The Montreal Gazette, December 18, 2003

The passion, the glory and the business story of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal

By Warren Perley

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTER At 25 years old, violinist Jonathan Crow (left) is the youngest concertmaster in Canada. He and retired violinist Isaac Braunstein, now 100 years old, are proud members of the OSM family.

Isaac Braunstein and Jonathan Crow are comparing notes - musical notes, that is. Isaac, 100 years young, and Jonathan, 25 years old, have more in common than you might think at first glance.

They’ve both been adopted by the same musical family – the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, better known in the province of Quebec by its official French name, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM).

Of course, they’re a few generations apart. Isaac stroked the chords of his original 1764 Mathias Horensteiner violin at the first OSM concert held at Plateau Hall in Lafontaine Park on Jan. 14, 1935. In those first years, the OSM was known as the Société des Concerts Symphoniques de Montréal.

Isaac’s saga began in 1910 when his family hopped a freighter to escape poverty and persecution in Romania, spending 16 days at sea before reaching Montreal. After their arrival, Isaac’s dad, Alter, worked as a painter at the CPR’s Angus Shop in east-end Montreal.

“In those days, you had to have your head examined if you wanted to become a musician,” Isaac recalled in a recent interview at Place des Arts. “There was no money in music.”

But Isaac was persistent, and at age 13 his dad agreed to pay 50 cents a week for music lessons. The rest is history. Isaac want on to play in the Ritz Carlton dining room and later at movie theatres, where they needed live music to accompany the silent films.

When the “talkies” came along, it was time for a new gig and Isaac found his home with what was to become the OSM. Jonathan took a different route to the OSM. A prodigy who studied under Yehonatan Berick at McGill University’s prestigious faculty of music, he was hired by the OSM in 1998 after winning an audition.

Jonathan is what’s known as a “concertmaster,” together with Richard Robert, who is the OSM’s principal concertmaster. You can look and listen, but don’t touch Jonathan’s instrument, a beautifully burnished violin made in Venice in 1735 by Santo Serafino.

To put matters in perspective, Jonathan is the youngest concertmaster in Canada and likely the youngest with any major orchestra in North America. His reputation is such that he’s invited to perform as a guest violinist with orchestras around North America and he teaches at the Université de Montréal.

"Montreal is my home now,” says Jonathan, who hails from Prince George, B.C. “It offers the exciting culture of a big city, combined with the ability to live simply. I love the city and the orchestra, where I have the chance to work with great musicians and guest conductors from around the world.”

Great talent, deep roots

That’s been the story of the OSM for the last 68 years - recruiting the finest musicians who, in turn, have given their heart, soul and talent to build a world-class orchestra with deep roots in the community.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF OSMPictured together in 1964, from left to right, are Pierre Béique, Sir Rudolf Bing (general manager of the Metropolitan Opera), Zubin Metha, Wilfrid Pelletier and Jean Drapeau.

Reaching out to the community has been the mandate of the orchestra since its founding in 1934. As is the case with most great accomplishments recounted in Canadian history, the interaction of the French- and English-speaking communities has been intrinsic to this wonderful tale of tribulation and triumph.

Between 1894 and 1929, Montreal-based orchestras were formed three times, but each folded due to internal conflicts or financial constraints.

The same event which forced Isaac Braunstein to look for a new employer – the advent of talking movies – also led to the formation in 1930 of a brand new orchestra known first as the Montreal Concert Orchestra, and shortly thereafter as the Montreal Orchestra.

British musician Douglas Clarke, who was to be named many years later as the director at the McGill Conservatorium, agreed to serve as honorary conductor of this new orchestra which was composed of many instrumentalists thrown out of work at movie theatres.

By 1933-34, there was a split within the ranks of the Montreal Orchestra with some board members, such as Madame Athanase David and journalist Henri Letondal, resigning to protest what they considered to be a lack of opportunity provided for French-speaking conductors and soloists.

On the evening of November 16, 1934, with the Great Depression in full swing, the Honorable Athanase David, MNA for Terrebonne, and Provincial Secretary, announced on Montreal radio that the Quebec government was giving $3000 to help form a new orchestra to be known as the Société des Concerts symphoniques de Montréal.

The name stuck until 1953-54 when it was renamed Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). In the meantime, the Montreal Orchestra led by Mr. Clarke, folded at the end of the 1940-41 season due partially to dropping attendance and to the fact that some of its board members were putting most of their energies into the World War II effort, leaving little time for cultural pursuits.

