John Einarson
Winnipeg City of Song


As we celebrate Winnipeg’s 150th birthday, each month music historian and author John Einarson will share stories from our city’s rich and colourful music history. Enjoy.


Classical music has a long history in Winnipeg dating back to the 1880s with the organization of Western Canada’s first Philharmonic Society. Through the dedication and philanthropic efforts of several movers ‘n’ shakers in Winnipeg’s South End over many years, a number of early musical organizations took root. In 1947, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was incorporated, giving its debut concert in December 1948 at the Winnipeg Auditorium (now the Provincial Archives). The Auditorium remained the WSO’s base for the next 20 years until the opening of the Centennial Concert Hall in 1967. The Centennial Concert Hall remains the symphony’s home. The WSO has toured the world, winning accolades wherever it plays. World class resident conductors/music directors such as Victor Feldbrill, Kazuhiro Koizumi, Bramwell Tovey, and Andrey Boreyko have led the WSO. Through an active outreach program, the WSO has brought orchestral music to schools and remote communities throughout the province. In 1992, Bramwell Tovey and local musician Glenn Buhr initiated the popular annual New Music Festival. The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, with players drawn from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, was established in 1972.

One of the most celebrated musicians to emerge from Winnipeg’s nascent classical music community was violinist Donna Grescoe. Born in Winnipeg in 1927, she began playing violin at age five and by the time she was eight years old she was playing for vaudeville acts at Winnipeg’s Beacon Theatre. At age eleven, Donna won a prestigious scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. A year later she performed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Following her performance at New York’s Town Hall, the New York Times declared, “Not only is she already a mistress of her instrument, but she had a sure sense of style and her interpretations gave promise of still deeper insight into the future.” Donna played to a sold-out audience at the Winnipeg Auditorium in 1946 and made her first appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1948. In 1955 she made her North American television debut on Ed Sullivan’s Talk of The Town show. Donna went on to be featured with symphony orchestras across the continent before returning to Winnipeg where she became a much-loved violin teacher. She also helped found The Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts that continues to this day.

Zara Nelsova

Born Sara Katznelson in Winnipeg to Russian-Jewish parents in 1918, as Zara Nelsova she went on to become a renowned cellist after relocating to London, England. She studied under the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, regarded as the pre-eminent cellist of the twentieth century, and at age thirteen was a featured performer in concert with The London Symphony Orchestra. While serving as principal cellist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra she made her US debut at New York’s legendary Town Hall in 1942. Russian cello master Mstislav Rostropovich called Nelsova the greatest woman cellist in the history of the instrument. In 1966 she became the first North American cellist to play in the Soviet Union. She was a featured performer with orchestras across North America. Nelsova went on to teach at New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music.

Donna Grescoe.

Winnipeg born cellist Lorne Munroe served as principal cellist with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Leonard Bernstein where he was a featured soloist some 150 times in a 32-year career with the Philharmonic, making him the longest serving principal orchestral cellist ever. He also serving that role with the orchestras in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Minneapolis. He, too, went on to teach at Julliard as well as at the Philadelphia Musical Academy.