In 1945 Cliff Templer, the Parkdale United Church organist and choir director, formed a small ensemble consisting of three violinists and a pianist to play at church services once a month. Not long after, the choir and "orchestra" went to Carleton Place to give a concert, which necessitated more players and a conductor. A clarinetist, oboist, cellist, and bass player were soon found, and the first violinist, Stuart Morris, became the conductor for the occasion. From this small group the orchestra has grown to its present size of about fifty players. Over the years the number of players has varied, reaching a low point of fewer than twenty in 1986, but since then reviving to a more traditional size.
There have been several exciting events and projects in the orchestra's history. In 1951, when Memorial Hall was opened, the orchestra held a fundraising concert to purchase a piano - the grand piano that you can see today in the sanctuary. The well-known marimba player from Toronto, Muriel Kilby, was featured on the program and there were over 1,000 in the audience.
In 1956 the orchestra won first prize in the Kiwanis Festival. A more dramatic event took place during the CBC filming of the program "It's about time," featuring Roma McMillen, a member of the orchestra and well-known local violinist and fiddler. The electricians had set the high density lights too close to a screen hanging from the ceiling which caught fire. Disaster was averted when a member of the orchestra ran to the kitchen, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and put out the fire. In 1995 the history of the orchestra was published, "Parkdale United Church Orchestra 50 Years," edited by Lilian Laakso, a former principal violist.
In 1998 the orchestra premiered a work written by its conductor, Peter Willsher, the "Helen Keller Symphony". Following this, the orchestra commissioned a work as a millennium project from Mr. Willsher, "The Americas Suite for Full Orchestra", and performed it in November 2000.
There have been some odd things in the composition and repertoire history of the orchestra. For some years there were no viola players. In 1969 one concert featured three conductors, each of whom also played in the orchestra. For the first dozen years or so, the Minister of the Church used to stand up and make remarks at each concert. The early programs were noted for their variety, and for the first thirty four years only four complete symphonies were presented. More recently, the orchestra has presented larger works, combining with choirs from CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians / Musiciens amateurs du Canada) to present Beethoven's "Mass in C Minor" in 1998, and sections of Dvorak's "Stabat Mater" in 2000. The orchestra also features young soloists.
The players in the orchestra are of all ages and from all walks of life, and we are always looking for more musicians to join us. In an interview broadcast in January 1989 on a CFMO program "Simply Sunday," Arthur Gale, the orchestra's president, explained that anyone who falls into the category "amateur" - one who loves music - of any age, or any profession is welcome to join the orchestra. When asked about the time commitment, he suggested that orchestra members should plan to spend one hour a day practising their instrument, as well as attend rehearsals once a week on Tuesday evenings. He explained that rehearsals were "much more interesting than the concerts" and more of an incentive to join the orchestra than the performance of the concert itself. An annual membership fee of $120 is one of the best deals in town!
Although the orchestra performs most frequently in Ottawa, it has also traveled to Winchester, Chesterville, Cornwall, and Wakefield, Quebec. It owes a great debt to the Parkdale United Church for providing a place for rehearsals. In return, the orchestra enjoys playing twice a year in church services, and looks forward to its continued association with the church.
Peggy Atherton and Eva Major-Marothy