After a decade of discussion, 35 prominent Scottish Presbyterian business, political, educational, and religious leaders from across the Maritimes met on August 11, 1886 to establish an Institute of Learning for Young Ladies in which music instruction would play a central role. Within seven months the Nova Scotia Legislature passed an act establishing the Halifax Ladies College, the unusual speed reflecting the economic and political clout of the founding group. Under the energetic leadership of President Rev. Robert Laing, the Uniacke-Duffus mansion with its extensive grounds in South End Halifax was purchased, teachers and staff were hired, a detailed curriculum established, and students were enrolled.
Adopting a model that had been successful at Mount Allison, the new school would be composed of two sister institutions, the Halifax Conservatory of Music and the Halifax Ladies’ College. On the opening day, September 15, 1887, twenty-five students attended; by the end of December, enrollment had swelled to 239. A major construction programme in the second year created new classrooms and residence space, as well as a 350-seat concert auditorium in which a Casavant Frères pipe organ would be installed in 1914. In recent decades, Conservatory enrollment has often exceeded 1,000.
The Conservatory’s first Director Charles H. Porter was an American who had studied at the Royal Conservatory of Leipzig. This was the beginning of a connection with German conservatories that for several decades would provide a succession of Directors, faculty members, and advanced training for Conservatory graduates. In 1900, ten graduates of the Halifax Conservatory were studying in Germany, most of them in Leipzig.
Throughout the Maritimes, the Conservatory quickly established a reputation for excellence. Only two years after it was founded, an agreement was reached whereby Dalhousie would grant music degrees and licentiate diplomas for study at the Conservatory. This arrangement was to last until 1962, when the university began to develop its own music programme. Despite the loss of this important partnership, the Conservatory—where Sheila Piercey, Portia White, and John Arab had all studied—has continued to attract such talented students as Denise Djokic, Sarah McLachlan, and Ingrid Matthiessen.
With student numbers declining during the Great Depression of the 1930s, meeting the costs of maintaining the Barrington Street campus proved impossible. In December 1939 the Board sold the property to the Salvation Army. Alternate accommodation was scarce during wartime Halifax, and the Conservatory and Ladies’ College were forced to separate physically although not initially administratively. For the next sixty years, the Conservatory moved periodically in a perennial search for adequate accommodation. A solution was finally found in 1996, when the former Chebucto School became available. The Conservatory acquired ownership of the historically and architecturally significant building on May 1, 2000.
With the arrival in 1947 of Latvian ballet stars Irene Apine and Jury Gotshalks, a new chapter began at the Conservatory. Although a few years later they were invited by Cecilia Franca to join the fledgling National Ballet of Canada as Lead Dancers, the dance instruction the Gotshalks introduced had become a key component of the Conservatory’s curriculum. In 1993, with the encouragement of Dance Nova Scotia, a Teacher Training Programme was established at the Conservatory to improve the quality of dance instruction in the province. In recognition of the broadened curriculum, in 1998 the Conservatory‘s name was changed to the Maritime Conservatory of the Performing Arts.
The last twenty-five years has been a period of both growth and challenge. Under the decade-long leadership of Director Ifan Williams, significant progress was made on restoring the Conservatory’s home on Chebucto Road, the highlight of which was the refurbishment of the Lilian Piercey Concert Hall, widely considered to have among the best acoustics of any concert venue in the city. With the recent decision of the Board of Governors to remain in the Chebucto Street property permanently, plans are underway to mount a major financial campaign to ensure that our much-admired historic building will be restored and refitted to meet the needs of a major performing arts educational institution in the 21st century.