that same period it programmed 25 other works by Canadians, including those of Lorne Betts, Claude Champagne, Harry Freedman, Alain Gagnon, Lucien Hétu, Derek Healey, R. Murray Schafer, two by Harry Somers and three by Norman Symonds. Brian Jackson was assistant conductor from 1977 to 1981. Of some 60 solo performers in that period, about two-thirds were Canadian.
Evens gave his notice in 1978 and resigned at the completion of the 1978–79 season. Mark Warren, who had been appointed as the first full-time orchestra manager in 1974, left in early 1979 to become general manager of the Hamilton Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the orchestra suffered another financial crisis, resulting from rapid growth and uncertain government subsidies. To reduce costs, Sinfonia was cut from 30 to 25 players (whose salaries were reduced), and the season cut from 36 to 32 weeks. The orchestra was conducted for an interim period by Victor Feldbrill.
Under Alexis Hauser
In the fall of 1981, the Viennese-born cellist, composer and conductor Alexis Hauser was appointed conductor of the orchestra, which changed its name to Orchestra London Canada to distinguish it from the London Symphony in the UK. His programming included large-scale works by Mahler and Bruckner, in addition to the accustomed repertoire, sometimes performed in conjunction with neighboring organizations such as the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. Hauser restored salary levels and increased Sinfonia to 29 players.
In August 1982, Sinfonia and Hauser, with the Ottawa Choral Society, represented Canada at the International Festival of Music and Architecture in L'Aquila, Italy. On 6 February 1986, the orchestra performed Mahler's Eighth Symphony together with six choirs from London and Kitchener at a Mahler Symposium. During the 1986–87 season, Orchestra London offered nine subscription series, special concerts and a Beethoven Festival. In 1987, the orchestra acquired a new concertmaster, US-born Joseph Lanza, formerly concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra. Financial strain returned during Hauser's final season (1987–88) and the orchestra once again had to trim the players' ranks. Hauser had programmed works by 18 Canadians, and commissioned additional works by Jack Behrens, Ka Nin Chan, D'Arcy Gray, Gary Kulesha and Alexina Louie.
Uri Mayer was chosen to succeed Hauser as conductor beginning in the 1988–89 season. During the next five years, Mayer increased the repertoire base and the depth of artistic expression. He resigned at the end of the 1993–94 season. Mark Laycock was then appointed music director, a position he held from 1996 to the spring of 1998.
Orchestra London functioned without a music director for several years. Simon Streatfeild, a former principal violist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra in the UK, served as artistic advisor. Brian Jackson, who conducted the orchestra for 20 years and served as its principal pops conductor, was appointed principal guest conductor and artistic advisor for the 1998–99 Golden Anniversary season. He was joined by a series of 15 guest conductors contracted to lead the orchestra throughout the season.
In 2000, shortly after a successful fundraising campaign raised $330,000 and brought the orchestra out of debt, the orchestra appointed Timothy Vernon as music director and artistic director. At the time, the orchestra engaged 43 core musicians.
In the summer of 2014, the orchestra failed to receive the second installment of a promised $1 million gift, due to the donor’s decision to redirect the funds to the development of a new concert hall in London. The budget shortfall left the orchestra insolvent, and it was forced to officially cease operations on 16 December 2014. Executive director Joe Swan resigned, the organization was evicted from its office and the remainder of the 2014–15 season was cancelled. On 18 December, London City Council rejected the orchestra’s request for a $350,000 bailout to cover back wages owed to musicians and staff.
In an effort to maintain a presence in the community, and to distance themselves from the “previous administration” of Swan and the board of directors, the orchestra’s musicians re-branded themselves as #WePlayOn. Led by Joe Lanza, they began giving a series of performances around the city throughout the winter and spring of 2014–15. They gave small recitals in such public locations as libraries, seniors’ homes and London International Airport, as well as joint performances with London Pro Musica Choir and Amabile Choirs, including some at Centennial Hall.
In 2015, the orchestra’s musicians dropped #WePlayOn and adopted the moniker London Symphonia. In March 2022, it was announced that London Symphonia would receive $300,000 from the federal government to renovate London’s Metropolitan United Church as the orchestra’s new home.