The OSM was founded in 1934 as the Concerts symphoniques de Montréal (several Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal's were founded and failed in the late 19th to early 20th centuries). The CSM came to be through the financial support of Athanase David, the Secretary of the Province of Quebec. The orchestra's first music director was Wilfrid Pelletier, who began the CSM's community outreach with youth matinee concerts and the Festival de Montréal, which offered free concerts to the public until 1964. Désiré Defauw became the music director in 1940, and she began to draw in international soloists to perform with the orchestra. Defauw departed the CSM in 1952, and in 1953, the orchestra was renamed Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. In 1957, Igor Markevitch became the music director, bringing with him an advancement of contemporary music and beginning the yearly commissioning of new works from Canadian composers. During Markevitch's tenure, the OSM became a fully professional orchestra.
Zubin Mehta was named the music director in 1961, and it was during his tenure that the orchestra became an international success. Mehta led the OSM on the first-ever European tour by a Canadian orchestra in 1962. In 1963, the orchestra opened a new residence, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, in the Place des Arts. In this venue, the OSM performed its first opera production, Puccini's Tosca. Franz-Paul Decker succeeded Mehta in 1967 and continued the orchestra's touring activities, taking the OSM to Japan in 1970. Under Decker, the OSM began a series of pop concerts to reach a broader audience in Montreal. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos served as the music director from 1975-1976, taking the orchestra to New York for its first performance at Carnegie Hall. Frühbeck de Burgos' tenure ended following public disagreements, for which he apologized in 2002.
With Frühbeck de Burgos' departure, the OSM performed under guest conductors. One of these, Charles Dutoit, was named the new music director in 1977, beginning a nearly 25-year partnership. Shortly after the appointment of Dutoit, the OSM signed with the Decca label. The orchestra's first recording with Decca, Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé, was an international success. Dutoit would lead the OSM on tours throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Under Dutoit, the orchestra won two Grammy Awards, for Berlioz's Les Troyens in 1996 and, with Martha Argerich in 2000, for an album of Prokofiev and Bartòk piano concertos. In 2002, Dutoit stepped down following animosity with the musicians of the OSM; he returned for the first time as a guest conductor in 2016. Jacques Lacombe served as principal guest conductor from 2002-2006, leading the OSM in the interim period between the announcement of new music director Kent Nagano in 2003 and the beginning of his tenure in 2006. Under Nagano, the OSM resumed its international tours, opened the Maison Symphonique, and launched a webcast series. Nagano remained with the OSM until the close of the 2019-2020 season.
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal has recorded mainly on Decca and London, but also for EMI and Analekta, among others. The orchestra, conducted by Nagano, won the Diapason d'Or for its 2016 Decca release of Honegger & Ibert's opera L'Aiglon. The OSM issued two albums, both under Nagano, in 2019: an Analekta release of Chopin concertos with Charles Richard-Hamelin and The John Adams Album, on Decca. ~ Keith Finke, Rovi
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