Montreal

Half century later, a pioneering women's symphony back in the spotlight

The group disbanded decades ago and was largely forgotten for years. Now the fascinating story of the orchestra and its indefatigable founder is on display at Place des Arts in a video installation created by Montreal artist and filmmaker Kara Blake.

Installation at Place des Arts celebrates pioneer Ethel Stark and her patriarchy-defying female musicians

The installation, along a passageway within Place des Arts, uses 35 video screens as well as audio and LED light panels. (Submitted by Kara Blake)

In a well-travelled subterranean corridor at Place des Arts, the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra — a pioneering, patriarchy-defying phenomenon from another era — is getting its moment.

The group disbanded decades ago and was largely forgotten for years. Now the fascinating story of the orchestra and its indefatigable founder Ethel Stark is on display in Lasciare Suonare, a 35-screen video installation created by Montreal artist and filmmaker Kara Blake.

"I find this particular group of women really inspiring," Blake said. "They were inspiring in their resourcefulness — some of them had no formal training but learned to play instruments. And they're inspiring because of their resiliency, to do this at a time when there were many adversarial factors against them."

Kara Blake's other works include a multi-screen video project in the Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything exhibition. (Submitted by Kevin Finlayson)

The public was reintroduced to the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra (MWSO) in 2012 through It Wasn't Teatime, a radio documentary by the CBC's David Gutnick.

That documentary drew on research by a graduate student named Maria Noriega Rachwal, who later wrote a book about the orchestra called From Kitchen To Carnegie Hall.

Blake's co-producer, Joanne Robertson, came upon the book last year and knew this was a topic worth pursuing.

David Gutnick's documentary on Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra 26:07

Ethel Stark put the orchestra together in 1940, the same year Quebec women got the vote. The women played their first concert at the chalet atop Mount Royal six months after their first rehearsal.

In addition to defying the sexist notion that only men could play in orchestras, the MWSO crossed linguistic, racial and class divides. 

It featured women of colour, both anglophones and francophones, from Jewish, Protestant and Catholic backgrounds.

Stark, a Jew, made sure of that.

"There are speeches that Ethel Stark wrote where she says, 'I want this orchestra to be for women of all backgrounds and creeds,'" Blake said. "I think she had that in mind because she ran into prejudice throughout her musical career."

Ethel Stark, the founder of the Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra, conducting the CBC Symphony Orchestra. (jewishpubliclibrary.org)

Blake's portfolio features various multi-screen works, including one for the major 2017 Leonard Cohen exhibit at the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum, A Crack in Everything.

Making the orchestra's story work in a passageway on a large number of screens required some creative thinking.

"It's literally thinking outside the box," Blake said. "That space at Place des Arts is very specific because you also have to take into account that it's a very transient space. People just kind of walk through on their way to work."

Given that commuters and others will walk past at any time within the looping projection, Blake subdivided the five-and-a-half-minute project into sections that are meant to work well enough on their own.

"There's a pretty good chance that you're going to arrive maybe in the middle of the piece, not necessarily at the beginning," she said.

She also had to be careful about the audio she used, since orchestral music can be quite dramatic.

"I don't want to give anyone a heart attack on their way to work."

The five-and-a-half minute project features audio of some of the orchestra members and archival audio from the orchestra's performances. (John MacFarlane/CBC)

The MWSO played its last note in 1965, having made great strides, including becoming the first Canadian symphony orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York. Ultimately, the women had grown tired of never being paid professional wages.

Times had also changed by then, and other orchestras were finally allowing female musicians into their ranks.

The MWSO were trailblazers in the struggle for gender equality, and Montreal's premiere performance space for classical music seems a fitting locale for the video installation.

"When this story came my way, I thought: 'Oh, this could be the perfect venue for that subject,'" Blake said. "Hopefully it sparks your interest to stay to the end and maybe stick around and wait for it to play again from the beginning."

The Montreal Women's Symphony Orchestra rehearses on Jan. 9, 1942. (Second Story Press)

Lasciare Suonare plays on rotation with another project, L'opérateur, by Jean-Guillaume Bastien, in the Espace culturel Georges-Émile Lapalme, in the public corridor below Place des Arts, until Nov. 16.

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