The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal turns 90

April 12, 2024

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The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) is one of the city’s great international ambassadors, and it’s also one of our oldest cultural institutions. Since its founding in 1934, the OSM has entertained and educated generations of music lovers, and it has been a talent incubator for numerous globally acclaimed musicians and orchestra leaders.

We spoke with the OSM’s executive director, Madeleine Carreau, to learn more about the prestigious orchestra’s past, present and future.

By Sébastien Tétrault

The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is marking its 90th anniversary this year. What’s the significance of this milestone?

It’s very special for a young society like Quebec to have enjoyed such a prestigious orchestra for nearly a century. The fact that the OSM is one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions proves that culture has been one of Montreal’s key economic sectors for a long time.

What led to the founding of the OSM?

Before the OSM, which was originally called the Société des Concerts Symphoniques, there was a Montreal-based orchestra that performed on the west side of the city – it was an almost entirely anglophone institution. Antonia Nantel, the wife of Athanase David, premier Maurice Duplessis’ chief of staff, initiated the founding of the OSM. She believed it was important to give francophone musicians the opportunity to perform in an orchestra. Ms. Nantel was not only a passionate music lover but a pioneer and a visionary. She was the first to realize that Montreal was fertile ground for large-scale cultural productions. She persuaded Wilfrid Pelletier, then the orchestra leader of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York, to come home to serve as conductor for Montreal’s new orchestra. Pelletier accepted on the condition that the orchestra would give free concerts for children. And so the OSM became the first orchestra in North America to offer children’s matinees!

How has the OSM evolved over the years?

Musically, by always broadening its repertoire. And by attracting great artists like Stravinsky, Messiaen and Charles Munch. The OSM has never been afraid to give a prodigy a chance. I’m thinking of Zubin Mehta, who was only 26 when the OSM hired him. He went on to become one of the world’s great conductors – and he’s still going strong at the age of 87! The OSM also established itself as an incomparable cultural ambassador. Since its tour of Russia in 1962, initiated by prime minister Diefenbaker as an olive branch to the USSR amidst Cold War tensions, the OSM has been very active internationally. It has also been in the thick of Quebec’s landmark events, like the 1976 Olympics and Expo 67. The OSM has introduced some great talents to the world – such as Charles Dutoit, who was an unknown before coming to Montreal – and it has always been an innovator. Consider digital recording, for example. Did you know that back in 1982 the OSM recorded the world’s second classical music CD?

In an increasingly fast-paced world and the means of discovering music are multiplied, how is the OSM renewing its audience?

The pandemic opened us to the digital world. We were already streaming a few of our concerts, but building a full-fledged webcast program has helped us attract a new audience. We’re also filling an important niche with the Classical Spree, Montreal’s first classical music festival. It’s a three-day event that allows us to reach thousands of people each year. Finally, the OSM is also adapting to new technology, making use of databases and advanced software, and we have a presence on streaming platforms like Spotify or, more recently, Apple Music Classical.

What does the future hold for the OSM?

As I see it, the OSM has a very bright future. Our conductor, Rafael Payare, is under contract until 2027. Remember, when the OSM chooses a new conductor, that person comes with a certain history. Charles Dutoit was deeply into French and Russian music. Kent Nagano, despite his Japanese-American roots, specialized in German music. Rafael Payare is an expert in 20th century and Latin music. That’s why each new conductor helps expand the orchestra’s repertoire and attract new audiences. Since Rafael Payare joined the OSM, we have welcomed more audience members of Latin American origin than ever. And we can’t forget that half of Montrealers don’t have long-term roots in Canada. That’s why one of the OSM’s key missions is to reflect the city’s great cultural diversity.

How will the OSM celebrate its 90th anniversary?

There will be a gala organ concert, because this year also marks the tenth anniversary of the purchase of the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique. There will also be residencies and mini-festivals. Generally speaking, the season will feature an enhanced repertoire. Overall, I’d say we’re having a relatively modest celebration of this anniversary. Above all, our aim is to show Montrealers that for 90 years they have benefited from having a top-notch cultural institution! The OSM is one of Canada’s great cultural companies, and the only world-renowned artistic company with “Montreal” in its name – making it a great ambassador that does our city proud all over the world !