Culture  Breaking the silence of immigration

Musicians of the World Symphony Orchestra helps performers to regain their careers in a new country

Odds are, your doorman has a secret. So does the next pizza delivery guy to come to your doorstep, the taxi cab driver who takes you home after a weekend rendez-vous, and the owner of the next depanneur or Couche-Tard you will visit. These people weren’t always doormen or delivery people. In actual fact, many are talented professors, brilliant doctors, or – in some cases – nationally recognized musicians of renowned symphony orchestras, who have given up their careers in their home countries to relocate to Canada.

A great number of performers who have sacrificed their lives in music can be found throughout Montreal, struggling to make ends meet while facing systemic racism as immigrants. As Allison Cross of the Montreal Gazette recently wrote, “Religious and ethnic minorities in Canada feel discriminated against, neglected, and alienated…. [Although Canada is] open to minorities and well-intentioned in its federal and provincial policies, [it] often falls short in its efforts to ensure minorities have equal access to housing, education, justice, and political participation.”

The classical musicians of Montreal, however, may have found a means to revitalize their musical careers with the Musicians of the World Symphony Orchestra (MWSO). The MWSO is a musical ensemble mainly consisting of immigrant musicians, culling the rest from the established Montreal music scene. Founded by conductor Joseph Milo and his wife Lucy Ravinsky in late 2005, the MWSO has opened a gateway for these performers to return to the musical origins they left behind in their home countries. It started when Milo – himself an Israeli immigrant – walked through the front door of his apartment building. There, he struck up a conversation with his doorman, only to discover that he had once been a cellist for a major Russian symphony orchestra. This occurred again with Milo’s pizza deliveryman, who left behind his career as a violinist in a reputable Romanian orchestra to come to Canada. Since then, the MWSO has grown to an ensemble of over 50 musicians, given over 20 concert performances in the last four years, and earned much praise in various cities throughout Quebec, including Montreal.

Upon entrance to Canada, the MWSO’s members were faced with numerous obstacles, and many had to adapt to a life without music. Very often, their reason for emigrating was tied to their families, and their need to maintain immediate familial support left them with little choice but to take low-income jobs. For a city known for its fine arts and culture, Montreal holds few opportunities for classical musicians to find professional work, containing only one major symphony orchestra. Milo partially attributes the relative lack of symphony orchestras to its costliness, calling the symphonic orchestra “the most expensive instrument in the world.” Running a full ensemble requires that musicians be paid per performance, on top of other basic needs, such as rehearsal space and concert hall rentals. He also attributes this lack of interest to the underdevelopment of school music programs.

Venus Fu, the MWSO’s concertmaster, immigrated to Montreal nearly 10 years ago, and has been a part of the symphony orchestra for three. Her first three years in Montreal, however, were spent as a full-time mother. “It’s so hard to face the quiet. There’s nothing to do and suddenly you have absolutely no music, no career…. Your life is like a clock but with no batteries.”

MWSO’s biggest hurdle remains in finding reliable sources of funding. When asked how the symphony orchestra manages to get by, Milo chuckled and said “with great difficulty” – a reference to the lack of government support. The MWSO depends on grants that are provided at all three levels of the government, many of which do not come through. The MWSO has previously received grants from the Canada Council of the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec but as Milo points out, the MWSO is just one applicant out of many. Moreover, when funding is granted for symphony orchestras, major ensembles tend to be favoured. Fu adds that it is unfortunate how more money is put toward sports, such as hockey, rather than toward the arts and culture. Especially for groups such as the MWSO – whose international members depend on the symphony orchestra as their connection back to the musical world – such grants are particularly crucial.

The MWSO has thus turned to corporate sponsors, including Hydro-Québec, for alternative sources of support. Yet even corporate sponsorship has been difficult, due to companies’ unwillingness to commit. And with the recent economic recession, financial support has further diminished. Ticket sales, contrary to belief, are very small sources of money, says Milo. The MWSO, affectionately called “The People’s Orchestra,” aims to bring music to everyone, without financial discrimination. In adherence to this aim, ticket sales for formal concerts are kept relatively low.

This year, the MWSO has only been able to hold two concerts, which is significantly low in comparison to the 18 performances they played in their first two years. Both Milo and Fu expressed disappointment with this but add that they are not discouraged, as they have overcome larger hardships.

Their twenty-first concert was recently held on the evening of October 19, at the Salle Pierre Mercure of the Centre Pierre Péladeau. Aptly themed as “East Meets West,” Milo and his symphony orchestra collaborated with several of Montreal’s ethnic music groups – such as Ragleela (a sitar-led quartet) and Samajam (an African percussion group) – in addition to a solo piece by Fu, combining Eastern music with traditional Western classical pieces.

Following these collaborative performances was an impressive interpretation of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” (commonly known as Dvořák’s New World Symphony). Milo attributes the MWSO’s appeal to its choice of program, incorporating themed concerts, which aim to appeal to a wider scope of audiences. Previous concert themes have included “From Bach to Broadway” and “Disney’s Fantasia.”

Milo hopes that one day, the MWSO will be able to tour the countries from which their musicians originate. “If you don’t dream, it’s never going to happen.” But in the meantime, Milo is pacing the symphony orchestra’s progress. His goal for the next several years is to cement the MWSO’s presence as a major Montreal symphony orchestra, and to develop its audience. Milo hopes to eventually bring performances to neighbourhoods, schools, parks, and community centres for those who are unable to attend the regular concerts. “We really feel very strongly that…part of our mission is to bring the music to everyone wherever we can. If they can’t come to the concert hall because it’s more expensive at a concert hall, travelling, et cetera. we try to bring them music to their communities as much as we can. I mean, technically, it’s more difficult, but everything’s possible.” With such dreams in mind, audiences can expect much more from the MWSO.

The Musicians of the World Symphony Orchestra’s next concert will be on December 12, at the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Church (5375 Notre-Dame-de-Grâce).