The MCO had its beginnings in the imagination of its founder, Benjamin Horch (1907-1992), music educator, conductor and radio producer. Horch was deeply devoted to the Mennonite faith community of which he was a product. One of his dreams was to have “an orchestra in every church” as a means to engage young people of the congregation. He also hoped for the formation of a Music School to co-exist with Mennonite Brethren Bible College, with the Mennonite orchestra being a major element in this venture. This orchestra would also provide accompaniment for various major choral works performed at the college.
Horch began leading orchestras drawn from the Mennonite community in 1927, when he led the Wayside Chapel Orchestra. He established an orchestra program at the Winkler High School in 1943 which produced stellar results. He conducted the Mennonite Symphony Orchestra, which combined players from Winkler and Winnipeg, from 1943-1950, often performing Handel’s Messiah or other joint choral and orchestral works. The Mennonite Symphony Orchestra Society” came into formal being in 1953.
The orchestra was went into a period of dormancy in the 1950’s.It was revived in 1978, with Ben Horch as president under the name and constitution of The Mennonite Community Orchestra. This revitalization of the orchestra resulted in new initiatives. Students graduating with a conducting major at both the Mennonite Brethren and Canadian Mennonite Bible Colleges in Winnipeg were given opportunity to conduct the orchestra in grad recitals. Other conductors included John C. Klassen, Glen Klassen and Christine Longhurst. Compositions and arrangements by Canadian composers including Esther Wiebe, Carol Ann Weaver and Bill Derksen were performed. A composition by Linda Schwartz-Trivett was commissioned and performed at the 1990 Mennonite World Conference, held in Winnipeg. A variety of accomplished soloists, both emerging and established, performed with the orchestra. Trips were made to perform in Winkler, Gretna, Steinbach and Brandon.
In 1985 the MCO board established the Emanuel Horch Scholarship Fund. Emmanuel Horch served for many years as concertmaster of the MCO, and taught hundreds of violin students in Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba. Each year aspiring string players were encouraged to compete for a scholarship to further their studies. The scholarship winner was expected to participate in the MCO for the next two concerts. In 2009, the balance of the EHSF was donated to the Winnipeg Foundation. The winners of the Emmanuel Horch String Competition continue receiving bursaries through the annual Winnipeg Music festival. In addition to providing scholarships, the orchestra for a number of years supported younger players by programming one piece each concert which was at a level accessible to them.
Mennonite Institutions of Higher Learning
In 1999 a movement emerged in the wider community to join the work of three Mennonite institutions of higher learning. These institutions, Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Concord College and Menno Simons College joined to become a College Federation (later Canadian Mennonite University). The MCO Board, working through Mark Bartel, Music Faculty member at Concord College and at the time the MCO Conductor, submitted a proposal to the new College Federation proposing an arms-length collaboration with the MCO. This proposal received a go-ahead on a trial basis.
Rehearsals were conducted wherever room was available on the newly formed CMU and most performances were held in the CMU Chapel. In 2010 the relationship with CMU was further defined, with the MCO becoming CMU’s Orchestra in residence. As part of this arrangement, the orchestra collaborated with CMU Choirs in present compositions such as Missa Pax by Timothy Corlis and This Thirsty Land by Leonard Enns. Since 2014, as another outgrowth of the relationship with CMU, finalists of CMU’s Verna Mae Janzen Music Competition have, upon recommendation of Music Faculty, been given an opportunity to perform with the orchestra. Collaborations with choral groups outside of the CMU community have included Southern Manitoba Choral Society, Westman Choral Society, Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church and the Winnipeg Philharmonic.
Activities outside of the concert stage have included a workshop of music by local composers and providing CMU student composers the opportunity to workshop their pieces. Members of the orchestra have taken part in providing music for a film and in accompanying Summerchor choir.
Regular and guest conductors of the MCO since 2000 have included Mark Bartel, Janet Brenneman, Henry Engbrecht, George Wiebe, Yuri Klaz, Rudy Schellenberg, Larry Strachan, Andrew Wahl and William Gordon. Soloists during this time period have included Cheryl Pauls, Shirley Elias, Colin Mehmel, Kristina Bauch and Karen Warner.
Over the years the demographic makeup of the MCO Orchestra and Board has expanded to welcome a diverse range of cultural and religious backgrounds. The roster of current and recent players, conductors and Board members goes well beyond the Mennonite community, and all are welcome to participate.
A comprehensive history of the Mennonite Community Orchestra up to 1993, entitled “Da Capo: Start Once from the Front”, has been written by Bertha Klassen. It includes numerous photographs of conductors and soloists, as well as lists of repertoire performed.