Many of our patrons and musicians cite in-school orchestra performances as what first sparked their interest in music. If you’ve ever enjoyed an HPO educational event for young people, the person to thank is Betty Webster.
The HPO’s history can be traced back to 1884, but we were not officially inaugurated as the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra until 1949. It took few more years for the organization to find its footing and make a splash on the Canadian symphony scene, and Betty Webster was a very significant part of that splash. During her time as a volunteer, Women’s Committee President and eventual Executive Director of the organization, Webster developed the orchestra’s education program and launched the HPO into a new era. According to former Board of Directors President Marnie Paikin, Betty Webster was the “catalyst” behind the professional HPO.
Webster’s first involvement began in 1959 when she and husband Gordon moved to Hamilton. By 1965, she was president of the Women’s Committee, the group responsible for much of the orchestra’s fundraising and outreach efforts. In 1967, she was named the first Executive Director of the HPO.
Betty Webster was a smart and strategic thinker. She took advice from the Ontario Arts Council and executed a plan to build a core of professional musicians on full-time contracts. In order to keep a full roster of top-notch musicians working and grow the impact of the orchestra in Hamilton, Webster sold the orchestra’s services to the Hamilton Board of Education and Wentworth County Board of Education (now collectively known as the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board) for in-school performances. She also arranged for HPO musicians to teach masterclasses and perform at McMaster University, allowing the HPO to financially support core musicians while also expanding education and community outreach efforts.
The education outreach program began with a pilot of 14 performances in local schools during 1967-68. By 1972, the HPO was involved in 500 in-school performances reaching more than 12,000 students. World-renown brass quintet Canadian Brass first cut their teeth playing many of those performances for local students.
Music education remains a driving force of the HPO’s mission. We engage with the Hamilton Wentworth and Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Boards providing in-school performances and workshops as well as opportunities to visit the Concert Hall. In our 18-19 Season, we welcomed 1,600 students and educators to FirstOntario Concert Hall for a special daytime concert and reached more than 2000 young people and educators through programs in schools and libraries.
Getting the HPO out of the concert hall and into the community was also part of Webster’s mission. She understood the barriers some faced in seeing a Mainstage HPO performance at the concert hall and arranged many performances in churches, libraries, schools, museums, bars and even local factories. This effort continues at the HPO today. She was also a proponent of working with other local music organizations including the Bach-Elgar Choir, with whom the HPO still collaborates.
In 1975, Webster was appointed Executive Secretary of the Ontario Federation of Symphony Orchestras and Executive Director of the Association of Canadian Orchestras. Under Webster’s direction, the two organizations merged in 1997 to form Orchestras Canada, of which she was the Executive Director until 2001. Orchestras Canada has become a vital organization assisting Canadian orchestras in achieving what they cannot do on their own while also being a strong source of education and professional development.
In 1992 Webster was appointed to the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian orchestral administration. She is also the recipient of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
Orchestras Canada now honours those who have made significant contributions to Canadian orchestras with the Betty Webster Award, established in 2002. The award seeks to honour Webster’s work and life while recognizing leadership, education and volunteerism. The HPO’s own cellist Marsha Moffit received the award in 2011 in recognition for her leadership.
Betty Webster passed away in 2018 at the age of 93 at her home in Dundas. Her legacy as a driving force of Canadian orchestral music and administration lives on.