Since the Orchestra’s foundation, generations of musicians have upheld the tradition of excellence to which the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal continues to owe its renown. A succession of masterful conductors has stood at its helm and many illustrious soloists have joined the Orchestra on stage. Beyond giving symphonic performances, since its early days the OSM also has fully and resolutely anchored itself as an institution within the community. Ever ready to venture outside of the concert hall, the Orchestra continues to reach out to the public and to make classical music more widely accessible. Committed to supporting younger generations, the OSM has multiplied initiatives dedicated to young musicians and to local composers.
The symphony in Montreal before 1934
Solid foundations and a strong debut (1934–1941)
On November 16, 1934, Provincial Secretary of Quebec Athanase David announced the creation of the Société des concerts symphoniques de Montréal (CSM), an orchestra serving the province’s French-Canadian public. Mr. David and Mrs. Antonia Nantel both played a key role in the ensemble’s founding and quickly strengthened its international relations, especially with the United States and France. Its first concert, conducted by Rosario Bourdon, was given at the Auditorium Le Plateau/Plateau Hall on January 14, 1935, in an atmosphere of euphoria. A succession of conductors led the ensemble during its first season, including Wilfrid Pelletier who was associated at the time with the Metropolitan Opera but whom Athanase David and Antonia Nantel convinced to come to Montreal. Pelletier became the CSM’s first Artistic Director starting in 1935. OSM Conductor Emeritus and visionary, he laid down a solid foundation and concept that make the OSM what it is today. Among the great innovations introduced during this period, the following stand out:
On October 15, 1936, the weekly newspaper L’Avenir du Nord reported that the Concerts symphoniques de Montréal (CSM)’s Board of Directors had officially appointed Antonia Nantel, Athanase David and Wilfrid Pelletier as lifetime founding members of the CSM. Artistically, the OSM’s early years were decisive. The will to exclusively highlight Francophone musicians and conductors gradually gave way to a broader concept. The dedication and ingenuity of Executive Director Pierre Béique yielded effective results in the 1940–1941 season, attracting great soloists such as Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau and Nathan Milstein, as well as conductors Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Ernest MacMillan and a young Belgian acclaimed for his vigorous yet meticulous conducting: Désiré Defauw.
The OSM: A new North American attraction (1941–1961)
After fleeing his war-torn homeland, Désiré Defauw was appointed Music Director beginning in the 1941–1942, season after a promising start with the CSM. Wilfrid Pelletier handed over the baton to Defauw to fulfill his new appointment as Director of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, while also maintaining key functions at the Metropolitan Opera. Pelletier would often return as Guest Conductor of the CSM. During Defauw’s time at the helm of the Orchestra, some important milestones were accomplished:
A tireless ambassador for the Orchestra, Pierre Béique multiplied the OSM’s engagements to perform abroad and drew many brilliant international soloists and conductors to the Montreal stage, many of whom were living in exile during the war. In a few short years, he brought to Montreal Bruno Walter, Igor Stravinsky, Rafael Kubelik, George Szell, Leonard Bernstein, George Enesco, Charles Munch, Leopold Stokowski and Otto Klemperer. Klemperer was invited to conduct the Orchestra during several consecutive seasons, profoundly influencing the course of its artistic journey.
Concurrently, Désiré Defauw, triumphant in the first half of the 1940s, saw his popularity decrease in Montreal and gradually resumed his European engagements. In 1944, the Orchestra lost a considerable number of musicians, including Concertmaster Maurice Onderet who joined the orchestra of France-Film, which offered better conditions. This caused the CSM to reorganize and, despite wartime constraints, it succeeded in developing artistically. It continued to perform the Romantic repertoire while exploring contemporary works (Shostakovich, Stravinsky) and Canadian works (Claude Champagne, Jean Vallerand, Alexander Brott, who also served as Concertmaster of the CSM beginning in 1944).
The end of the war would expose the need for a solid organizational infrastructure. Beginning in 1948, a women’s standing committee was formed, providing continuous and indispensable support to the Orchestra in the form of subscription campaigns, luncheons, balls and other social activities to benefit the CSM. The Orchestra also enjoyed the support of several other committees formed over the years, including the Youth Committee in 1955. Through these means, the Orchestra became increasingly anchored in the community, committing itself in turn to supporting local artists. In February 1955, Russian conductor Igor Markevitch made his North American debut, leaving a lasting impression. He returned in 1956–1957 to conduct a CSM performance of The Rite of Spring, which no Canadian orchestra had yet performed. It was a stunning success and marked no less than a contemporary revival within the Orchestra’s repertoire. Markevitch became Music Director in 1957.
