Sandy Hill’s Rob MacDonald: great support for Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings

Photo Benoit Bélisle

Ben Bélisle

A simple call from his brother marked the beginning of Robert MacDonald’s second career in music and he is still at it 20 years later. His brother, who was on the Board of Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra, asked for legal advice. Rob, as he’s known to his friends, provided the advice and proceeded to join the Board.

Today Rob has been president for the last ten years. When I asked him why, he replied that he’s always loved the arts, especially music. Rob is one of Canada’s top trademark lawyers and a partner at Gowlings WLG. He finds dealing with musicians very interesting and a refreshing change from his day-to-day life.

Rob was once a musician himself, having taken up the French horn as a young boy in September 1967. He played through high school and university and even played in a band three nights a week while articling. It was only when he married and started a family that he stopped playing. Music continued to be part of his life so that when the opportunity presented itself, Thirteen Strings seemed to be a good fit.

During his time as a director and then as president, Rob has seen the orchestra evolve and adapt from its core of classical, mostly Baroque music to twenty-first century music commissioned from over one hundred Canadian composers.

Thirteen Strings gets its support from a relatively small circle of private and corporate donors,  and the diplomatic corps is highly supportive. However, ticket sales are paramount, and the challenge is getting new audience members, especially younger ones. One solution is to find guest performers who would appeal to younger audiences. This proved successful when Mark Fewer, a Montreal violinist who plays a six-string electric violin, accompanied Thirteen Strings in a concert that ranged from Vivaldi to Miles Davis.

Rob is proud of his time with Thirteen Strings and of the organization’s many youth initiatives. There is the Youth Program which sends a promising young musician to Vienna, Austria to study; the orchestra’s support of Orkidstra, which exposes youth to musical instruments through a lending program; and, Junior Thirteen Strings, a mentoring program for young musicians that gives them the chance to play with the orchestra during concerts and to receive coaching from the principal players of the orchestra and from conductor Kevin Mallon.

I asked Rob what he sees five years from now. He replied that he would not be the president. He stressed that Thirteen Strings has a very good Board of Directors and that they all work very hard to ensure the success of the orchestra. They would like to see a rebranding and rejuvenate the website to attract the attention of young audiences and they will continue to build on the core group, focusing on the strength of the thirteen extremely talented principal players.

The orchestra will perform its next concert on May 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers United Church. See: