The first Hart House Orchestra (= HHO) was a professional chamber orchestra, founded in July 1954 by Boyd Neel - then dean of the RCMT - along the lines of his famous English group, the Boyd Neel Orchestra. The 18 strings and 4 woodwinds of the new group were reduced ca 1957 to 13 strings, with supplementary players for specific works. In turn, John Dembeck, Albert Pratz, Andrew Benac, Clifford Evens, and David Zafer served as concertmasters. The repertoire ranged the 17th, 18th, and 20th centuries and included commissioned works from Maurice Blackburn (Suite for Strings, 1960), Keith Bissell (Three Pieces, 1961), Harry Freedman (Fantasy and Allegro, 1962), and Morris Surdin (Concerto for Accordion and Strings, 1966, premiered by Joseph Macerollo); premieres also included Norman Symonds' Pastel Blue in 1963.
The HHO gave its first concert at Tillsonburg, Ontario, October 14, 1954, its CBC radio debut on October 17, and its Toronto debut at Eaton Auditorium on November 25. Concert series followed at Hart House, and individual programs were presented in other Toronto halls and in various Ontario centres. In 1955 the HHO played an important role in the Stratford Festival's first large-scale music program, staying in residence for a month to give the premieres of Willan's A Song of Welcome with Lois Marshall as soloist and Morawetz' Divertimento for Strings, to perform orchestral programs which included the six Brandenburg Concertos (BWV 1046-1051) of J.S. Bach and Godfrey Ridout's Two Études, and to accompany the Festival Singers and several solo artists including Glenn Gould and Isaac Stern. In 1958 the HHO represented the country at the Brussels World's Fair, where it appeared with Glenn Gould and Marguerite Lavergne; its program offered works by Ridout and Morawetz. On a tour of Canada in 1960 the orchestra gave 32 concerts, mostly in smaller centres. In 1966 it toured in England, Belgium, and Scandinavia, making its London debut on June 7 at the Commonwealth Institute and appearing at the invitation of Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. At Expo 67 the orchestra gave daily concerts of Canadian music for a week, documented in part on the LP RCI 238. On Boyd Neel's retirement from the University of Toronto in 1971 the HHO ceased to give public concerts, although it was not officially disbanded.
The New Hart House Chamber Orchestra, also professional but not a successor to Boyd Neel's group, was founded in 1973 by William (Bill) Phillips; it was soon renamed the New Chamber Orchestra and continued to perform until 1987.
The "New Hart House Orchestra" (an amateur group for members of the U of T community) was established in 1976 under the direction of William Phillips and the auspices of the Hart House Music Committee; the Music Committee was initially responsible for the fledgling group. The word "New" was included to distinguish it from the former Hart House Orchestra, the professional group led by Boyd Neel. After two rocky but determined seasons, the Orchestra had grown to the point where it could function on its own as a group within Hart House, and a separate Orchestra Committee was formed in the fall of 1978. In November 1983, it was agreed that sufficient time had passed since the era of Boyd Neel's orchestra to permit the word "New" to be dropped. The group has been known as the Hart House Orchestra ever since.
Since its rebirth in 1976, the Hart House Orchestra has provided an opportunity for those members of the U of T community with musical training to come together for the joy of making music.