Musical memories: Marking 50 years at uOttawa

The uOttawa School of Music is celebrating 50 years this fall. Here members of the school's orchestra focus on their scores. Courtesy uOttawa

It is a fall of musical anniversaries in Ottawa this year. First the National Arts Centre Orchestra is celebrating 50 years of performances.

Just down Laurier Avenue and across the Rideau Canal, the School of Music at the University of Ottawa is also marking a half century of joyful sound. The two institutions are joined, seemingly in time, tradition and technique and it all started in 1969.

Lori Burns, the current director of uOttawa’s music school, says the 1960s were “a significant time in Canadian history. It was a huge period of growth. Universities, in particular, were growing like crazy. A lot of the buildings on campuses today were built then.”

The University of Ottawa had had music in curriculums past, but it wasn’t with professional training in mind. In the 19th century, the school did teach the art of diction and sacred music.

Lori Burns is the director of the uOttawa School of Music.

This instruction was part of the university’s very strong religious foundation. After all it had been created by the first bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa, Joseph-Bruno Guigues in 1848. Eventually uOttawa became a pontifical university.

“I was fascinated to learn about this,” Burns says. She is a musicologist after all.

She has been at uOttawa since 1993 and she has served as director twice first from 2000 to 2005 and from 2013 to today. Burns has a PhD from Harvard, but she also studied at Western Unversity and at the University of Alberta. After two years at Ohio State University she came home to Canada and landed in Ottawa.

Here’s some more recent history: In 1965, uOttawa’s ties to the church were severed. Ironically that was the same year that the composer, conductor and educator Louis Applebaum produced a report that would help set the future for music at uOttawa.

Applebaum recommended that the planners of the new National Arts Centre should leave room for a resident orchestra. And to complement that new ensemble, he thought the city of Ottawa needed a music school that would offer a chance for the performers in the new orchestra to mentor young professionals and to create a pool of talent players for the city and the country.

Burns says Applebaum felt that “if you were going to have an NAC Orchestra in Ottawa there had to be a complementary training program.

“His report was all about raising the capacity for Ottawa and Canada to have players who could work at a national level. I think was a brilliant stroke. Some of our first professors were founding NAC players. People like David Currie, John Gomez and Robert Cram.”

The first director of the school was Francois Bernier, Burns said.

“He was quite a visionary. He started an orchestra at the university and he solidified the choirs, the wind ensemble and made this place a true professional training ground.

Practice made perfect in the early days. Courtesy uOttawa.

In those early years the music students were learning in a series of heritage homes  along Nicholas and Waller Streets. After a few more years the school moved into a building at the corner of Waller and Stewart.

The school today sits in the Perez Building, having moved in 1988. Perez features the 150-seat Freiman Hall, the Isobel Firestone Music Library, along with classrooms and studios.

“We have out grown (Perez),” Burns said. The purpose built space was for some 200 students. Now there are more than 300, up to 250 undergrads and up to 70 Masters level students, depending on the year. The students come from across Canada and from countries such as Brazil, Mexico, China and Germany. The student body used to be primarily from Ottawa, but now many students come from across Canada, including three brothers from one family in Victoria, B.C., which Burns said is an example of the school’s current reach.

Burns said that she believes the appeal of uOttawa is that the school can offer a real mentorship program. For example, between 25 and 30 students each year can find themselves in advanced seats in the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra some even acting as a  concertmaster or principal.

NACO too offers uOttawa students opportunities in their Institute for Orchestral Studies.

These days, Burns and NAC CEO Christopher Deacon have been working to solidify the connection between uOttawa and NACO more deeply.

“It had always been present and the relationship has always been healthy. In last decade the relationship has advanced new plans and the institute is part of that.”

This past summer the NAC announced the end of its Young Artists Program (YAP) which was held at uOttawa in the summer. The NAC is undertaking a strategic review and wants to consider how to plan future educational initiatives.

