Alexander Shelley’s ideas of North celebrate the cultures and connections of Canada and Finland

Akexander Shelley is about to lead NACO into his third fall festival.

Canada turns 150. Finland turns 100. Nothing like a couple of round numbers to focus the mind.

The two anniversaries certainly did just that for Alexander Shelley and the musical team inside the National Arts Centre. And they started thinking big and in the direction of North.

It helps that Shelley is a fan of Jean Sibelius, considered the greatest Finn of the country’s first 100 years and a composer of global significance.

“I had out together a festival that I did with the Royal Philharmonic in London, England in 2016-17 which put the symphonies of Sibelius alongside the symphonies of (the Russian composer) Prokofiev.”

This festival marked another anniversary, the 100th of Russian Revolution that toppled the Czars and liberated Finland.

“These two composers had lived through all this upheaval.”

When Shelley assumed his post in Ottawa, he carried on the idea of an annual fall festival of music from Pinchas Zukerman and made the concept his own.

Shelley has established a pattern: One year with feature a theme and the following year would delve into a specific chunk of musical repertoire. So we have seen a festival on the Roaring 20s followed by one examining the symphonies of Schumann. It’s back to a theme this season.

“We were meeting and talking about Canada 150 and about the relationship with Finland that already exists for NACO through (principal guest conductor) John Storgårds and (regular guest conductor) Hannu Lintu.

“So the Finnish element was definitely on the radar. I also really love Sibelius’s symphonies and I wanted at some point to dig deeper into his music.”

This conversation evolved into a broader discussion about what it means to be a northern country and the evident connections, cultural and political, between Scandinavia and Canada.

“There is a shared idea of the north. These are countries that do connect with the pole more than other countries. It seemed obvious.

“Then we mentioned, in passing, Glenn Gould‘s The Idea of North and we suddenly realized something  was forming that interested all of us and that would be appropriate for the capital city.”

More anniversaries began to pop up including for Sibelius’s death in 1957, and Gould’s 85th birthday in 2017. It seemed fated to be. But there was more than that.

“We felt very much that this is actually a brand that is very rich and that we would like to return to.

“A festival must be more than a bunch of concerts strung together. I love the idea of exploration together — audience and artists.”

So the festival will also include a discussion of architecture in northern countries and tastings of food and drink. There will also be dance represented by the Tero Saarinen Company and their show Morphed. There will also be representations of Indigenous cultures from both countries.

Shelley knows there is a lot he is leaving out and, he says, NACO will revisit this brand. The next themed festival will be in the 2019-20 season and he isn’t ruling out another excursion into northern cultures then.

“I am excited about the connection. It’s a real one to explore. Finland focus. this time. It could be Estonia and Denmark or Norway and Sweden. Finland punches so far above its weight in terms of international artists. In classical music alone you have Esa-Pekka Salonen. You have Storgårds. You have Lintu. For such a small population, it’s extraordinary.”

But at the centre of all this theme is Sibelius.

“We aren’t playing his entire body of work; it’s too much. But I wanted to give people key pieces of his repertoies that show how he evolved. So in the Lemminkäinen Suite and in the First Symphony you hear the influence of Russian school and Tchaikovksy and Borodin.

“Then we will take you right through to the Seventh Symphony and Tapiola where he has completely changed. The music is completely Finnish and Sibelian.”

For Shelley, the love affair with Sibelius’s music begins with the composer’s ability to portray the “human experience. He was someone who was a keen portrayer of the emotions, the turmoil, the feelings of what it is to be human.

“He began with a fairly romantic vein in his musical output. But what he does that is quite extraordinary is that he, first of all, is a composer who will delay gratification. He will hold it back.

“At same time, he’ll let you see glimpses of the beauty before he gives it to you.”

Sibelius was also adroit at compressing and compacting his emotional statements, Shelley says. He was able to take “huge journeys emotionally and pack them into smaller and smaller spaces.” This was at the same time that Mahler was expanding into huge symphonies, he added.

“The final symphony, the Seventh, in 21 minutes you really feel that you have experienced a kind of universe. It’s so powerful.

“He compressed it down and it becomes white hot. It’s like a … very small painting that draws you towards it. As you walk up to it, you see turmoil and power and passion and it grabs you and you can’t look away. Sibelius does that like very few other composers of his time. He remained romantic while others became dry and almost clinical.”

It is interesting that music by Sibelius fits the size of NACO, which has about 61 players. It’s not like Mahler where you may need 90 players.

If Canada has a classical music icon, Glenn Gould may have that status. He is the kind of guy who might make a bank note one day, as Sibelius did in Finland.

The documentary, The Idea of North, shows “his curiosity and his probing intelligence,” Shelley says.

One of the disappointments of this festival is that NACO couldn’t get Gould’s quartet orchestrated for orchestra in time to be played this year. “We will revisit that, that’s a promise,” he said. The film version of The Idea of North will be screened during the festival he says.

For Shelley, Gould “was an intellectual, an explorer, a great pianist and musician, a perfectionist, he was an extrovert in that he wanted to get his ideas out there.

“There is also something introspective about him as well. He’s a fascinating character and he remains truly compelling for people. He is one of those figures Canada can be proud of.”

The NAC’s Ideas of North begins Oct. 3 and runs until Oct. 14. It features a legion of events, many of them free. For the entire lineup and information about tickets please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.