The history of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra has spanned three generations, with its roots in the boom years of the 1940’s to its present incarnation as the nation’s most dynamic regional orchestra. In 1941, Ernest Rennie, a staff musician at CKLW, formed the Windsor Concert Orchestra to raise funds for local servicemen serving overseas. These concerts were held in the Tivoli Theatre (now the Walkerville Theatre) and the Prince Edward Hotel Ballroom and broadcast live over CKLW every Sunday evening. The next year Matti Holli, a violinist with the Concert Orchestra, took charge of the fledgling ensemble after Mr. Rennie sustained a debilitating injury. During the next several years, Mr. Holli added musicians to the orchestra, changing its name to the Windsor Federation of Musicians Symphony Orchestra in 1947. Windsor City Council, recognizing the value of such an undertaking, provided the orchestra’s first grant (significant support by the City continues to this day) as a catalyst for its first performance as a professional organization on November 16, 1947. This inaugural concert took place at Patterson Collegiate Institute where 35 musicians performed Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.
The following year the ensemble’s name was shortened to the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and performances were moved to the Walkerville Collegiate Institute. In 1949 The Windsor Symphony Society was formed to undertake responsibility for the financing and general well-being of the Orchestra, and Mr. Hugh Stratton was elected its first President. The Windsor Symphony Volunteer Association formed in 1957 to spearhead a myriad of fundraising activities for the Orchestra, and to provide scholarships for young musicians.
From 1949 to 1958, the WSO called the Tivoli Theatre its home, then moved downtown to the Capitol Theatre for two years. On October 22, 1961 the WSO gave its first performance at the newly constructed Chrysler Theatre.
Maestro Holli was responsible for the orchestra’s steady growth and the development of symphonic music in Windsor and Essex County; he founded the Border Cities Youth Orchestra, and conducted hundreds of performances of the WSO. His sudden death in 1977, just prior to a concert at the start of the WSO’s 30th season, brought a tragic close to his most distinguished career. In 1979, Hungarian born, Laszlo Gati was appointed Music Director. Noted for his fiery performances, he led the WSO in its first commercial recording in 1983: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.3 with pianist Michael Rudy. Health problems forced the resignation of Maestro Gati in the spring of 1985 and during the 1985-86 season Timothy Vernon served as Acting Music Director and Conductor. Between 1986 and 1990, Dwight Bennett led the WSO, which, under his direction, became a fully professional orchestra.
Susan Haig became the fourth Music Director of the WSO in 1991. Her decade-long tenure was marked by the WSO’s burgeoning national prominence as one of Canada’s most innovative regional orchestras. The WSO was the first orchestra to perform at the new CBC Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in 1993. In 1996, it was selected by SOCAN for a special Composer-in-the-Community Program with Jeffrey Ryan, and was also the featured orchestra at the 1997 International Cabot 500 Festival in Newfoundland. In 1992 the Board of Directors formally incorporated the Windsor Symphony Orchestra Chorus as an integral part of the WSO organization, which has regularly performed on WSO series concerts ever since. The WSO and the University of Windsor produced its first Windsor Canadian Music Festival during the 1995-96 season, and in 1999, Maestra Haig recorded the WSO’s first compact disc recording, with works by Mozart and Haydn featuring Peggy Dwyer, soprano.
The 1990’s marked a period of extraordinary financial challenges; in August 1998 Mina Grossman Ianni took charge of the WSO as General Manager, and with the cooperation of the Board, staff, volunteers and musicians rescued the WSO from the brink of bankruptcy. She recruited a new managerial team which began a major turnaround in the orchestra’s fortunes, including the doubling of subscription sales, the creation of five new concert series’ and the appointment of John Morris Russell as Music Director in August 2001.
During Maestro Russell’s tenure (he is currently contracted through 2012) the Windsor Symphony Orchestra has experienced extraordinary artistic and structural growth. In 2001 the WSO was awarded the prestigious Ontario Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Arts (which it won again in 2004), and national broadcast recordings on CBC Radio 2 and televised broadcasts on CBC television brought the WSO unprecedented national and international exposure, including a nomination for a Gemini Award in 2004. In 2003, Brent Lee became the WSO’s first multi-year Composer-in-residence. This three year grant from Canada Council for the Arts helped to forge major additions to Canadian musical literature by Dr. Lee, which have since been performed by orchestras such as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. A Music Therapy program was launched in 2004 in cooperation with the University of Windsor, and Windsor Regional Hospitals, and the same year the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra and Junior Strings were created. In January, 2005, Peter Wiebe was appointed Assistant Conductor-in-residence (the first such position in the WSO’s history) to lead the WSYO as well as community, outreach and subscription concerts of the WSO. On June 16, 2005 the 40 member Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra performed their first full concert, at the Walkerville Collegiate Institute. The following season Maestro Wiebe led the WSO’s first series of concerts for toddlers and parents called Peanut Butter n’ Jam.
In the spring of 2006, Maestro Russell conducted the WSO’s second commercial CD, including Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Brent Lees’ Last Minute Lulu; the CD was released in November 2006 to rave national reviews. The next year, March 17, 2007, over 256 musicians and singers performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, the largest musical event ever mounted by the WSO. In May, 2012, Maestro Russell became the WSO's first Conductor Laureate.
The Windsor Symphony Orchestra now reaches more listeners than in any time in its 60+ year history. The WSO’s commitment to excellence and consistent emphasis on education, and community outreach, have galvanized a new generation of music lovers in Windsor and Essex County and will continue to bring inspired music-making and notoriety to our region in the future.