There was a time at the end of the 1960s when man walked on the moon, and opportunities and possibilities seemed endless for young, talented and well-educated people.
Metro Kozak, a gifted musician, had just completed his doctorate in musical arts. He had spent the past decade studying with violin virtuosos at the University of Toronto, Yale, and the University of Michigan. He could have had a career in playing and teaching music in New York, Boston or Toronto.
But he came to Sudbury “for a year,” and never left. As a music teacher, and as the conductor of the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra and the Sudbury Youth Orchestra, Dr. Metro Kozak introduced thousands of people to classical music. Many of his students went on to establish successful careers as musicians and all developed an appreciation and a lifelong passion for great music.
“Metro Kozak shared with Sudburians his knowledge that music is a universal language that brings together people of many backgrounds, origins and cultures. His vision about the power of music and his enthusiasm contributed greatly to the transformation of Sudbury from a mining camp into a thriving community with a strong cultural life,” says Huguette Blanco. A parent of one of Kozak’s students, Blanco nominated him for the 2007 Community Builders Award of Excellence for Arts.
John and Françoise Arbuckle, the parents of another former student who is now a music teacher and performer in New York, wrote in their letter to support the nomination, “Metro conducted the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra for more than two decades. Without his perseverance and constant hard work, generations of students and the Sudbury audience would not have experienced the sheer enjoyment of music.”
“I grew up in a musical environment. There is a lot of music and dancing in a Ukrainian household,” remembers Kozak, who was raised on a farm in Richmond Hill.
His father bought him his first violin when he was 13. He was taken to Toronto to see music teacher, Irene Haydou, who had studied at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest.
She looked at his callused “farm boy” hands, and didn’t see much promise, Kozak says. But she took him anyway.
Haydou inspired the young teenager and taught him Old World discipline that would serve him well later in life.
“I had to show up each week with a new piece memorized,” Kozak says. He continued his music studies and competed with success at festivals in Toronto. It seemed natural that he would study music at the University of Toronto. In this third year, he won a scholarship for the summer program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where he found himself studying with teachers of vast experience and playing with some of the best young musicians in the world.
He later qualified for a scholarship at Yale to study for a master’s degree in performance.
Kozak met his wife, Mary Hrobelsky, when they played in the National Youth Orchestra together. A gifted violinist as well, this Ukrainian-Canadian girl from Sudbury also studied at the University of Toronto, and later at Yale.
After they married, while Kozak studied at Boston University, the couple performed freelance work, and later joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
By the late 1960s, the Kozaks were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Kozak was studying for his doctorate in musical arts at the University of Michigan, as well as teaching and performing.
In 1968, the couple were invited to give a concert in Mary’s hometown. Her former teacher, Emil First, encouraged them to apply to teach at Cambrian College, which was establishing a music program.
The Kozaks were concerned by the racial tension in Michigan. It was the right time for them to return to Canada.
Like many people who move north of Toronto, the Kozaks thought they would stay a year or two in Sudbury. But they found harmony here. They raised three children, all violinists, Myron, Larysa and Renata. They made friends and got involved in things. Now retired from teaching and conducting full-time, the Kozaks have no desire to live anywhere else.
In the early 1970s, Kozak was invited to take over the Sudbury Philharmonic Orchestra.
And in October 1975, the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra was born. There were 65 musicians, all amateurs, but professional in their sound, reported the Inco Triangle in 1975.
The SSO played under the baton of Dr. Metro Kozak until 1997.
In order to build a music community for SSO, Kozak formed the Sudbury Youth Orchestra (junior and senior), under the auspices of Cambrian College.
This labour of love was rewarding, but time consuming. Kozak spent countless hours in practices and rehearsals to prepare the young people for concerts and competitions.
It paid off. The Sudbury Youth Orchestra has won many awards, including first place in the inter-school string orchestra category at the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival in 1988.
In 1984, the SYO was one of seven to be invited to play at the Canadian Festival of Youth Orchestras in Banff.
In 1998 the SYO toured England. In 2004, SYO played at music festivals in Vienna and Prague, and in 2005, the young musicians performed at the Aberdeen Youth Festival in Scotland.
“For over 30 years, starting in the fall and going well into summer, when most of us were taking some time off, Metro was working with our future musicians, ensuring they received first-class coaching and wide exposure,” says Blanco.
Kozak has the heart of a musician, but farmer’s blood runs in his veins. He loves to spend time working in his small vegetable garden on Manitoulin Island. He no longer has to worry about calloused hands.
The man who has spent his life playing and listening to music rarely goes to concerts these days. He finds it hard to relax, and says a lifetime of listening has made him “too critical.”
Kozak conducted the North Bay Symphony until last spring when he passed the baton on to a former student, Tom Jones. He and Mary still give concerts and continue to give lessons. Most of his students have considerable experience already, but Kozak is looking forward to teaching a five-year-old in the fall.
“Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki, who developed the Suzuki Method of teaching children music, believed when you had access to great music, it influenced your life forever,” Kozak says.
Jeremy Bell, a former student, remembers, “Metro pushed me very hard, and I am forever thankful for that.”
Bell is currently artist in residence at Wilfred Laurier School where he teaches violin and chamber music.
He says, “Kozak is one of Canada’s important pedagogues of the violin...How lucky for Sudbury to have this guy who studied at Yale as a tremendous resource.”