Ethel Stark is first woman to conduct at Carnegie Hall
October 22, 1947
"If you said, 'Would you go up into outer space?' I would say, 'When are you taking off?'"
That statement exemplifies the enterprising spirit of Ethel Stark. An accomplished violinist, she was the first Canadian woman to perform as a soloist in a program broadcast on American radio stations in 1934. She played on the Molitor Stradivarius, a 1697 violin made at the beginning of famous violin maker Stradivarius’ “golden period.”’ (The instrument later became the most expensive violin in the world, commanding an auction price of $3.6 million in 2010.)
In 1940, the musical pioneer undertook the project that was to become her legacy: she founded the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra. On October 22, 1947, the night she became the first woman to conduct an orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the MWSO became the first Canadian orchestra to play the legendary venue.
Because most women musicians had confined themselves to the piano or stringed instruments, Stark had to retrain her musicians to play new instruments.
"I made flute players, I made trombones, trumpets, horns, tubas. This is like building the Empire State Building, maybe more than that," she recalled in an interview with the Montreal Gazette in 2010. "Like building a big building. You're an architect."
In an interview with the Canadian Jewish News, Stark remembered, “We had a great success. Now I can’t believe our nerve,” she said, acknowledging the challenges that she and other women faced in the world of professional classical music.
Among the many barriers she broke, Stark accepted clarinetist Violet Grant States into the MWSO in 1943, making her the first black member of a major Canadian orchestra.
Stark conducted the MWSO until the late 1960s. She became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1980. She died at the age of 101 on February 26, 2012. As she recalled in 2010, "I built a few things. I built a great symphony orchestra."
Sources: “Ethel Stark and the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra – The First Canadian Orchestra at Carnegie Hall” and “Ethel Stark,” Jewish Public Library Archives; “Pioneer Likes a Challenge,” Montreal Gazette.