Catching up with Alexander Shelley as NACO prepares for a major tour and a festival celebrating the Ideas of North

Alexander Shelley talks about the upcoming fall season. Photo: Fred Cattroll

This will be a hectic fall for the members of the National Arts Centre Orchestra with a major tour of Western Canada on the schedule along with a major festival that embraces the Ideas of North.

As well the nearly 50-year-old orchestra has begun the process of replacing two veteran members. The past spring and summer saw the retirements of Nicholas Atkinson, the principal tuba player, and a longtime member of the viola section, Nancy Denner Sturdevant. Finding their replacements is Shelley’s task.

“Well you are right,” he said in a recent interview. “These are really interesting jobs in a lot of ways. They are well-paid, they are secure and they are joining an orchestra full of people who are really good and really care.”

For the music director it’s important to find the right person to fit in well with his ensemble.

“It’s vital for us to replace these colleagues who have been in the orchestra for many years. They have played a hugely important role in defining the sound, the ethic and the atmosphere within the orchestra. Finding right person is always an interesting challenge.”

There are a couple of stages, Shelley says, before a hire is made. There are three rounds of auditions and then candidates are given trials with the group for a few weeks.

“We get to hear them in context and hang out with them. Then we talk about it again and vote on it.”

The process has already begun to find a new principal tuba player.

“We had a tuba audition towards the end of (last) season and we’ve found two candidates who we have invited back.”

Replacing a solo instrument is a big decision, Shelley says.

The viola auditions were about to begin at the time of this interview.

While Sturdevant will continue to play as a regular extra for NACO, Atkinson has retired to Victoria, B.C.

Shelley says he has to be mindful of the traditions of NACO when he hires.

“I’m also mindful of the legacy, coherence and balance of the orchestra. But you can’t be so hamstrung by such a big decision that you can’t make it.

“I know of orchestras where there is no concertmaster for 20 years. It’s because they are looking for everything in one person. Anybody who lives in the real world knows that that never really happens. You can’t expect all the boxes to be ticked.

“One person may be completely dependable. They never make a mistake, but they never take risks either. One excludes the other.

“So you say to yourself, ‘Do we want someone who never makes mistakes but there are never any big musical risks taken, or do we someone in the middle or someone who takes risks all the time.”

The discussion of replacing two orchestra members raises another question: Is NACO big enough at about 61 members?

“What would be great would be for us to find a situation where our Regular Additional Musicians (RAMs) could have different contracts. At the moment they have slightly reduced contracts as compared to full members,” Shelley says. There are a handful of RAMs in the orchestra, mostly in the lower brass and percussion sections. These players don’t perform in every concert.

“Bearing in mind the repertoire that we cover, which is basically everything,  there is no question that strengthening the strings and the woodwinds and getting the RAMs full contracts is the ideal,” he said.

“Will that happen anytime soon, I don’t know. There is a lot happening at the NAC. If someone said, ‘Could the orchestra be slightly bigger?’ I would never say no. It’s not because I’m trying to be selfish, it’s just that we do need to be slightly bigger.”

Shelley says despite this situation that “we manage with what we have. A lot of our focus is investing in composers and new productions and creating new things. In a perfect world, there would be slightly more money there for the orchestra to be slightly expanded.”

Another pull on his time is a push by the NAC to be more involved in the community. For Shelley that means being active with children. One way is through working with the Ottawa Youth Orchestra Academy and  Orkidstra. The other involves going directly into schools.

“For me there are many different ways to build community but the first is always with kids and young people. Music, art in school, for whatever reason, there is generally less available. The more we can get in with kids is vital.

“If we can build a relationship with music and the arts; with musicians and artists, you at least sow a seed.”

Earlier this summer Shelley conducted his last concert with the Nuremberg orchestra in Germany. It was a huge outdoor event attended by about 80,000 people.

“It’s a free way to put joy and fun into listening to a classical concert. It’s a way of engaging with a broad number of people. I’d love to do something like that in Ottawa.

“We’d need to find the right place, but all I can say is, in Nuremberg, it becomes a great event in the year of the city.”

NACO did do a Canada Day performance a few years back in which they played in Confederation Park. He knows the orchestra members would be enthused by the idea.

“If you can get people engaged it’s one of those days when the whole city comes together.”

Back on the ground he talked about the upcoming season.

The Ideas of North festival, which begins on Oct. 3 and runs to Oct. 14, features a Sibelius cycle and premieres by Canadian composers Alexina Louie and  Matthew Whittall. His work was written for and will be performed by Angela Hewitt and will be conducted by the Finn Hannu Lintu.

Shelley is “really delighted that Hannu Lintu and John Storgards will be around for the festival.” The latter, who is principal guest conductor of NACO, will also get to show off his talents as a violinist.

The festival will showcase the alignment of Arctic and Nordic countries such as Canada through music.

“This is an interesting brand that we might return to,” Shelley says. “There is a lot that we couldn’t fit in in one festival. There is a lot more to explore.”

Once the festival concludes, NACO is wheels up for a massive tour of Western Canada including a stop in the North. It goes to the Prairies Oct. 19-28, the West Coast from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 and then up North from Nov. 4 to Dec. 9. On the tour the orchestra is putting its Life Reflected series of new compositions on the road.

“I’m interested to see how people do react. It’s a great opportunity to perform in different places in front of different audiences,” Shelley says.

Now that he has left his post at Nuremberg, Shelley is spending more time guest conducting around the world from Australia to Switzerland and places in between. But he does hope to resume ties with an orchestra in Germany again, he says.

“I would very much be hoping to start a new relationship with one of the orchestras there. It is a musical home for me. The appeal is its musical culture. I was steeped in it from the age of 18. Music is truly part of fabric of life there.”

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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.