Pierre Béique ‘the builder’

One of the great figures in the history of the OSM, its first managing director, Pierre Béique, immediately stepped in to heal the rift with the English-speaking community, inviting Mr. and Mrs. Graham Drinkwater, two of the most active board members of the Montreal Orchestra, to join what would be known as the OSM. They did so immediately.

PHOTO: J.F. LEBLANCThe OSM and its chorus are shown here performing Berlrioz's Damnation of Faust last October.

Long-time OSM board member and administrator Jean André Elie is prone to use sports analogies when he discusses the colourful history of his organization and the mentoring role played by Béique, one of the towering figures in the OSM’s first three decades. Béique used “conviction, commitment and charm” to build the OSM into the most important cultural institution in the province, says Elie.

Béique, still closely associated with the OSM, was a visionary who was involved in the recruitment of young, charismatic, world-class conductors such as Zubin Mehta and Charles Dutoit to raise the international profile of the OSM.

It was Béique who in 1949 introduced the idea of inviting famous guest conductors from around the world, such as Charles Munch, Bruno Walter, Georges Enesco, Igor Stravinski, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Monteux, Josef Krips, Victor de Sabata, Igor Markevitch, Thomas Schippers, Arthur Fiedler, Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Stiedry, Jean Morel and Sir Ernest MacMillan, Ernest Ansermet and Otto Klemperer.”

It was Béique who would travel to Boston and New York to convince world-class soloists to come to Montreal to perform with the OSM,” recalls Elie. “Pierre was a fantastic music-business entrepreneur who knew how to build a great orchestra with limited finances. He was the Paul Desmarais of the music business in Montreal.”

During the 1958-59 season, Béique negotiated an annual contract for OSM musicians, rather than hiring musicians for one concert at a time. This led to more career security for the musicians and to a more extensive concert schedule for the public.

Wilfrid Pelletier’s guiding light

Throughout his tenure at the helm of the OSM, Béique remained faithful to the guiding principles set out by Wilfrid Pelletier, who returned from a career as a successful conductor with the Metropolitan Opera in New York to become the orchestra’s first music director in 1935. He stayed through the 1940-41 season, after which he resumed his career with the Metropolitan Opera.

According to Elie, Pelletier established the template of principles that was to guide the OSM to this day:

  • The organization had to be grassroots with major input from members of the community and a major emphasis on musical education.
  • The concerts had to be accessible to the broadest audience possible in the community, which gave rise to concerts in the park.
  • The mandate must emphasize the goal of building a world-class symphony orchestra.

In his first season, Pelletier started Saturday afternoon symphonies for school children, teachers and parents. Students paid a reduced admission of 10 cents. This was the beginning of Les Matinées for school children, still in effect today. It was Pelletier who inaugurated the auditions and competitions to select young soloists to make guest appearances with the OSM. These auditions eventually became the OSM Competition, which has brought Jonathan Crow and many other talented youngsters to the attention of the orchestra.

n June, 1936, Pelletier started the Montreal Festivals, a series of concerts conducted outside Montreal city limits in order to bring the orchestra’s music to people who could not come to Plateau Hall. He also created the Summer Concerts held outdoors on the esplanade of the chalet on Mount Royal. It lasted until 1964 and was replaced by Concerts in the Park.

Béique’s commitment to implementing Pelletier’s vision of grassroots involvement can be seen to this day in the voluntary involvement of men, women and students in fund-raising, marketing and at the board level, says Elie, a law graduate of McGill University with an MBA from Western.

PHOTO: PHIL CARPENTEROSM administrator and board member Jean Andre Elie says that the orchestra strives to be "an international beacon of musical culture."

In 1948, a permanent women’s committee was formed to get involved in social activities to promote the orchestra and fundraisers. In 1955, a young people’s committee was set up to act as a link between the OSM and young people in the community. One of its mandates was to commission on an annual basis a composition by a Canadian composer.

There can be little doubt of the unifying force the OSM exerts on the various segments of the Montreal community. The OSM maintains strong ties with the faculties of music at the Université de Montréal and at McGill University, as well as with the Montreal Conservatory. In fact, many of the OSM’s members either teach or are graduates of the three institutes.

“Our mandate is to bring people together and to produce the best music,” says Elie. “We want to be an international beacon of great musical culture.”
Conductors leave marks

Part of the OSM’s cachet has been the extraordinary talent of many of the musical directors who have led the orchestra since the time of Pelletier.

Between 1961 and 1967, Béique had the dashing young conductor Zubin Mehta as his musical director. Mehta brought the orchestra international recognition through its first-ever international tours.

