Evelyn Greenberg was just a little girl when she went with her mother and older sister Jacquelin to a music lesson.
The instruction was for Jacquelin, Evelyn recalled.
“After six weeks, the piano teacher said to my mother, ‘Leave the big one at home and bring me the little one’,” Evelyn said, with a laugh.
Her sister, better known to the public perhaps as Jacquelin Holzman, would later say that if the teacher hadn’t said that to her mother Evelyn might have been the mayor of Ottawa and she would have been playing the piano.
That would certainly have been a great result for the city of Ottawa, but the National Arts Centre might not have had one of its greatest supporters.
The history of music in Ottawa in the past 50 years has many heroes. Certainly one is Evelyn Greenberg.
Not only is she a masterful teacher, she has been an important accompanist for the great and near great who perform publicly in the city.
And as a community builder she founded the National Arts Centre Orchestra Association (NACOA) which worked diligently and successfully to introduce NACO to the city.
Ottawa was a small city in the 1960s. Greenberg remembered in an interview that “there was an Ottawa Philharmonic Orchestra that performed here (before it folded, to be replaced by the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra). And the Montreal Symphony Orchestra would come and give concerts in the old Capitol Theatre.”
There were other activities and Evelyn was involved. She played harpsichord in the CBC orchestra that performed every second Sunday afternoon at the old National Gallery at Elgin and Slater Streets.
One day, Jean-Marie Beaudet approached her because she said she had been accompanying the auditions for people who were trying to get into what would become the NAC Orchestra. Beaudet was the first music director of NACO and he was responsible for organizing the orchestra that would be conducted by Mario Bernardi.
“He knew me and he came to me one day and said, ‘You’re the one.’ I asked, ‘For what?'”
He wanted Greenberg to help promote an orchestra that would be performing in the new National Arts Centre. He told her, “‘You’re the one to help promote it’.
She said: “‘OK, what we need is — and this is politically incorrect today — a women’s committee. I invited four other women from various areas of Ottawa, not all in music. These were people who knew people. Trudi Le Caine was one of them.
“I invited them to bring 10 friends to a meeting at the new NAC. Hamilton Southam gave us the Salon and I promoted the orchestra along with Beaudet and Southam.
“I said, ‘We have got to get out there. We have to sell this orchestra and when I am finished talking with you, take your Chargex cards and sign up to subscribe’.”
The NAC was funded by the federal government but there was a concern, she said, that if the audience didn’t come the funding might disappear.
“We really worked hard. It was fun and it was all so new. I was able to see how well picked this orchestra was, that Mario Bernardi had chosen so beautifully.”
Greenberg’s team travelled up and down Rideau Street to businesses such as Freiman’s and Ogilvy’s and more, and asked them if they would devote a window to the new orchestra.
“They did. So when you walked along Rideau Street you had the sense that something was coming.”
All of this happened in August and September 1969. NACO’s first concert happened on Oct. 7.
Evelyn didn’t just found and organize NACOA, she also played for the auditions that were held to pick the new team.
“When we started the building wasn’t ready. We were at the Montcalm Theatre in Hull. Everybody came: people who could play and people who couldn’t play.
“Mario had a reputation for being a tough leader but when one older woman came who could hardly tune her violin, he went to the violin and he tuned it. And she played.”
Her role on the keyboard continued after the auditions.
And at the very first rehearsal of NACO in what would become Southam Hall, “Mario invited Harry Elton, who had promoting the orchestra and me to come.
“We were the only two people sitting in the hall. The players would walked on the stage and you could see one or two coming to the front as though they were thinking, ‘This is where I’m going to live for next few decades’.
“Just before Ian Bernard started playing the timpani to open the Haydn Drum Roll Symphony, Bernardi turned around and said to Elton and me ‘I feel like the pilot of a 747 and I don’t know if it will get off the ground’.”
In her opinion, he needn’t have worried.
“Right from the beginning there was a sound and ensemble feeling to that orchestra because he had chosen so well,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg was born to be a musician it seems.
She started winning competitions at a young age and she was blessed with an ability to sight read music with speed and relative ease.
“You need that when you are doing a lot of accompanying. You have to do it at the drop of a hat.”
She told her students at the uOttawa School of Music where she taught for 23 years, “when someone asks you to do something say yes and then learn the piece. It was never a problem for me. I could learn as well as others, but so many others played better than I did.”
