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Month: October 2020

John P.L. Roberts turns 90

John P.L. Roberts turns 90

John Roberts and composer Alan Bell (2009) Source: Flickr

The administrator, broadcasting executive, and cultural policy adviser John Peter Lee Roberts was born on October 21st, 1930 in Sydney, Australia. After studying music in Australia and London, he immigrated to Canada in 1955, becoming a music producer at CBC Winnipeg. Two years later he moved to CBC Toronto, rising over the years to a series of successively more senior and influential positions and inaugurating a wide variety of programs and policies that defined serious music at the CBC for over two decades. He invited major composers to CBC Toronto, including Igor Stravinsky, Michael Tippett, and Pierre Boulez. Roberts was also a firm proponent of Canadian music; during the period between 1965 and 1975, he was responsible for overseeing about 150 CBC commissions from Canadian composers. In his autobiography My Life on Earth and Elsewhere (2012), R. Murray Schafer noted “I was grateful to John for his faith in my work. He was certainly the most daring and dedicated music director the CBC ever had. John put much more money into commissioning composers than any director before or since him and he was open to experiments” (97–99).

After leaving the CBC, Roberts enjoyed a second career as a university administrator, becoming Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary in 1987 and serving in that capacity until 1995. During the 1995–96 academic year, he was the first Seagram Visiting Fellow in the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University. As an indefatigable organizer and animateur, Roberts was an active member of dozens of music, arts, and cultural policy boards, organizations, and committees. He served as President of the Canadian Music Council, the International Music Council, the Canadian Music Centre, Les Jeunesses musicales du Canada, and the Canadian Association of Fine Arts Deans, and as the Founding President of The Glenn Gould Foundation, where he established the Glenn Gould Prize (R. Murray Schafer was the first recipient of the prize; the most recent winner, announced earlier this month, is the Abenaki filmmaker and musician Alanis Obomsawin).


Among the many honours which Roberts has received are honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Victoria (1992) and the University of Manitoba (1997), and investiture as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1982 (promoted to Officer in 1996). Roberts donated his personal papers to the University of Calgary in 2014, where they form the John P.L. Roberts fonds. In celebration of this donation, a two-day symposium titled ‘John Roberts, the CBC and Music in Canada’ was held at the University of Calgary 1–2 October 2015. The symposium in turn led to the book John P.L. Roberts, the CBC/Radio Canada, and Art Music edited by Friedemann Sallis and Regina Landwehr, which is due to be published soon by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. The book includes chapters by the two editors, as well as by Robert Bailey, Josée Beaudet, Norma Beecroft, Brian Cherney, Ariane Couture, James Deaville with Keely Mimnagh, Robin Elliott, Kimberly Francis, Allan Morris, Paul Sanden, Jeremy Strachan, and Richard Sutherland, and also an interview with Roberts by Brian Garbet. It is a fitting tribute to Roberts on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Ezra Schabas (1924–2020)

Ezra Schabas (1924–2020)

Professor Emeritus Ezra Schabas of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music died in Toronto on October 12, 2020 at the age of 96. Schabas was born in New York City on April 24, 1924. Specializing in clarinet performance and music education, he completed an Artist’s Diploma (1943) and a BSc degree (1948) from the Juilliard School, and an MA (1949) at Columbia University. He served with the US Armed Forces during World War II and was stationed in Germany and in France, where he studied at the Conservatoire in Nancy and, after the war, at the Fontainebleau School for the Arts. After academic appointments in Massachusetts and Cleveland (1948–52) he became the Director of Concerts and Publicity at the Royal Conservatory of Music (then a constituent part of the University of Toronto) in 1952. He subsequently became a Special Lecturer at the Faculty of Music in 1960, an Associate Professor in 1961 and a Professor in 1968. He served for ten years as the chair of the Faculty of Music’s opera and performance departments (1968–78) and then was principal of the Royal Conservatory of Music (still part of the University of Toronto at the time) from 1978 to 1983. After two more years at the Faculty of Music he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1985.

Concurrent with his activities at the University of Toronto, Schabas enjoyed a busy career as a freelance clarinettist and a consultant and administrator. He played with the CBC Symphony Orchestra and was a founding member of the Toronto Woodwind Quintet (1956–60). Among his clarinet pupils were the jazz musician Brian Barley, Paul Grice and Howard Knopf (both members of the York Winds), Peter Smith (a founding member of the National Arts Centre Orchestra), the music librarian S. Timothy Maloney, and Patricia Wait-Weisenblum (a clarinet instructor at York University). Schabas was the music manager for the Stratford Festival (1958–61) and in 1960 he helped to found the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, for which he served variously as an instructor, auditioner, and administrator during its first five seasons. Two other projects which he founded were the Orchestral Training Program at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the Musical Performance and Communication program at the University of Toronto, both funded by the federal government. He served as the first president of the Association of Canadian Orchestras (1972–74) and the Association of Colleges and Conservatories of Music (1980–84). He was an active member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, serving as its President from 1996 to 1998.

Schabas’s most enduring legacy may be his work as a music researcher and writer. His first book was Theodore Thomas: America’s Conductor and Builder of Orchestras, 1835-1905 (University of Illinois Press, 1989), a detailed biography of the indefatigable German-born US orchestra builder. Five years later came Sir Ernest MacMillan: The Importance of Being Canadian (University of Toronto Press, 1994), the definitive study of the leading Canadian musician of the mid-twentieth century; Schabas won the City of Toronto Book Award in 1995 for this biography. For his next project, Schabas collaborated with the musicologist Carl Morey to write Opera Viva (Dundurn Press, 2000), the official history of the Canadian Opera Company, which is both a handsome coffee table book and a scholarly study of the leading opera company in Canada. Next came There’s Music in These Walls: A History of the Royal Conservatory of Music (Dundurn Press, 2005), for which Schabas conducted extensive archival research and interviews. While the book remains the definitive history of the Con, it is not the ‘official’ history of the institution, as Schabas was characteristically unwilling to surrender editorial independence for the project. For his last book, Schabas returned to biography for a study of the Czech-born opera singer and actor Jan Rubes (Dundurn Press, 2007) who was also, like Schabas, an enthusiastic tennis player.

Among his many honours, Schabas was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 1996 and was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 2001. He is survived by his wife Ann, a former Dean of the Faculty of Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto and the daughter of Barker Fairley, whose paintings of local musicians adorn room 130 in the Faculty of Music’s Edward Johnson Building (the Barker Fairley Room). He is also survived by five children, twelve grandchildren (including the soprano Sara Schabas, University of Toronto BMus, 2012; and Marguerite Schabas, Executive Assistant to the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company) and eleven great-grandchildren. His personal and professional papers are held by the University of Toronto Archives.