It was during Mehta’s reign that the OSM moved to Place des Arts. Its 3000-seat Salle Wilfrid Pelletier was inaugurated on Sept. 21, 1963. Now, almost 40 years later, there are plans under way to build a new concert hall for the OSM by 2006 on de Maisonneuve between Bleury and Jeanne Mance.

Between 1967 and 1975, Franz-Paul Decker, known among the orchestra musicians as a disciplinarian, emphasized “le grand repertoire,” mainly Germanic works.

The next larger-than-life personality to take over as music director was Charles Dutoit. Elie describes the mercurial conductor as “remarkably intelligent and strategic, a man who was committed to bringing the OSM to the stratosphere; and he did it!” Madeleine Careau, who took over as general manager of the OSM two years ago, recalls Dutoit as “a man of enormous energy with an inner fire.”

Together with Zubin Mehta’s brother, Zarin, a very able accountant and board member who took over as managing director in 1981, Dutoit launched the OSM into orbit through many international tours and the beginning of a long list of recordings. Zarin Mehta left in 1990 and is now executive director of the New York Philharmonic.

In total, until the present day, the OSM has done 37 national and international tours, 87 CD recordings and has won numerous awards, including two Grammys.

In 2000, under Dutoit’s watch, the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, the world’s premier reference book on music, ranked the OSM as “the leading orchestra in the French-speaking world.”

No wonder, Careau says that finding an outstanding replacement for Dutoit is the No. 1 priority. Like everything else it undertakes, the orchestra has called on volunteers within the community to form a search committee led by Dr. Bernard Shapiro, principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University.

The list of potential candidates stood at about 130 earlier this year. Shapiro hopes to have a final decision during the current concert season.

Principal guest conductor

Luckily, the OSM has a superb interim replacement for the balance of this season in the person of Jacques Lacombe, a Quebecer who served as assistant conductor to Dutoit between 1994 and 1998.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF OSMJacques Lacombe, principal guest conductor.

In 2000-2001, Lacombe was music director for opera and orchestra with the Philharmonie de Lorraine in Metz, France. In his own right, he is an internationally recognized conductor known for his acute sensibility and ability to convey the musical spirit of compositions.

Lacombe says the principal challenges facing the new permanent music director will be to maintain the OSM’s high profile internationally while maintaining strong contacts at the community level.

Lacombe was heavily involved in the OSM’s educational programs when he was assistant music director under Dutoit. One of the programs he helped to lead between 1996 and 1998 was called Musically Speaking Concerts, which would present one orchestral work per program with the conductor stopping to explain the various components of the symphony and how the composer structured it.

“It touched many people,” Lacombe recalled in a recent interview. “The conductor spoke directly to the audience, which was made up of everyone from children to professional musicians. There is a huge demand for that kind of concert. I hope that it is brought back.”

The OSM today

With 15,000 season subscribers, more than 100 concerts performed every year and an annual audience of 200,000 people, the OSM has opened the door to a wide variety of performances, ranging from the works of the great classical composers to collaborative efforts with English pop stars such as Corey Hart.

There are also morning concerts for seniors who prefer daytime outings. Those concerts include free coffee and croissants, arranged for by a corporate sponsor.

Like all cultural institutions which rely on grants and sponsorships from government and businesses to help meet their budgetary needs, financing has always proven to be the most daunting challenge faced by those intent on giving Montreal a world-class orchestra.

Luckily for the OSM and Montrealers, Hydro-Quebec continues to play a major role as the orchestra’s title sponsor. In the words of Marie-José Nadeau, executive vice-president of corporate affairs and secretary general of Hydro-Quebec: “Hydro-Québec’s sponsorship of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal brings together two institutions both recognized as symbols of excellence and both enjoying a highly enviable international reputation. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is one of the world’s leading orchestras, just as Hydro-Québec is a world leader among energy companies.”

The OSM has an annual operating budget of about $16 million with nearly 50 per cent coming from government grants, 20 percent from ticket sales, 10 per cent from private individuals or voluntary organizations and 20 percent from corporate donations and sponsorships.

By any yardstick, the orchestra has come a long way since Isaac Braunstein’s first season almost 68 years ago when it performed four concerts and had revenues of $14,472.07.

It is now one of the great orchestras in the world built through vision, commitment, entrepreneurship, strong community support and, of course, inspirational music.

The challenges faced by the OSM in the next few years will be demanding ones, but then isn’t that how it’s always been?

Warren Perley, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a marketing and graphic design studio (