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The Special Relationship between the Rozsas and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

by Lisa Mackay

The Rozsa Foundation and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra have enjoyed a special relationship that goes back well before the foundation was established 30 years ago. Ted and Lola Rozsa arrived in Calgary in 1949 and almost immediately became involved with the CPO. In 1955, just as the CPO was becoming a paid, professional orchestra under Maestro Henry Plukker, Lola joined the newly created Women’s League of the Philharmonic and was actively involved in all of their fundraising efforts, including the famous Benny the Bookworm sale. Shortly thereafter, Maestro Plukker and the orchestra moved out of the Grand Theatre and into the brand-new Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, and Ted was approached to make his first substantial donation, of $1000, towards the orchestra’s growth. 

During the 60’s, Ted served on the CPO’s Board of Directors and Lola served as President of the Women’s League, which was instrumental in creating education programs that served, at the time, every junior high school student in Calgary, most of whom had never heard an orchestra. In her memoir My Name is Lola, she recalls seeing these students later returning as parents with their children to introduce them to classical music, and describes what a meaningful moment this was for her.

While Ted was not a musician, he became an expert student of classical music, building himself a state-of-the-art stereo system in his home and listening for hours to various recordings of the pieces performed by the CPO. The musicians came to quite respect his ear and appreciation for music, and one year he was asked to select some pieces for the Orchestra’s upcoming season, an unusual request of a donor!

As the Orchestra moved into the 1980’s, they had performed under several conductors, all of whom had helped raise the level of professionalism of the musicians. When it became known that Mario Bernardi was stepping down from the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the CPO knew that he could give them even more national and international credibility. Four of the Directors of the Board at the time approached Ted and proposed he underwrite Bernardi’s salary and endow the Maestro’s Chair to ensure its sustainability. Ted later joked to Lola to “beware when four lawyers offer to take you to lunch. You’ll be outnumbered and there are enough of them to pin down all four limbs until you give in.” Ted agreed to their proposal and wrote a very generous cheque. Bob McPhee, who later became the chairman and general executive of the Calgary Opera, worked in fundraising for the CPO at the time. “I had never seen a cheque for a million dollars!” said McPhee, in a 2014 Herald interview recalling that moment. “And back in the ’80s, it was a hell of a lot of money — nowadays it would be like a 15- or 20-million-dollar gift.” (Calgary Herald, Oct 23, 2015) Bernardi became Music Director in 1984, and stayed until 1992, overseeing their move into the Jack Singer Concert Hall, their current home. Always thinking into the future, Ted gave an additional seven-figure donation a year later to ensure the endowment fund would prosper.

Paul Dornian, current President and CEO of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, agrees that the Rozsas and the Rozsa Foundation “made some very strategic contributions to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Foundation that have been critical to the long-term health and artistic excellence of the organization.” The impact of that early gift from the Rozsas continues to be felt to this day. “The long-term musical health and growth of an orchestra is perhaps most influenced by the musical leadership from the podium,” explains Dornian. “The endowment in support of the Music Director has made an enormous artistic difference for over more than 40 years.” 

Since that time, the various ways in which the Rozsa Foundation-CPO relationship has continued is felt by musicians and staff alike. “Members of the team, at all levels of the organization, have completed the arts leadership programs offered by the Rozsa Foundation — expanding their industry knowledge and helping to nurture and develop their career in the arts,” says Dornian. “The various types of support we receive from the Rozsa Foundation helps us maintain operations and do some very cool projects, but everyone here is personally touched when the Rozsa Foundation sponsors a special season-ending celebration for the musicians and staff. We have all come to associate the successful end of a great season with the Rozsa family and Foundation. On a more specific note, the outstanding online educational series – An Orchestra Adventure with Maestro Karl and friends – was a highlight of the COVID period, when we have not been able to present the orchestra live. These four shows would not have been possible without the generous and strategic support of the Rozsa Foundation.”

Coinciding with the Rozsa Foundation’s 30th anniversary, and the CPO’s 65th season, a new endowment of the Associate Music Director Chair from the Rozsa Foundation creates a fitting addendum and continuation of this special relationship. “Multi-generational relationships between cultural institutions and particular families are not unheard of, although I'm not aware of a similar relationship at any other orchestra in Canada,” says Paul Dornian. “The Rozsa Foundation’s new commitment to supporting the Associate Music Director position will multiply that positive effect going forward – allowing Calgary audiences to experience the best orchestra under the artistic leadership of brilliant conductors.”

The Rozsa’s were never disappointed with their investment in the Philharmonic. As Lola wrote, “Ted was delighted that he could help bring this kind of talent to Calgary, and, in return, the CPO gave him countless hours of superb music.” In the end, this special relationship between the Rozsas and the CPO was a catalyst for the Rozsa family’s deep involvement in the arts in Calgary, continued today by the Rozsa Foundation.

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