Remembering Els Kavanagh

Trudy Schroeder
Random Notes

Some people make a difference in our lives by the many kindnesses they show to the people around them. Somehow you find yourself smiling every time you think of them. Very fortunately at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, I have had the great pleasure of encountering a good number of people of great character and generosity. 

Els Kavanagh was a great friend to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. She had a genuine love for music, and her enthusiasm was infectious. She attended concerts with her husband, Kevin, and she would just beam with joy after hearing symphonic works that moved her. She expressed her appreciation to the musicians, and she made a special point of getting to know musicians and supporting and encouraging them in many ways. I have attached a photo of Els with the WSO’s principal flute player Jan Kochman taken in Kenora in 2013.

Els Kavanagh with WSO principle flautist Jan Kochman. She was a thoughtful lady.

Over the years, she sent me personalized cards, letters, and e-mails of encouragement. One day when she called, I confessed that I was having a very hard day, and I listed a whole series of things that had just tipped in the wrong direction that day. She provided some helpful ideas, and the next day she dropped in to the office with a small candle stand just to make her encouragement tangible. I was not the only WSO recipient of her thoughtfulness. 

At a recent staff meeting, a number of WSO personnel mentioned ways that Els had made them feel special through small acts of kindness. For some people it was just that she would learn the names of people and she would remember their names and address them personally each time she encountered them. 

Our Associate Conductor, Julian Pellicano, had a lovely story to tell about his early days in Canada. The New York City born young conductor had just arrived in Winnipeg with his family, and one of his first concerts with the WSO was to conduct a children’s concert that featured The Hockey Sweater which was written and narrated by Roch Carrier. As it happened, Els and Kevin Kavanagh were in the audience that day with their grandchildren. Els and Kevin made a special point of finding Julian after the concert and welcoming him to Canada and to the WSO. Julian mentioned that he was brand new to Canada, and he was just learning about Canadians’ great love of hockey. Several weeks later Julian received a letter in the mail from Els thanking him again for the great performance and welcoming him to Canada. She also included a Canadian five dollar bill. She explained that the Canadian five dollar bill (and this is the previous version of the bill which was used until 2012) had a real connection to the Hockey Sweater. She pointed out that the reverse side of the bill depicts children sledding, ice skating, and playing hockey. There is also a quotation from Roch Carrier’s story “The Hockey Sweater”, which says, “The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places – the school, the church and the skating rink – but our real life was on the skating rink.” A little girl in the image wears a hockey sweater with the number 9 on it to honour Canadian hockey legend Maurice Richard who was idolized in Carrier’s story. 

What a beautiful way to welcome Julian to Canada. Els knew the challenges of arriving in Winnipeg from another homeland and she knew how to make new comers feel welcome. She came to Canada with her family when she was a young girl. She and her family were seeking refuge from war ravaged Netherlands. She quickly perfected her English and worked hard to help her family make the adjustment to a new homeland. But, she also always kept her love for her first country. She was delighted to hear that our Music Director, Daniel Raiskin, made his home in Amsterdam.

 Several years ago the WSO started to plan a concert tour to the Netherlands to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian troops during the Second World War. I asked Els if she would consider serving on the tour planning committee. She readily agreed, and was able to assist that project in a number of significant ways. When we started the process of asking people to adopt a musician to make this project a reality, Els and Kevin were the first to sign up to adopt a musician. Several weeks later Els phoned to say that they had decided to support another musician as well. Because of the Covid-19 epidemic we were not able to go to Netherland in May of 2020, but we have been busy re-scheduling that trip to May of 2022, and I know that Els was looking forward to seeing that project finally come to fruition.

Of late, Els was a great fan of the WSO’s streaming concerts. She would send little notes with comments on most of the concerts expressing her appreciation for all the efforts the WSO had made to continue providing beautiful and inspiring concerts for audience members despite all of the challenges of these times. 

What do we learn from memorable people like Els Kavanagh? I learned much about the importance of taking time with people and making the effort to show people appreciation and support in small and repeated ways. She was an inspiration and example to many of us of the impact that one thoughtful and kind person can make on the lives of the people around her.

Trudy Schroeder is the Executive Director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.