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The TSO at Massey: Hail & Farewell

February 22, 2023

Some people associate the saying “Build it and they will come” with God’s reply to Noah asking how he was to round up the animals for the ark; others with the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams. It applies equally well to concert halls. Shaftesbury Hall, the 1,700-seat auditorium in Toronto’s first YMCA, built in 1872 at Queen and James Streets, was a case in point, inspiring a performance of Handel’s Messiah in 1873, and of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and St. Paul within the next few years. 

Choirs for these grand oratorios were relatively easy to assemble. Orchestras were a different matter—drawn from “a core of regimental, theatre, and band musicians, augmented by amateur and professional musicians borrowed from neighbouring communities,” as Richard Warren, long-time Toronto Symphony Orchestra archivist described it in Begins with the Oboe, his marvellous 2002 book on the origins and history of the TSO. 

The musical results of this kind of ad hoc orchestral assembly were less than satisfactory, but they resulted in repeated efforts, over the ensuing 50 years, to bring a full-time professional orchestra to the city. “Toronto Permanent Orchestra” was in fact the proud name for one of these early attempts, in 1900. (Its first performance was its last.) 

By then, Shaftesbury Hall had been eclipsed by the 1894 opening of Massey Hall, with a capacity more than double Shaftesbury’s 1,700. The opening performance (Handel’s Messiah, naturally) included a 500-member chorus, the immediate precursor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, accompanied by a 70-member “Grand Festival Orchestra” under Frederick Torrington’s direction. 

The closest thing to a successful attempt at orchestral permanency in these early years came in 1906, with the formation of the Toronto Conservatory Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Frank Welsman. “Conservatory” was dropped from the name after two years and December 8, 1908, saw the start of what would be eight seasons by an orchestra bearing the Toronto Symphony Orchestra name, drawing as guest artists such luminaries as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, and Edward Elgar. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 was the beginning of the end for Welsman’s TSO, with the orchestra’s directors deciding that the war effort took fiscal precedence. Welsman soldiered on alone for another four years before giving up the struggle. But the city’s musicians had tasted the heady wine of professional-calibre performance, and the desire remained.

Some time ago the idea came to me that I would like to write a farewell tribute to the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street before the TSO moved out of Massey Hall. What I finally wrote was about my own personal feelings about a place where I have spent a good deal of my life.

- Johnny Cowell, trumpet, (quoted in Begins with the Oboe)

Enter Luigi von Kunits 

Vienna-born-and-raised Luigi von Kunits (1870–1931) was, by Warren’s account, something of a musical prodigy, at age 11 playing second violin in a Brahms string quartet at the composer’s request, and, by the age of 21, having his violin concerto performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. He made his way to North America, with an Austrian orchestra, for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and stayed. By 1911, he had 13 years as concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony under his belt, and had been offered the conductorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He chose instead to come to Toronto in 1912 to become head violin teacher at the Canadian Academy of Music, founded the previous year by Albert Gooderham (grandson of the founder of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery), with the stated purpose of keeping gifted students in Toronto and bringing outstanding teachers from Europe. 

By the spring of 1922, a group of Toronto musicians, some of whom had been members of Welsman’s TSO, was ready to try again, and began meeting. Von Kunits was their first choice to conduct, and he readily agreed, with rehearsals beginning in the fall, initially in the von Kunits home, then in the rough and ready basement at Massey Hall, which (Ping-Pong table and card room included) was to become the Orchestra’s home base for the next six decades. 

Rehearsals were invariably held in the morning so as not to interfere with musicians’ bread-and-butter theatre jobs, with concerts to be held at 5:00pm and to last no longer than one hour, for the same reason. They would also only be held “whenever it is announced that the Orchestra has a program sufficiently rehearsed.” The first concert of the New Symphony Orchestra was on April 23, 1923, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 as the culmination of the program, as it is again tonight. 

On June 4, 1982, as the Orchestra bade farewell to Massey Hall, all the works performed on that first concert were reprised, along with a “Farewell Tribute to the Grand Old Lady of Shuter Street” by composer Johnny Cowell, a member of the Orchestra’s trumpet section. And, fittingly enough, going all the way back to Shaftesbury Hall, the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah

Compiled and edited by David Perlman


TSO Principal Timpani David Kent and Violin Leslie Dawn Knowles are two of the nine current members of the TSO who were already members of the Orchestra for the final season at Massey. This past Sunday (February 12), they shared memories of Massey and thoughts on the return with Kathleen Kajioka, host of Sunday Night at The TSO on The New Classical FM.

Listen in as they reminisce about the sights, sounds, quirks, and foibles of the old Massey Hall, and what going back there means to them.