NAC Music: A musical motherlode awaits in the Idea of North

In 1967, the enigmatic Canadian musical icon, Glenn Gould produced a radio documentary for the CBC called The Idea of North.

In his introduction to the piece, he said:

“I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country. I’ve read about it, written about it, and even pulled up my parka once and gone there. Yet like all but a very few Canadians I’ve had no real experience of the North. I’ve remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me, a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and, in the end, avoid.”

The program wanted to introduce to the country “some remarkable people who have had a direct confrontation with that northern third of Canada, who’ve lived and worked there and in whose lives the North has played a very vital role.”

In this 150th year of Confederation, Gould’s idea is getting a metaphoric musical treatment in the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s 2017-18 season. The Idea of North will be the centrepiece festival of the upcoming year at the NAC. And it will also recognize another anniversary: the 100th of Finland.

Alexander Shelley, the NAC’s British-born music director, explained his thinking in an interview with Artsfile:

“The theme makes for a broader conversation about Canada, Canadians, Canadian art and what defines Canada. The Idea of North is part of what Canada is.

“Of course Glenn Gould is probably the seminal Canadian classical musician and we picked up on his series.”

The NAC team was thinking more broadly about Canada 150, he said and as the discussion evolved the idea of making a musical connection to Finland’s centennial emerged.

“The pieces started to come together. It was this shared anniversary, this shared idea of north. Also on a practical level there is fact that we have a close relationship with John Storgårds (the NAC’s principal guest conductor) who is Finnish. All of a sudden the pieces started to fall into place.”

The festival which begins Oct. 3 and runs until Oct. 14, will feature a mini-Sibelius cycle including the 1st, 2nd, 5th and 7th symphonies. And Storgårds will bring his Lapland Chamber Orchestra in for a performance.

But, significantly, amongst the festival concerts three new Canadian compositions which will premiere next fall.

Matthew Whittall, who has lived in Finland since 2001 and is the brother of James Whittall the former marketing and public relations director of Chamberfest, has a new work called Nameless Seas. It was written for, and will be performed by, Angela Hewitt in a concert conducted by Hannu Lintu, of … where else … Finland. Hewitt will be back in March 2018 to continue her Bach cycle.

The festival will also feature a new Concerto for Three Violins by Alexina Louie which is a co-commission with the Toronto Symphony and Orchestra symphonique de Montreal.

And finally Shelley has commissioned cutting edge composer Zosha di Castri to orchestrate Glenn Gould’s String Quartet no. 1, the one major composition completed by Gould.

“I knew the piece before and this idea was in my head. It seemed like the perfect time to follow up on it. And so we did. I asked Zosha if she would be interested and she got to know it.

“She had a think about what (musical) language to choose and and she picked the style of the Second Viennese school. It will be a Schoenbergian orchestration which I think is perfect.

Another major development is the installation of a new sound shell for NACO which will further enhance the listening experience. And in the new lobby space created by the addition of all that glass.

“We will using that area to showcase Nordic concert halls. There will be designs on display.”

There will even be an exploration of Canadian and Finnish food and fine gins.

“In our artistic planning discussions the building is now playing a role. We have a space that becomes a feature of what we doing.”

There will be one more new work slated for NACO in 2017-18. This one is commissioned from Vivian Fung. The piece will be a substantial 15-20 minutes but the title and the nature is still to be settled. It will accompany NACO to Toronto on the spring of 2018.

Fung was considered for a place in the Life Reflected series but it didn’t work out.

“I know her music, the NAC knows her music. I think she’s one of the important compositional voices in the country.”

Fung is one of a growing number of female composers of note in Canada.

“I think it’s an important point,” Shelley said. “People rightly talk about why there aren’t more female conductors on programs worldwide. That’s an important discussion to have.

“I’d like to point out that, while there are steps that need to be made, there is gender balance in NACO. There are a number of commissions from great female composers and many of finest soloists coming are women. So there is a lot of good happening there. The one area where there is room for growth is conductors.”

Shelley is making a stab at addressing that by bringing in Karina Cannellakis. The New Yorker has conducted major orchestras around the world. This will be her NAC debut.

“She has been invited because she is a talented conductor anything else would be patronizing really,” Shelley said.

As well Joana Carneiro will conduct NACO’s performance Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with a performance of the legendary Pina Bausch’s choreography. (More on that in our look at the next NAC Dance season.)

This packed season will feature the return of several favourite performers to Southam Hall.

On violin: Itzhak Perlman will open the season on Sept. 13. He will play a Cinema Serenade, a piece that is an homage to film music.

Joshua Bell is back for what is becoming an annual visit with a Christmas concert based on the children’s book The Man with the Violin.

Canadians Karen Gomyo and James Ehnes will also appear during the season.

And no season would be complete without an appearance by Pinchas Zukerman. He will conduct and perform in November.

On piano: Along with Hewitt, Lang Lang returns for a one night in February. Emmanuel Ax plays Beethoven, Louis Lortie plays some Mozart and Alice Sara Ott handles Grieg in her NAC debut.

“So many top people are coming to the NAC and coming back to NACO. It speaks to the relationships that have been built up over the last 20 years,” Shelley said.

And the dextrous saxophonist Branford Marsalis, brother of Wynton, will put his classical chops on display.

“When these artists are coming they are saying it’s fun and we want to come back. For our audiences, this is what they deserve these are the greatest classical artists.”

Of course there is much more to the next season. Fore more please see nac-cna.ca.

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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.