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CSO History

The CSO Story

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra is the professional orchestra of the nation’s capital, and is the largest performing arts organisation in the ACT.

Founded in 1950, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) has grown from amateur beginnings to its current position among Australia’s most successful orchestras. The CSO’s Chief Conductor & Artistic Director is Dr Nicholas Milton AM, who joined the orchestra in 2007.

Since then, with the support of Artistic Patron ActewAGL, Milton’s inspirational guidance and understanding of the Canberra audience has created many glorious and memorable moments on stage. Annual highlights include:

  • The ActewAGL Llewellyn Series concerts, with regular attendees of up to 2,600 patrons per program
  • The CSO Opera Gala and the Canberra Weekly Classic Afternoon concerts
  • The Shell Prom Picnic Concert, which is held every year on the lawns of Government House and has 5000 people enjoy Canberra’s biggest and most splendid family picnic
  • Symphony in the Park, which draws 15,000 people to Canberra’s Stage 88 to celebrate Canberra Day
  • CSO’s Education programs which engages thousands of ACT school children with symphonic music
  • CSO Community and Regional Engagement, which shares the joy of music with aged care residents, and people with special needs
  • CSO HeartStrings, which is an opportunity for CSO donors to give invitations to those living with disadvantage in our community to performances by the CSO for free.

The Early Days

Officially formed on 13 March 1950 and registered as the “Canberra Orchestral Society” (COS), the orchestra has grown from a small grass-roots organisation to the first-class, fully professional orchestra of today. Rehearsals were originally held in the ante-room of Albert Hall under the baton of conductor Pieter Kruithof, a Dutch migrant with organ and choral background who was being employed as a cleaner. Concerts were held in school halls and the Childers Street Hall of the ANU.

Wilfred Holland from England, with his strong conducting and performance background, led the orchestra for much of the 60’s. He also guided the Canberra Choral Society and the two organisations held joint performances of many early choral masterpieces.

In 1965 Ernest Llewellyn, former concertmaster of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra arrived in Canberra to take up the position of Director of the newly formed Canberra School of Music. He was also invited to the role of conductor of the Canberra Symphony. Llewellyn’s tremendous reputation made it possible for him to recruit top professional players to teach at the School and to join the orchestra. In no time the CSO was flourishing with sold out performances at the newly-opened Canberra Theatre.

Ernest Llewellyn continued to strengthen and extend the orchestra until his retirement in 1980, at which time the new School of Music auditorium was officially named Llewellyn Hall in his honour.

The CSO was lucky to secure Leonard Dommett as the new Conductor and Musical Director in 1982. As the former Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Dommett brought an impressive network of national and international artists to the CSO stage. Throughout the 80’s the orchestra continued to expand and artistic achievement was continually evolving.

Dommett retired in 1991 and the ensuing decade brought further change to the orchestra, including the implementation of fully professional status in 1994. Large opera gala concerts featured celebrity conductors such as Richard Bonynge and Isaiah Jackson.

When Richard Gill joined the CSO as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director in 2001, the organisation was going through difficult times. He brought much needed consistency and stability to the orchestra—and within a couple of years after his arrival, the CSO was back on a solid financial footing.