Accompanying was something enjoyable to do with others, she said. She is a self-described social person.
“I volunteer a lot.” On the day of this interview she was playing at the palliative ward at the Bruyere centre.
Ironically for someone who has played the piano professionally all her life and taught music, Greenberg didn’t get a degree in music. Instead, she studied commerce at Carleton University.
“It is because there was no music school in town then. I started university in 1955. I’m 81. I didn’t want to leave town.
She thought to herself, “I like math, I’ll take a Bachelor of Commerce. I didn’t like it very much but I soldiered on. When I started to teach at the university and they listed the credentials of the faculty after her name was a B. Comm. They thought I was the accountant.”
There is some basis in the choice. Her dad was an actuary with Metropolitan Life.
“My mother was a stalwart volunteer. My sister and I both learned that from her. Mother believed in the maxim: Service is the rent you pay for your place on earth.”
She is even a spokesperson for the heart and stroke foundation after suffering and recovering quickly from a stroke recently.
Her family name was Feldman and the Feldman girls, “when we see something that can be done, we just do it.”
Greenberg started accompanying in public at age 12 “mainly because people would phone me and say ‘Are you busy on Friday night? The professional accompanist let us down, can you come?'”
These days she’s known as the Greenberg who plays Christmas carols all over the city.
Not only was Evelyn present at the beginning of NACO, she was there for the start of the uOttawa Music School in 1969.
In one of those rare occasions when a report achieved a positive result, the composer, educator and conductor Louis Applebaum recommended that the new NAC should have a resident orchestra and that the city of Ottawa would need a music school to train professionals.
“I’m one of the people with an umbilical chord between the two. Lawrence Freiman was too. He was the founding chair of the NAC and he also felt very strongly there should be a high level music school in Ottawa.”
So much has happened as a result, Greenberg said.
“Each time I walk into the National Arts Centre, I feel the same excitement I did when the building was built. I remember everything about it. I remember Michelle Beauchemin’s curtain, or going up the circular stairs to each level.”
In those early days there were no computers. “We had to do everything personally. We invited people and MPs and Mayors and diplomats to come to our arts centre. We had parties for the orchestra.
“We used to pick up the musicians at the airport and bring them to the NAC.
“I recall picking up the Guarneri String Quartet. I had those four Stradivaris in my Gran Torino. What if I had driven into a tree with them in it?
“One night a concert, after a performance, my husband and I drove the cellist Leonard Rose to the airport with his cello in our car. We couldn’t do that today. Everything then was personal and there was immediate satisfaction.”
NACOA also raised money for instruments including a contrabassoon, a harp and they also raised seed money for tours.
That personal touch was also part of the appeal of accompaniment.
“I was good at it. It came easily to me. I love putting people at ease. The easiest person ever worked with was Maureen Forrester. I played for her several times.
“The first time there was no rehearsal. It was for was a dinner at Chateau. She said ‘I’m gong to this and this and is that alright for you?’
“I asked, ‘Do you want a run through? She said ‘No you don’t need to.’ And we started with An Die Musik by Schubert. There is a piano introduction and when I played it she just turned to me and smiled. I thought she liked what I was doing. When you play for the best people, they are the easiest.”
In addition, Greenberg played regularly in NACO concerts in the first two seasons. In fact, she played harpsichord in the second-ever NACO concert which launched the first ever Baroque music series.
She didn’t play in the first concert because she, as president of NACOA, was a guest of then prime minister Pierre Trudeau that night. She and her husband sat with him in the box. She had met Trudeau in 1957. Also in the group was Gerard Pelletier and his wife and Gordon Robertson, then the clerk of the privy council and his wife.
“There was a big reception afterwards. I took him backstage to meet the orchestra and he stood on a raised area and said he was very happy to be there. He wished the orchestra well and then he added ‘I think the finest way of communicating with people is through a string quartet.’ The musicians liked that.”
Fifty years later, Greenberg believes the NAC is just starting and going strong.
“I think the arts centre is going along with what is happening in our community. A perfect example is the support and promotion of Indigenous work.”
She likes the new addition and she likes the fact that she sees younger people there when she attends concerts.
In Town: You can meet and listen to Evelyn Greenberg in a panel discussion with longtime NACO members Karoly Sziladi and Elaine Klimasko in the NAC on Oct. 3 at 1:15 p.m. For information: nac-cna.ca