If you’re wondering what the difference is between an orchestra, symphony and philharmonic, you’re not alone. While an “orchestra” is described as a group of instrumentalists playing classical music together, “symphony” and “philharmonic” are essentially synonymous, but they come from different Greek words. Symphony means “sounding together, harmony of sound,” while philharmonic means “music-loving” or “love of harmony,” and it’s typically used for groups of instrumentalists who are committed to music-making and have a love of music. So, the meaning behind the name speaks volumes for the Ontario Philharmonic (OP) based in Oshawa, Ont. — this is a group of highly talented folks who are not only aficionados of good music, but they also excel at their craft.  
       The OP has a long history in Ontario and, of course, in Durham Region. It dates to 1957 and it was created to fill a void in local arts. “As with all symphonies, community members see a need and a few players assemble to form a group. In our case, the organization was an ensemble of community players and was incorporated with its letter patent 17 years after it was founded, in 1974,” says Laura Vaillancourt, OP’s executive director. The group has seen an impressive line of principal conductors, but it was in 1996 when one of the country’s most renowned conductors — a maestro who was known around the world — stepped into the role of music director. Marco Parisotto took the reins and, in the nearly 30 years since he joined the OP, his vision, grit and expectation for excellence have helped propel his musicians, while his unique programming is likely the catalyst for the organization’s surge in popularity. “Maestro Parisotto is the winner of eight international conducting competitions. Among these, he’s the only conductor to have been awarded both the Grand Prize and Public Prize at the famed Besançon International Conductor’s Competition in France in 1997,” says Vaillancourt, who first met Parisotto in 2004. (She started volunteering with the organization soon after.) “Aside from his innate artistic sense and internationally recognized conducting abilities, Maestro Parisotto’s leadership qualities and strengths come from his commitment to the community, to his inspiring interpretation of the world’s greatest music and his relentless dedication to nurturing the community’s most talented youth as orchestral players and solo performers. He believes every member in society deserves access to symphonic music,” she says. “He strives to give performance opportunities to young living composers — the Mozarts and Beethovens of tomorrow.”
       To say there have been a slew of developments over the years — including in 2008 when the philharmonic partnered with Ontario Tech University and made the Regent Theatre their home, plus they changed their name from Oshawa Symphony to Ontario Philharmonic to accurately represent its growth and service to the entire province that same year — is an absolute understatement. The OP — with programs dedicated to Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods — is crucial to the province’s classical music scene, and it’s one of the leading performing arts groups in the area. It’s made up of 75 diverse, gifted instrumentalists who perform at the Regent Theatre and Koerner Hall (the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning) in Toronto, as well as other venues across the Greater Toronto Area. The 66th concert season (2022-2023) was a revelation, as OP musicians performed brilliant masterpieces by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Chopin, Bach, Debussy, Bruch, Mahler and Beethoven with precision and flair. “Many of these works would normally be heard only at concerts featuring ‘big city’ orchestras, yet our audience has a chance to hear them right here in Durham Region with our world-class professional orchestra,” Vaillancourt says. “We also performed ‘In Memoriam’ composed by Sam Bisson, a young and very talented local composer who also happens to be part of the cello section and is OP’s personnel manager.” 

“Most of our individual donations come from our audience members, so buying four subscriptions and introducing friends and family to the OP is vital to our growth and ability to serve and perform in our communities.”

       The next concert season promises to be just as enthralling and entertaining for those who love great music. The 2023-2024 season starts with what Vaillancourt refers to as “one of the world’s most beloved works” — Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” which she says will be performed with Astor Piazzolla, also known as the king of tango. (This first concert in October will be held at the Armenian Cultural Centre at Hallcrown Place in Toronto’s north end.) “Our November concert features a young Armenian piano sensation named Eva Gevorgyan, who will be performing the ever-so captivating Rachmaninoff, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate. Plus, the great tradition of Handel’s Messiah is returning as an annual favourite, this year with guest solo singers from one of the country’s best vocal ensembles, the Amadeus Choir,” she says. For the holidays, Canadian rock group Lighthouse will take the stage with the orchestra, performing their hits along with a selection of carols. Then, next March, Parisotto has extended an invitation to Maestro Eckart Preu to conduct Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony,” and the work of Maria-Eduarda Mendes — a young Canadian composer — will be featured. 

