The CSO: Orchestra of our Nation's Capital

Founded in 1950, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra has grown from amateur beginnings to its current position as the largest professional performing arts organisation in Canberra and the surrounding region. Unique among professional orchestras in Australia, the CSO is led by an Australian Chief Conductor & Artistic Director, Dr Nicholas Milton.

Milton joined the orchestra in 2007, and under his inspirational guidance, the artistic and commercial success enjoyed by the Orchestra and patrons has been nothing short of phenomenal. The season of flagship Llewellyn Series concerts is regularly attended by 2,600 patrons per program, while the ACTEW Grand Gala and the Canberra Weekly Matinee Magic concerts are consistently sold-out events. With 5,000 people attending the annual Shell Prom Concert and 15,000 enjoying Symphony in the Park, the CSO is embedded as a favourite among Canberrans of all ages across the entire community.

Inspiring the music in us all, the CSO’s education program, Noteworthy, has engaged over 45,000 school children in the ACT since its inception in 2007. These free, age-specific concerts are made possible through the award-winning partnership between the CSO and the Macquarie Group Foundation, and the ACT Department of Education & Training.

The CSO is also committed to taking the joy of music out of the concert hall and in to our city. Noteworthy travels to schools for students with disabilities and CSO musicians bring live music therapy to the Painting with Parkinsons group. A unique partnership with Cochlear Australia delivers special ensemble performances to people with hearing impairment. The CSO NewActon Ensembles are eclectic, experimental performances held throughout the year in the dynamic NewActon precinct.

The CSO maintains strong relationships within government, corporate and diplomatic sectors in the ACT with partnerships extending through leaders of industry such as Shell Australia, ActewAGL and ACTEW Water, BAE Systems Australia, the Molonglo Group and Capgemini, to name a few.

From the early days rehearsing in the anteroom at Albert Hall to a 2013 concert featuring 400 performers on the Llewellyn Hall stage for Carmina Burana, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra has grown with, been inspired by and matured with this city we are proud to call home.

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.

Modern Times

Dr Nicholas Milton took up the baton as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director in 2007 and his passion, vision and expertise has inspired players and audiences alike. Also in 2007 the CSO received Commonwealth Government funding for the first time which has allowed for additional rehearsals and larger orchestras on stage.

Described as an “interesting and unique orchestral model” by the Australia Council for the Arts, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra is integral to the cultural fabric of the nation’s capital, delivering exceptional artistic outcomes to our community.