The late 1950s ushered in a new era in the Orchestra’s history. As the construction of a new concert hall was beginning at Place des Arts, the OSM decided to offer musicians annual contracts instead of the concert-based ones in effect and enriched the programming to add 8 special edition concerts to its season of 12 subscription concerts. Meanwhile, the series of four concerts at one dollar apiece at the Montreal Forum (replaced today by the Bell Centre) began in the fall of 1959 and attracted unprecedented numbers to the OSM. When Markevitch’s health suffered a rapid decline in 1960, Pierre Béique was faced with finding substitutes. Among them, a youthful 24-year-old Indian conductor, recommended by Charles Munch and Josef Krips, took to the podium at an OSM performance on October 25, 1960. His conducting of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique took Montreal by storm, and Montrealers enthusiastically embraced this rising star. Zubin Mehta became Artistic Director of the OSM the following season.
POSTERS AND PROGRAMMES THROUGH THE AGES: 1935 to 1962
1935 – First concert
From the programme of the OSM’s first concert: “When Mr. Bourdon raised his baton and attacked the O Canada, which at the time was primarily identified with Francophone Canadians, emotion literally took hold of the audience. The programme unfolded in an exultant atmosphere. […] Conductors, soloists and orchestra were applauded at length. This debut was described as ‘outstanding’ and ‘brilliant’ in the Francophone and Anglophone presses, which published extensive accounts of the event.”
1935 – Matinees
From the programme of the first Youth Matinee: “The idea of these introductory matinees is not new and had been discussed since the announcement of the founding of the CSM. […] Mr. Pelletier declared them to be a sine qua non of his involvement in the CSM’s activities. He envisaged special concerts whose programmed works would be explained and commented upon, with a gradual introduction to the instruments and the inner workings of the orchestra.” This original concept was adopted by the New York Philharmonic a few years later and continues to this day at the OSM.
The OSM embarked on its very first foreign tour from April 22 to May 9, 1962. Conducted by Zubin Mehta and Jacques Beaudry, the Orchestra toured Europe (including Eastern Europe — USSR —, Austria and France) performing 11 concerts. This poster shows an advertisement for the OSM’s double concert in Kiev with soprano Teresa Stratas and pianist Ronald Turini. The programme lists works by Weber, Mozart, Puccini, Handel and Liszt, as well as Le diable dans le beffroi by Canadian composer Jean Vallerand, commissioned and premiered by the OSM 20 years earlier in February 1942.
The OSM flourishes and gains momentum despite challenges (1961–1978)
Zubin Mehta’s first season was packed with activities and commitments: conducting 8 of the 12 subscription concerts himself and performing with soloists Alfred Brendel, Marek Jablonski, Yehudi Menuhin and Pierrette Alarie, in addition to working with the young conductor Seiji Ozawa, who had come to hone his artistry in Montreal. The season remains of historical significance for the OSM and its audiences, for it paved the way for the Orchestra’s European journey in May 1963, the first tour in its history and in the history of Canadian orchestras. Its performances in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vienna and Paris with conductors Zubin Mehta and Jacques Beaudry, and with soloists Teresa Stratas and Ronald Turini were a resounding success, ushering in a long tradition of international tours for the OSM.
Another landmark in the Orchestra’s history was the inauguration of the Grande Salle de la Place des Arts (renamed Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in 1966), which was celebrated from September 21 to October 5, 1963, with five memorable concerts featuring guest orchestras (London, Boston) and renowned conductors and soloists (Charles Munch, Georges Prêtre, Rudolf Serkin, Yehudi Menuhin). Wilfrid Pelletier and Zubin Mehta shared the podium for this first concert, respectively symbolizing continuity and renewal.
The acoustics of the new hall were considered as exceptional for artistic purposes, and this would encourage the OSM to broaden its activities in a series of opera productions. Throughout the seasons, audiences were treated to such classics as Tosca, Carmen, La traviata and Aida and regaled by the voices of Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Richard Verreau, Jon Vickers, Shirley Verrett and Joseph Rouleau, among others. Zubin Mehta, whose continuing international celebrity took him increasingly far afield of Montreal, stepped down as Music Director after Expo ’67, with a poignant passing of the baton that brought together in the same concert the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which Mehta went on to serve as Music Director until 1978. He was succeeded in Montreal by German conductor Franz-Paul Decker, a renowned pedagogue who worked tirelessly at maintaining the Orchestra’s stature. Decker was given the opportunity of demonstrating the breadth of this work at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, where the OSM performed alongside many illustrious European ensembles to high acclaim. The year 1970 was marked by the departure of Pierre Béique, (honoured today as General Director Emeritus), whose life’s work was dedicated to the OSM and whose contribution was essential in shaping the Orchestra we know today.
The financial crisis of the winter of 1973 was unprecedented in the history of the Orchestra, which was compelled to announce a cessation of its activities due to an excessive deficit. After 20 long days of discussions and concerns relayed in the media, the OSM restored its finances thanks to public subsidies, subscriptions and private donations, enabling the season to resume in January. A few months later, the OSM celebrated its 40th anniversary, with famous guest flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. The 1975–1976 season marked the arrival of a new Artistic Director, Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who added several Spanish works to the OSM’s repertoire and enjoyed the privilege of conducting the Orchestra for its first concert at Carnegie Hall on May 17, 1976, flanked by soloist Maureen Forrester. In November 1976, in the wake of disagreement with the Musicians’ Committee, Frühbeck de Burgos resigned. Several conductors were invited to stand in for him, among them Charles Dutoit, a 40-year-old Swiss conductor unknown to the Montreal public. Dutoit was to herald a new chapter in the history of the Orchestra.
