In January, 1940, with little cash and plenty of cheek, violinist and conductor Ethel Stark took a group of 40 female musicians, most of them amateur, and built a symphony.
In a year that gave Quebec women the right to vote, Stark, who throughout her career would smash through gender ceilings, felt that female classical musicians needed to be given the right to become professionals. She was determined that these women would have an orchestra of their own.
Stark would not let herself be swayed by those who thought a female orchestra was a non-starter and, with violinist and arts patron Madge Bowen, went ahead and launched the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra.
The MWSO, which remained active for more than two decades despite chronic financial difficulties, achieved high praise from some of the era's top music critics. In 1947, it became the first Canadian orchestra to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Stark died in Montreal on Feb. 16 at the age of 101, likely from undiagnosed leukemia.
From the beginning, she found many who not only believed in a women's orchestra but showed lots of goodwill to get it on its feet. Local music store Archambault donated its old trade-ins and many Montrealers dug out their unused instruments, while one store offered them a bargain on chairs.
Rehearsal space was hard to come by, with players first practising in a church, then a drafty loft, a dank basement, an empty storefront and, finally, a railway lunchroom. (Bowen was married to a CPR executive.)
One of the trickier tasks involved filling the whole complement of roles required for an orchestra. Several women had to switch to very different instruments from those on which they had been trained. This was, after all, an era where one would be hard-pressed to find a lady who played the tuba, trombone or even clarinet. So, one orchestra member who could play organ was set up on tympani, while one of the many pianists quickly became acquainted with the French horn.
This was also an era where, save for the odd harpist, mainstream orchestras did not hire women. "It didn't matter how good a woman was, she didn't have a chance," Stark told K. Linda Kivi in an interview for the 1992 book Canadian Women Making Music.
It was routine to hear of talented women being turned down because they were not seen as a family breadwinner or thought to be unable to handle a rigorous travel schedule. While it would take years to change attitudes, Stark felt that playing in the MWSO would at least give these women orchestral discipline and better position them for a coveted spot in a professional symphony.
With Stark they got discipline in spades. She held rehearsals five days a week. She also gave lessons to individuals on technique, including phrasing, breathing, fingering and bowing. She worked everyone hard.
"She was a very fine musician who allowed no sloppiness to go unchallenged. If she heard wrongdoings, she could roar like a lion," said violinist Mary Machin, in a 1995 Montreal Gazette article.
In July, 1940, seven months after that first gathering of the 40 women, the MWSO made its concert debut at the chalet atop Montreal's Mount Royal. An astounding 7,000 people showed up for the event, with 2,000 of them needing to be turned away.
The MWSO would become a mainstay on the Montreal classical-music calendar. Stark's cousin Max Haupt remembers as a boy being dragged by his parents to one of the annual concerts it held in Montreal's Plateau Hall. Stark, who never married, kept in close contact with her extended family and offered firm requests to attend concerts. Young Max would ask Stark if there would be some drumming. "Yes, lots of percussion," was her standard lie to him.
Not having children weighed on Stark, says her cousin. "She truly loved her life, but that was her one regret."
Ethel Stark was born on Aug. 26, 1910, according to provincial civil records. Several sources, with her apparent knowledge, wrongly claimed she was born in 1916. She grew up in Montreal, the youngest of three children to Adolph and Laura (née Haupt). Her mother was a homemaker and her father, who worked as an insurance agent, was involved in community service, having served as president of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society.
Ethel showed early interest in the violin, an instrument her father played. She would go on to win a music scholarship to McGill University and then study for six years at Philadelphia's acclaimed Curtis Institute of Music. She was the first Canadian to win a scholarship to the school, where she studied violin, chamber music and conducting.
In 1934, she became the first Canadian woman to play in a coast-to-coast U.S. radio broadcast after one of her conducting teachers, Fritz Reiner, chose her as a soloist.
The opportunity came as a surprise to her after what she thought had been a terrible audition. "I played the Tchaikovsky concerto and, after 10 minutes, he said, 'Enough!'" she recounted in Montreal's Suburban newspaper. Reiner complimented her on her violin, said nothing else and she walked away angry. A few days later she found out she would be the concert soloist.
After graduating from Curtis, she went on a six-month concert tour and returned to Montreal to play radio and stage engagements, including being featured soloist with both the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
It was through those engagements that Bowen learned of Stark and then approached her to lead a woman's string ensemble she was organizing.
Stark opted for a full symphony and, over the years, tackled challenging works like Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht and contemporary music, each year adding players. In 1946, despite continuous financial difficulties, the MWSO had performed 36 concerts, including dates in Toronto, Kingston and London.
An impresario invited a New York colleague to an MWSO concert in Montreal. The man came as a favour and expected to leave after the first number. But he stayed for the entire show and approached Stark backstage with an offer to discuss the women playing Carnegie Hall.
"I'm too tired for jokes right now," she told him. He insisted he was serious and over dinner the next night at Montreal's Ritz Carlton, the deal was sealed.
The prestigious invitation finally wrested some money from the provincial government. The orchestra received $1,500, the only government money it would ever see. The October, 1947, concert garnered positive reviews from several New York critics, including the New Yorker's Robert Simon, who said Stark directed with "knowing musicianship and crisp and animated authority."
Invitations followed from Japan, the Soviet Union and Europe, but all had to be declined due to a lack of funding.
"We were a lot more successful in attracting musical attention than financial backing," she wrote in the Montreal Star in 1979. The orchestra disbanded in 1960 due to a lack of funds.
While the MWSO may have had difficulty getting its members overseas, Stark's personal career flourished internationally in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, as she conducted major orchestras in Switzerland, England, France, Austria, Italy, Miami, Quebec City and Tokyo. She also had a fulfilling musical relationship for many years with famed composer Ernest Bloch until his death in 1959.
Stark would become the first woman to guest-conduct the TSO, the first woman to teach at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and the first to bring a Canadian musical group, a choir, to Israel in 1952. In 1979, she was named to the Order of Canada.
In the end, many of the MWSO musicians did go on to play with major symphonies, fulfilling Stark's hope that women would take their rightful place in the classical musical world.