       Those who are interested in supporting the OP can do so by volunteering their time or purchasing subscriptions — one for you, your guest and two more of your nearest and dearest — which Vaillancourt says really contributes to the community development of the group. “Most of our individual donations come from our audience members, so buying four subscriptions and introducing friends and family to the OP is vital to our growth and ability to serve and perform in our communities,” she says. You can buy tickets and learn more at ontariophil.ca. 


       We all know the Grammys — they’re internationally recognized as the most prestigious music awards in the music industry. They celebrate a whack of artists who have achieved huge milestones, like Canadian singer and songwriter The Weeknd, whose hit “Blinding Lights” is the most streamed song on Spotify (he’s won four Grammys). Or musicians who’ve accomplished outstanding record sales, like Post Malone, who, surprisingly to this journalist (Fleetwood Mac fan, here), has been nominated for 10 Grammys and has broken the record for the Recording Industry Association of America’s diamond-certified albums (he’s had eight). 
        And we’re certainly no strangers to the JUNO Awards, a weeklong do that culminates with an awards show presented by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Anne Murray, a national icon, holds the record for most JUNOs ever won — she has 22 statuettes on her mantel, or somewhere in her possession. 
        These two award shows are cool, but if you’re a diehard fan of local musicians who put their heart and soul into their passion — and also hope to make a name for themselves in the process — let us introduce you to the OMAs. These are the accolades celebrating music in Durham Region — they’re all about “recognizing the influence and achievements in local music creators, businesses and music supporters who help grow the music scene within Durham Region, Canada and globally.” 

“We help to shine the spotlight on them and hope that the world sees what we — music lovers of the Region — do, and more.”

         The team behind the OMAs is small but mighty. Supported by an advisory committee, volunteers, community partners and sponsors (including Spark Centre), the core group is led by three co-directors and co-founders — Thao Nghiem, Julius Allan Rondilla and Tony Sutherland. “The OMAs began as Oshawa Music Awards — it was a component of my class project for Oshawa Music Week in the Music Business program at Durham College. The idea for an awards show was swimming around in my mind for many years because of my experience pioneering the Canadian Urban Music Awards in Toronto, and my longstanding affiliation with the JUNO Awards,” Sutherland explains. “In 2018, Thao, who was one of my students, saw the vision and committed her time and creativity to make the idea a reality.”

       Since then, the OMAs have continued to grow. It was the first Canadian awards show to pivot online in the pandemic, and last year, their fifth anniversary was celebrated in person. This year’s edition is scheduled to be held on Sunday, September 24, at Oshawa’s Regent Theatre, and the nominations for the 11 award categories were announced earlier this summer. (Nominees and recipients must either be born or reside in Durham Region.) You’ll find some typical music awards on the docket — think “Song of the Year” and “Music Video of the Year,” but what’s so unique about the OMAs are categories like “Music Teacher of the Year” and “Music Industry Leader of the Year.” It’s all about inclusivity, says Sutherland. “Music teachers are important to the inspiration and nurturance of great musicians. And industry leaders help to broaden and reinforce the music-industry foundation. Both categories are fundamental and address the stability and growth of the industry’s infrastructure.” 
       Past award recipients include the likes of creators Sky Wallace, Crown Lands and Delon Om, as well as leaders Artemis Chartier (an educator and song-writing-industry builder) and Hill Kourkoutis (a music producer). “They are a small representation of the talent that exists in Durham Region,” he says. “We help to shine the spotlight on them and invite the world sees what we — music lovers of the Region — do, and more.”


