By DAVID EISENSTADT
ETHEL STARK (Aug. 25, 1910 – Feb. 16, 2012)
Montreal-born violinist and conductor Ethel Stark was way ahead of her time.
Among her many accomplishments, she founded and was the first conductor of the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra (MWSO) at age 27 in 1940, and held the baton until 1960.
She studied at the McGill Conservatory of Music under luminaries Alfred De Sève and Alfred Whitehead, and from 1928 to 1934, and at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with Louis Bailly (chamber music), Carl Flesch (violin), Lea Luboshutz (violin), Fritz Reiner and Arthur Rodzinski.
Stark guest conducted the Toronto Symphony “Pop” Concert in 1946. One year later, the Montreal Women’s Symphony signed a contract to play New York’s Carnegie Hall, to which she is reported to have said that the achievement was “not so much (a credit) to her and her musicians (but) the answer to every artist’s hopes and ambitions as an acknowledgement that at last, it is accepted that there’s room for women in music.”
Her credentials encompassed being founding director of New York Women’s Chamber Orchestra; the Ethel Stark Symphonietta; and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Strings. Over the years, she was a guest conductor with symphony orchestras in Canada, Israel and Japan. For many years, Stark was on the faculty of the Montreal Conservatory of Music.
CBC Radio One’s Sunday Edition produced a documentary about the MWSO after Stark’s death in 2012. Interviewees included Stark herself, musicians Pearl Aronoff, Rosemarin Lyse Vezina and Violet Grant States, the latter the first Black woman to play in a Canadian symphony orchestra and the first Black symphony musician to play Carnegie Hall.
As a violinist and conductor, Stark participated in more than 300 radio programs in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
A laureate of the Quebec Academy of Music, recipient of the Curtis Diploma, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, she became a member of the Order of Canada in 1979 and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec in 2003. Concordia University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Laws in 1980.
Born to Austrian parents, she is buried in Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Congregation cemetery. In 2016, Montreal’s Parc Claude-Jutra was renamed Parc Ethel-Stark, located at the corner of Prince-Arthur Ouest and Clark streets.
In an interview with Lou Seligson for the Canadian Jewish News, Stark spoke of her accomplishments and love for Canada. On conducting the first Canadian orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall, she said, “We had a great success. Now I can’t believe our nerve,” acknowledging the challenges she and other women faced in gaining access to the world of professional classical music. “I’m a thorough Montrealer,” Stark added. “I was born here. I came back and stayed here. I helped develop Canadian talent.”
David Eisenstadt is founding partner of tcgpr and a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and the University of Calgary.