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The OSM Flourishes and Gains Momentum Despite Challenges (1961-1978)

Zubin Mehta’s first season was packed with activities and commitments: conducting 8 of the 12 subscription concerts himself and performing with soloists Alfred Brendel, Marek Jablonski, Yehudi Menuhin and Pierrette Alarie, in addition to working with the young conductor Seiji Ozawa, who had come to hone his artistry in Montreal. The season remains of historical significance for the OSM and its audiences, for it paved the way for the Orchestra’s European journey in May 1963, the first tour in its history and in the history of Canadian orchestras. Its performances in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vienna and Paris with conductors Zubin Mehta and Jacques Beaudry, and with soloists Teresa Stratas and Ronald Turini were a resounding success, ushering in a long tradition of international tours for the OSM.

Another landmark in the Orchestra’s history was the inauguration of the Grande Salle de la Place des Arts (renamed Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in 1966), which was celebrated from September 21 to October 5, 1963, with five memorable concerts featuring guest orchestras (London, Boston) and renowned conductors and soloists (Charles Munch, Georges Prêtre, Rudolf Serkin, Yehudi Menuhin). Wilfrid Pelletier and Zubin Mehta shared the podium for this first concert, respectively symbolizing continuity and renewal.

The acoustics of the new hall were considered as exceptional for artistic purposes, and this would encourage the OSM to broaden its activities in a series of opera productions. Throughout the seasons, audiences were treated to such classics as ToscaCarmenLa traviata and Aida and regaled by the voices of Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Richard Verreau, Jon Vickers, Shirley Verrett and Joseph Rouleau, among others. Zubin Mehta, whose continuing international celebrity took him increasingly far afield of Montreal, stepped down as Music Director after Expo ’67, with a poignant passing of the baton that brought together in the same concert the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which Mehta went on to serve as Music Director until 1978. He was succeeded in Montreal by German conductor Franz-Paul Decker, a renowned pedagogue who worked tirelessly at maintaining the Orchestra’s stature. Decker was given the opportunity of demonstrating the breadth of this work at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, where the OSM performed alongside many illustrious European ensembles to high acclaim. The year 1970 was marked by the departure of Pierre Béique, (honoured today as General Director Emeritus), whose life’s work was dedicated to the OSM and whose contribution was essential in shaping the Orchestra we know today.

1970: Expo ‘70 in Osaka. The OSM under Franz-Paul Decker with soloists Maureen Forrester and Philippe Entremont performed three different programmes of works by Mahler, Prokofiev, Ravel, Bruckner and Canadians François Morel and Raymond Murray Schafer.

1970: Celebration of the bicentenary year of Beethoven’s birth

1970–1981: Conductor and pedagogue Mario Duschenes perpetuates Wilfrid Pelletier’s tradition by becoming conductor of the Youth Matinees.

1973–1974: the OSM faced financial crisis that threatened its very survival. After several weeks of deliberations, the OSM regained stable ground once again, thanks to public subsidies and private donations.

The financial crisis of the winter of 1973 was unprecedented in the history of the Orchestra, which was compelled to announce a cessation of its activities due to an excessive deficit. After 20 long days of discussions and concerns relayed in the media, the OSM restored its finances thanks to public subsidies, subscriptions and private donations, enabling the season to resume in January. A few months later, the OSM celebrated its 40th anniversary, with famous guest flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. The 1975–1976 season marked the arrival of a new Artistic Director, Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who added several Spanish works to the OSM’s repertoire and enjoyed the privilege of conducting the Orchestra for its first concert at Carnegie Hall on May 17, 1976, flanked by soloist Maureen Forrester. In November 1976, in the wake of disagreement with the Musicians’ Committee, Frühbeck de Burgos resigned. Several conductors were invited to stand in for him, among them Charles Dutoit, a 40-year-old Swiss conductor unknown to the Montreal public. Dutoit was to herald a new chapter in the history of the Orchestra.

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