        Sandra Weeks sits on the executive board of the Durham Chamber Orchestra (she’s the president and treasurer of the organization), but what’s perhaps even more intriguing is she’s the orchestra’s principal flutist. And when I tell her I have fond memories of playing the flute throughout high school, and that my youngest daughter has also picked up the instrument and is starting her second year with it in music class — she tells me she’s “delighted” to know the flute played a vital part in my middle- and high-school years, but she’s “even more delighted” my daughter has followed in my footsteps. “I had the same experience,” she says. “My daughter played flute from Grade 6 to early high school. There is extensive research to show how important music is to the development of the brain, as well as the development of all other soft skills that come from the learning experience and discipline of practicing. These are life skills that stay with young people through their lives.” 
        She knows what she’s talking about — Weeks calls herself a product of a London, Ont., high school that emphasized music, including instrumental, strings and voice. She was encouraged to take private piano and flute lessons and continued her studies at Western University, where she majored in music and flute. She ultimately decided to pursue psychology, economics and business, which opened doors in human resources. “Life took over during those career days, but not completely. I eventually picked up the flute again when my kids were taking music lessons in Port Perry. The skills I learned through my musical training helped in my career, and now that I’m approaching retirement, it has a place in my future.” So, for the last five years, Weeks has been taking private lessons with Nora Shulman, who recently retired from an incredibly successful career as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s principal flutist.

Our goal at the DCO is to bring high-quality classical music to a local audience in their own communities and to reach out to current and new audiences — in particular, young people and those who have never experienced a live orchestral concert.”

       These lessons not only bring Weeks back to her early years when she learned to master the instrument, but it also keeps her on her game — she’s been with the Durham Chamber Orchestra (DCO) now for around ten years. She shares the values and commitment of all orchestra members who believe community orchestras like the DCO foster a vibrant community spirit and the ultimate team experience. Like the other musicians, she enjoys being one of the “musical voices” within a cohesive team environment. “Durham Region is large, diverse and complex. Our goal at the DCO is to bring high-quality classical music to a local audience in their own communities and to reach out to current and new audiences — in particular, young people and those who have never experienced a live orchestral concert.” 

       The DCO has an interesting backstory — it was founded in 1996 by dedicated musicians who wanted to create an engaging community-based platform where they could make and share music. “It was an informal community orchestra for the Region and had humble beginnings that saw a small group of skilled instrumentalists gathering to rehearse and perform in local venues,” says Weeks. Those early years were busy, but the team was determined. “Led by a succession of passionate conductors and music directors, the ensemble navigated challenges and celebrated triumphs, steadily gaining recognition for their performances and artistic endeavours. In 2016, the DCO — a fully volunteer organization — was finally incorporated as a not-for-profit, and it then achieved charity status a few years after.”
       Today, under music director Felipe Luzuriaga, an accomplished violinist and professional conductor who joined the DCO earlier this year, and Carlos Bastidas, the music director emeritus (and music director of the Ontario Pops Orchestra out of Toronto), the orchestra is flourishing. The musicians cover a wide range of ages and musical backgrounds, from advanced high school players to retired performers, and the majority have careers outside of music (though some are music teachers). The instrumentalists rehearse in Whitby on Wednesday evenings and concerts are typically in Ajax and Port Perry. They’re always on the lookout for new players. 
       By all accounts, the 2022-2023 season was a hit, but due to the pandemic, the group returned as a strings-only orchestra for the first few months of 2022, then started performing in its entirety last fall. In May 2023, the DCO put on a concert featuring David Baik, a violin soloist who’s been touted by the CBC as a “hot Canadian musician under 30.” For the 2023-2024 concert season, Weeks and her fellow instrumentalists are looking forward to their holiday concerts. “There will be great Christmas music with the full orchestra to get everyone in the mood for the festive season,” she says.

DCO musicians Ray Warner and Leise Warner

        When it comes down to it, the DCO is all about showcasing local talent and strengthening community ties. “Community orchestras stand as vibrant examples of the power of music to foster unity, creativity and personal growth. These ensembles play a pivotal role in enriching the lives of both participants and audiences alike. From building social connections to nurturing artistic expression, the benefits of a community orchestra are far-reaching and enduring,” says Weeks. “Our musicians are committed to excellence, which, to us, means creating a great musical environment for each musician and each person attending our concerts. We want to bring the gift of music to a wide and diverse audience within Durham Region.” For more info, visit durhamchamberorchestra.com

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