Over more than a century and a half there have been several Ottawa choirs known as the Ottawa Choral Society or Choral Union. The first Ottawa Choral Society was formed in November 1860 by music teacher Louis Fecht. A second choir of the same name, established in 1865 by Herbert G. R. Fripp, was active for at least two seasons. An Ottawa Choral Union existed in 1874-5 with Frederick W. Mills as its conductor. A third Ottawa Choral Society was conducted by Edward Fisher from 1875 to 1879; he later moved to Toronto where he founded the Toronto (now Royal) Conservatory of Music. A fourth Ottawa Choral society, conducted by J. Edgar Birch, was active from 1897 to 1914.
The present organization was formed in November 1940 as the Ottawa Choral Union; the name was changed to Ottawa Choral Society in 1957. Its founding director (1940-1953) was W. Allister Crandall, a federal government biologist, and organist of First United Church. The inaugural concert, to benefit war charities, was given in January 1941. During his tenure Mr. Crandall directed the choir in repertoire that included major choral works by Bach, Haydn, and Mendelssohn, and annual Messiah performances.
Following Mr. Crandall were conductors Myron McTavish (1953-1954), Joseph B. Herdman (1954-1955) and Dr. Frederick Karam (1955-1966). Dr. Karam also served as organist-choirmaster at St. Elijah Syrian Orthodox Church, conducted the Ottawa CBC Orchestra, and taught composition and voice at the University of Ottawa. In 1955 the choir gave the world premiere of Dr. Karam's Lazarus - a narrative cantata. Music Director for the 1966-1967 season was Robert van Dine.
The longest-serving Music Director to date was Brian Law (1967-1991), organist and choirmaster at St. Matthew's Church and music director of the Cantata Singers; he later became music director of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra (OSO) and founding conductor of the chamber group Thirteen Strings. Under his leadership the OCS season expanded to four concerts, usually large symphonic works co-produced with the National Arts Centre Orchestra or the OSO. Memorable concerts during his tenure were Britten's War Requiem (1977 and 1985) and the Berlioz Requiem, presented at the fiftieth anniversary concert in 1991. The choir toured Italy (1982) and Spain (1989) with Mr. Law. He resigned in November 1991 to take up conducting duties in New Zealand.
Mr. Law's successor was Iwan Edwards (1992-1997; 2001-2005), McGill professor and Montreal Symphony Orchestra Chorus Master. In recognition of his choral conducting skills, Mr. Edwards was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995. Major undertakings during this period were Bach's Mass in B Minor and The Christmas Oratorio, and a tour of Germany and the Czech Republic (1996), with performances in Karlovy Vary, Prague and Munich. His interpretation of Handel's Saul at the NAC in March 2004 will be remembered as a milestone in the choir's history.
Taking the OCS into the new millennium was Dr. Daniel Gordon (1998-2001) of the Crane College of Music in Potsdam, New York. Dr. Gordon led the choir on a tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland in October 2000. BBC Northern Ireland produced a documentary which was televised across Britain, featuring the choir's collaboration with the Belfast Philharmonic Choir and the Ulster Orchestra in Michael Tippett's masterpiece A Child of our Time.
After Iwan Edwards' second term with the OCS, he was succeeded by Matthew Larkin, the accomplished organist and choirmaster of Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa. Highlights of Mr. Larkin's tenure (2005-2012) were the choir's 2008 tour of Italy, where the OCS performed for enthusiastic audiences in major churches in Venice, Florence and Rome, and the 2010 performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
The 100-voice Ottawa Choral Society continued to flourish under the inspiring leadership of Jordan de Souza, who was Artistic Director from 2012 to 2015. His other musical activities included the post of Conductor at Montréal's Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, assistant conducting at the Canadian Opera Company, and frequent appearances as a keyboard performer.
Kevin Reeves, founding conductor of the Seventeen Voyces chamber choir, served as OCS Associate Music Director from 2010 to 2015.
The choir celebrated its 75th Anniversary season, 2015-2016, with the return of Iwan Edwards, Matthew Larkin and Kevin Reeves as guest conductors, and a gala performance of Mendelssohn's Elijah, conducted by Duain Wolfe. With the appointment of McGill professor Dr. Jean-Sébastien Vallée as Artistic Director in September 2016, the choir began an exciting new chapter of choral music performances in the National Capital Region.