Newcomers to Canada leave their home countries for a variety of reasons. Some may be fleeing violent conflicts. Some may have faced persecution. Some may be seeking better economic opportunities. Regardless of the reason, Orchestra Toronto aims to ease the burdens and fears that come with entering a new country, even for just one night.
Orchestra Toronto introduced the Welcome Seats program in 2017, an initiative offering people new to the country a chance to experience a classical performance for free as a gesture of peace and an overall welcome to Canada.
Originally known as Bennington Heights Community Orchestra, the organization was founded in 1954 and became Orchestra Toronto in 1998. Since then, it has been serving the GTA as one of Canada’s oldest and largest volunteer orchestras.
Shows are typically held a couple of months apart, filling the George Weston Recital Hall at the Meridian Arts Centre with the captivatingly colliding sounds of string, woodwind, brass and percussion instruments. Last season, the ensemble consisted of nearly 100 musicians of various ages and cultures, ranging from amateurs to professionals.
Regular ticket prices are typically around $50, but through connecting with local agencies and organizations such as the 519, GTA Refugee Assistance Hub and the Syrian Canadian Foundation, co-ordinators from Orchestra Toronto are able to offer complimentary tickets to newcomers, a way of promoting inclusivity and embracing them as part of the community.
The program flourished in the most recent 2022-23 season after being sponsored by RBC, serving more than 300 newcomers from all over the world, including countries like Ukraine, Syria and Egypt.
“We have had many patrons come to us and say that it had been the very first time they had experienced an orchestral performance,” said Julianna Cole, Orchestra Toronto’s executive director.
“I firmly believe that we can make this program even bigger. I believe music has the power to unite and inspire, no matter where you come from.”
Double bass virtuoso Melissa Cavelti has played the string instrument for more than 35 years and is entering her fourth season with Orchestra Toronto. She understands first-hand the struggle refugees face through her grandparents, who migrated from Ukraine, and appreciates the Welcome Seats program.
“To see people coming to Canada and getting to enjoy a concert without having to worry about all of the things you have to worry about in terms of resettling, but just to have a normal, fun, enjoyable afternoon with their families for free, it really warms my heart,” she said.
“Orchestra Toronto can’t fix the world … but we can give them an escape for a day, which is what music gives me.”
Deya Shebli, who immigrated to Canada less than three years ago, attended a performance through the program about six months ago.
“It was very surprising for me because it was my first time. I enjoyed the music. It was a new experience for me,” he said.
Shebli had no previous exposure to classical music but, after having such a positive experience, he would love to go again and bring along his wife and children this time.
Community outreach initiatives are not uncommon for Orchestra Toronto. The organization often donates tickets to children’s charities, offers mentorships for emerging young talent and gives out bursaries to musicians who require financial assistance.
Executive director Cole, who is also musically trained and has been singing since the age of three, recalls leading an after-school opera workshop in partnership with the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, where students received complimentary tickets to an orchestral performance when they finished.
Orchestra Toronto’s first concert of the 2023-24 season, “Strength Through Our Ancestors,” is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 28. Cole emphasized the importance of preparing for the return of the Welcome Seats program months ahead.
“I understand that it may seem far away, but I personally want to start connecting with these newcomers now: building a relationship, a sense of belonging, and a feeling of comfort and peace beforehand, and then the music will follow,” Cole said.
Contact Julianna Cole at email@example.com if you are interested in attending a concert.
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