Posters and Programmes Through the Ages 1963 to 1970.
The inauguration of the Grande Salle de la Place des Arts (today Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier) was the opportunity for two weeks of celebrations with 5 concerts featuring dazzling programmes. Guest orchestras were the Royal Philharmonic under Georges Prêtre and the Boston Symphony under Erich Leinsdorf, with world-renowned soloists Rudolf Serkin and Yehudi Menuhin. The opening concert featured two conductors: Wilfrid Pelletier and Zubin Mehta.
Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester was a close associate of the OSM, regularly performing with the Orchestra at home and on tour. This poster details a concert given by the OSM in Geneva, conducted by Zubin Mehta. The Swiss concert agency Cæcilia, founded in 1958 and still active today, had begun offering its annual programming. ProMusica, founded in 1948, formed a close partnership with the OSM that is ongoing to this day.
On June 25, 26 and 27, 1970, the OSM under the direction of Franz-Paul Decker took part in the Osaka World Exposition in Japan. Contralto Maureen Forrester and pianist Philippe Entremont were featured soloists at the event. Works by iconic classical composers share prominence on this poster with two Canadian works: Monade II by Clermont Pépin and Son of Heldenleben by Raymond Murray Schafer.
Symphonic metamorphosis (1970–1979)
The OSM emerges stronger than ever after serious crisis
In 1970, the Orchestra gave its first performances in Japan, at the World Exposition in Osaka under the direction of Franz-Paul Decker, who had been appointed conductor in 1967. Despite growing recognition abroad, the OSM had to redouble its efforts to reconnect with the French-speaking public in Montreal. A new Concerts Pop series featuring celebrated Quebec popular singers as soloists with the Orchestra was launched. In the 1973–1974 season, the institution experienced severe financial crisis, and owes its recovery from this crisis to support from the community. In the following year, Franz-Paul Decker stepped down as Music Director, his legacy a seasoned OSM whose stature today rivals with the best North American orchestras. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos succeeded Decker for a single season, enjoying the privilege of conducting an orchestra that had become a world-renowned ensemble in its first performance in the famed Carnegie Hall.
International stature (1980–2000)
A seasoned orchestra, among the world’s finest
In 1980, the OSM began a new chapter in its history when it signed a major recording contract with the Decca label. Under the direction of Charles Dutoit, a leading specialist of the French and Russian repertoires, in 1980 it began recording its first digital album—a rare occurrence at the time—at the Église de Saint-Eustache. The album of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, released first on vinyl (1981), and then on CD (1984), garnered numerous international distinctions. The OSM’s subsequent recording of Ravel’s Boléro reached platinum sales in Canada, while Les Troyens won a Grammy. Following these triumphs, the OSM went on to record at a frequency which only a few other orchestras in the world could sustain, and embarked on a string of international tours. Even with these new heights of international acclaim, the OSM continued to sustain and cultivate its loyal home base with annual summer concerts in the parks that would feature the ever popular Boléro as an encore.
POSTERS AND PROGRAMMES THROUGH THE AGES: 1970 to 2005
The OSM’s 1976 European tour concluded with two concerts at the Prague Spring Festival in former Czechoslovakia. Both programmes set the stage for soloists Maureen Forrester (contralto) and Ronald Turini (piano) to shine in works by Mahler and Liszt. Other works by Falla, Brahms, Berlioz, Violet Archer and Roger Matton (replacing a piece by Gilles Tremblay) completed these extraordinarily eclectic programmes conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
Orson Welles, Michel Legrand and the OSM: quite an event indeed! In this ‘spectacular’ poster, OSM shares the billing with the Soleil Laser Fantasia of Hollywood for a concert featuring special pyrotechnic effects at the Olympic Stadium, in August 1982.
The OSM has always been and remains actively committed to local musicians, as this programme from 2005 clearly shows. Singers Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Marie-Josée Lord, then in their thirties, conductor Jacques Lacombe and pianist Alain Lefèvre are featured.
The 21st century (2000)
After an interim period under the excellent leadership of Jacques Lacombe, Kent Nagano was appointed at the helm of the OSM. The Orchestra resumed international tours after six years without them. Then, in 2011, the OSM inaugurated its new concert hall, the Maison symphonique, whose acoustics finally met the real needs of an orchestra of its stature. After this important event, three years later the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique was unveiled to the music-loving public. The Orchestra began its first live webcasts and released a recording of L’Aiglon, which earned the coveted Diapason d’or. Countless achievements for which Kent Nagano and the OSM can pride themselves include two concert tours in Nunavik in 2008 and 2018, the launch of the La musique aux enfants initiative, the creation of the Classical Spree summer festival, and in 2018, the OSM’s first appearance at the prestigious Salzburg Festival.