Ottawa Symphony Orchestra: Nicole Senécal puts her money where her heart is

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.

On Monday the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra will open its new season with a programme packed full of Mozart. Included in the lineup will be the composer’s Second Horn Concerto played by a young Canadian studying abroad.

The performance by Martin Mangrum was made possible by an unassuming retired senior public servant with a passion for classical music and a desire to make a difference for young performers.

Nicole Senécal spoke to ARTSFILE by Skype from Spain about why she is a patron of young musicians. Her one regret is that she won’t be able to attend the concert Monday because of a prior commitment to study Spanish in Spain.

Her love of music began at home. An only child, Senécal was a willing listener every Saturday as her father would turn on Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on the radio.

“It was almost like a religion at home. I was … not forced, but I was encouraged to listen to The Met on the radio. That’s how it started.”

She studied piano for seven years and fell in love with the music. However, as a teenager, she says, she rebelled and turned away. But a seed had been planted.

She attended the University of Ottawa. After graduation she became a lawyer specializing in international public law. She was the first woman to teach international law at the University of Sherbrooke for two years, then joined what was then known as the Department of External Affairs in 1972. She served as a diplomat and went on to hold several senior positions in government. 

Nicole Senécal

Her working life was a busy one first in External Affairs, with CIDA and even a few years in Pierre Trudeau’s PMO as press secretary. But finally all that ended with retirement. That’s when her love of music returned with a vengeance.

She had married her longtime partner, David Holdsworth. He had children from a previous relationship and they have become a major part of Senécal‘s life. Still, “I decided I wanted to do more.” And she started thinking about her alma mater and about perhaps setting up a scholarship.

First she returned to school and started auditing courses at uOttawa’s School of Music. She particularly liked one with Christopher Moore who teaches music history. They became friends. Her husband, being an opera lover too, had, at the same time, formed a club of devotees and Moore was a regular participant.

Out of all of this came the idea for a scholarship at uOttawa that has evolved into a stipend for a graduating student. In addition to a $10,000 cash award, the student gets a chance to perform during the annual Chamberfest, another organization that has benefited from Senécal‘s generosity.

She started looking for another opportunity to help a young performer and became interested in locating it with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, especially because of its move to reach more deeply into Ottawa community and into the francophone community. The OSO, this year, will perform two concerts in Orléans at the Shenkman Centre. This series begins Monday.

The winner of the OSO prize, Martin Mangrum, is an undergraduate at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. He has also won the Canada 150 Commemorative Award from the National Youth Orchestra Canada 2017. He gets $2,500 to go along with the opportunity to be a soloist with a sizeable orchestra. The OSO will also announce the instrument that will be featured in the second year of the prize on Oct. 2. The prize is open to Canadian residents, 18 and up, who are attending or have recently concluded their studies a post-secondary institution.

It turns out the OSO’s chairman is a friend of Senécal’s and they were talking one day about the orchestra and she was impressed by the shift in emphasis towards community brought in by Alain Trudel who is the artistic advisor for the OSO.

“I really believe in the way they see their mission. I like the fact that it is much more focussed on the community. We have got to get involved in a community that is francophone and anglophone. I hope they are going to be successful.

“I was very excited and I committed myself to fund this prize five years.”

Senécal is certainly comfortable in her retirement but she is not wealthy. Her motivation is altruistic and a way of paying tribute.

“I inherited some money from my parents this is my way to say to them ‘Thank you’. I know they would like this.”

She is fulfilled personally by these gifts.

“I cannot tell you how much satisfaction I get from this. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy the pleasure of giving. I know it will make the life of a musician easier, at least I hope so. The fact that some of them over the years have kept in touch and have become friends I feel like I have one per cent of them as a mother.”

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra
Where: Harold Shenkman Hall, Shenkman Arts Centre
When: Monday, Oct. 2 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and 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.