Orchestras Canada was created in 1997. It is the amalgamation of two organizations with proud and distinct histories – the Ontario Federation of Symphony Orchestras (established ca. 1953) and the Association of Canadian Orchestras (founded in 1972).
The first grass-roots meeting of OFSO took place in St. Catharines ON in 1953, when four leaders from Ontario civic orchestras met to discuss matters of mutual concern. Similar and larger meetings took place throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, but it wasn’t until the publication of “The Schabas Report” (commissioned by the Province of Ontario Council for the Arts from Professor Ezra Schabas in 1965) that the embryonic movement took form. Among the recommendations in the report was the establishment of an orchestral service organization with responsibilities for raising artistic standards and increasing community relevance for Ontario’s orchestras. The provincial arts council took note, and has played an important role ever since.
In 1966, Walter Ball, music consultant to the Ontario Arts Council, was appointed as the first (salaried) executive secretary to the Ontario Federation of Symphony Orchestras. Membership grew to 24 orchestras in the province. In 1970, Dr. Jan Matejcek was appointed as full-time executive secretary, and Robert Sunter (simultaneously music officer at the Ontario Arts Council) was appointed OFSO executive director.
That same year, Dr. Matejcek attended the American Symphony Orchestra League’s annual conference and concluded that Canadian orchestras could benefit from a national orchestral association. In 1971, the first national meeting of orchestras was held, and in 1972, the Association of Canadian Orchestras was formed, with 40 member orchestras. ACO functioned alongside OFSO, with many shared services but two independent boards of directors.
That same year, music critic Ken Winters was appointed first executive director of the joint secretariat, and Ezra Schabas was elected founding president.
National membership created critical mass, and the programs and services of the joint secretariat flourished. In 1973, ACO/OFSO began to publish a quarterly newsletter called Orchestra Canada, and in 1974, ACO presented its first national conference. In 1977, “Orchestra Openings”, the forerunner to today’s Opus, was developed by ACO to ensure that qualified Canadian musicians knew about jobs in Canadian orchestras. ACO also began to administer the Mobility Assistance Program, a regranting program (with funding from Employment and Immigration Canada) which enabled qualified Canadian musicians to travel to auditions for orchestral jobs in Canada. Through ACO, EIC also funded the Income Managers Program, an intensive training program for future arts marketers and fundraisers, led by Margaret Genovese and Dory Vanderhoof. The secretariat also started serving Canada’s youth orchestras in 1993.
The entrepreneurial spirit behind many of these projects and activities was that of Mrs. Elizabeth (“Betty”) Webster, who came to ACO/OFSO from the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra to succeed Ken Winters as executive director in 1975. Mrs. Webster served a remarkable and transformative 26 years with the organization, and her contribution to the Canadian orchestral community is incalculable. Orchestras Canada’s annual award for outstanding service to the Canadian orchestral community is named in her honour.
Mrs. Webster was succeeded by Elisabeth Whitlock (formerly general manager of Edmonton Opera) in 2001, and Daniel S. Donaldson (formerly of Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre), from 2003-2005. Under their leadership, the “Soundings” initiative – a national consultation with Canada’s professional orchestras- was launched and concluded. Katherine Carleton, an experienced orchestra manager and consultant, succeeded Mr. Donaldson in July 2005.