For uOttawa, the YAP and the rental paid by the NAC had allowed the school to develop an important scholarship to fund international students.

“That’s really special. We have a lot of international students and we are at pains to find funding for them,” she said.

“Ontario doesn’t pay universities for international student placements. This means the university charges these students at a high rate. As a result scholarships for these students are becoming one of our highest priorities.”

The school does more than classical. Here’s a jazz class from back in the day. Courtesy uOttawa.

This coming year, she fears “we will have a gap.”

That’s one of motivations, she said, for declaring the school’s 50th anniversary fundraising campaign dedicated to these scholarships. The school does have more than 65 named scholarships. The yield every year from the endowments is about $170,000 that give to students. That’s a lot but, Burns said, “it’s never enough.”

International students matter, she said. The reputation of the school is enhanced and the students bring a different musical background to the mix. The contacts and friendships that form can also open doors around the world.

“It just makes it a rich program to be a crossroads of cultures in the building. This the model now around the world.”

However, she said, “I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point of having a huge percentage of our students coming from outside Canada because of the cost.”

Graduates are now sprinkled across the country and internationally.

Angela Hewitt is one of the best known grads from uOttawa. Photo Keith Saunders.

For example, one recent graduate is Alisa Klebanov who was winning NAC bursaries as a young performer. She came to uOttawa after playing with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy led by John Gomez. Klebanov arrived as a violinist and switched to viola. It was a good choice. She’s now a member of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another grad, Robert Uchida was a YAP star. Today he is the concertmaster of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Carp’s Bryan Wagorn is now at the Metropolitan Opera.

On Oct. 5, as part of a day of celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary, opera star Joyce El-Khoury, who graduated in 2004 will be the first recipient of uOttawa’s new Distinguished Alumni Award.

The award, by the way, is named for Angela Hewitt, one of uOttawa’s most distinguished grads. A new winner will be announced every year. Hewitt studied with Jean-Paul Sevilla, who is now an emeritus professor, in the 1970s

These days, one thing the school needs, Burns says, is a concert hall. The orchestra has grown beyond Tabaret Hall and performs in the nearby St. Joseph’s Parish church as well as occasional concerts at the Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts.

Joyce El-Khoury is seen here as Violetta in a scene from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi at the Royal Opera House. She is being honoured by her alma mater this weekend. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“Of course, we would love to have our own concert hall…That would be the next dream. For now we work with what we have.”

The student orchestra also plays in the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre with the Ottawa Symphony. They will join the OSO next March in a celebration of the school. The combined ensemble is massive but it does fit inside Dom-Chalm.

The Carleton centre is a possible location for more uOttawa concerts, she said. There have been discussions with Carleton about possibly going there. Turns out the music departments are less confrontational that the Ravens and the GeeGees at the annual Panda Game.

In this case, there are considerations. For example, “there is a transportation factor. Moving instruments across downtown is not as easy as going to St. Joseph’s or to Saint Brigid’s,” she said.

The two schools of music complement each other, she said.

“I think we have a good understanding of our complementary mandates. From the very beginning, the government of Ontario wouldn’t have approved in a city this size two identical programs.”

That differentiation however doesn’t mean the schools can’t work together she said.

“It does behoove us to explore relationship further and we do talk (and work) with our colleagues at Carleton.”

The university has been investigating other aspects of music with, for example, the opening of the school’s Piano Pedagogy Laboratory 15 years ago and the recent opening of the Musicians Wellness Centre. The school has also established a double degree in Music and Science.

Coming up: A PhD program will soon debut that will expand the post-graduate presence of the school. And, Burns said, the school is “investing a lot of energy into a new CreatorSpace that will examine the relationship between music and technology. Finally the school is also working with the Engineering department having held the first ever GeeGee Engineering camp for Music and Technology this summer. 

In town: If you are interested in attending the events on Oct. 5 marking the 50th anniversary of the school of music please see for information.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.