When Heather Gibson took over the NAC Presents series of Canadian music concerts, she promised change.
Guess what? She has delivered. A series that once hosted about 50 concerts a year will stage about 100 in 2018-19 with shows that include artists such as Bahamas, Holly Cole, Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida and a Christmas show featuring Nathalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy. All of this comes with previously announced shows featuring Gordon Lightfoot, Jill Barber and Chilly Gonzales. The fall season was unveiled Wednesday morning.
More intriguingly, Gibson has knocked down a silo inside the NAC itself to produce four concerts featuring singer-songwriters performing with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. These NAC Sessions will feature: a double bill with Ottawa’s Lynn Miles and Lee Harvey Osmond’s Tom Wilson, the band Stars, the iconoclastic Patrick Watson and Johnny Reid for Christmas.
Wilson’s show is called Symphonic Scars and it is an exploration of his Mohawk heritage, something he only found out about recently. It has been done before with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra this past January. The story is detailed in a memoir called Beautiful Scars. Watson and Reid have worked with large ensembles before, Gibson said in an interview. But this will be Miles’ first encounter with an orchestra. Ditto for Stars.
There will be a strong local contingent in the rest of the series including A Tribe Called Red, Cody Coyote, Kalle Mattson, The Commotions and The PepTides.
NAC Sessions certainly has Gibson charged up.
“For me it’s where I’m getting to do some artistic work. It’s not just booking acts. For the Lynn Miles concert, for example, we are commissioning work with her. It’s been nice because it has allowed us to have some artistic conversations.”
The orchestra was “totally game” for this project, she said. “They are quite interested in bringing in new young arrangers to work with, for example.”
Miles’s session will feature music arranged by another Ottawa native, the multi-talented Peter Kiesewalter, who now calls Brooklyn, New York, home.
The breaking down of barriers between departments inside the NAC is a natural thing to pursue, Gibson said.
“There is a lot to be gained from us looking at what is the performing arts conversation nationally. It’s not in one genre. The audience isn’t just going to one thing.”
There is a larger conversation that flows from this.
“We have a responsibility to do more than just present concerts. We have this massive building with all this stuff. We have to sort out what our contribution can be as more than just a presenting venue.”
Commissioning is an interesting example of that. But Gibson is still thinking about taking advantage of the centre’s technological advantage. This was something she raised when she met the media after she was hired by the NAC in 2016.
“I had a really interesting conversation with (the singer-songwriter) Erin Costello recently. She will be here in October with her new CD. We were discussing how, for a mid-level singer songwriter in Canada, does the NAC get involved in advancing her career and not just by presenting her shows.”
The NAC has a broadband studio, for example. “That is really interesting to me. Could we use it to link Erin to other artists in an educational way. If she had the opportunity to do collaborative work with other artists in a setting that fit with her touring schedule rather than having to go somewhere, would that work?”
NAC Presents then, as it enters year nine, is also becoming an exploration of what do artists want and answering that need.
“We should just be starting to come into our own. So what do we do? How do we celebrate and highlight Canadians?”
One of the things that Gibson is thinking about for Lynn Miles is recording using virtual reality technology. This would allow a viewer to fully experience the event.
Gibson believes Canadians should experience what the NAC building is like, nor has she forgotten her interest in reaching remote communities with music.
There is an echo of that goal in the NAC Presents Across Canada concerts with partners in cities such as Regina, Winnipeg and Whitehorse. The first season of NACPAC happened last year to mixed results. The announcement of Season Two is coming in a few weeks.
“Some cities did really well, some did not. It was sort of what I expected,” she said, noting there were learning curves everywhere.
She did speak about one of the concerts that is coming up. In August “we will do an immersive program for Indigenous artists at the Regina Folk Festival.”
One of the ideas behind this project is to break down the silo that exists between the Indigenous music scene and the broader Canadian industry.
“In Canada, the music industry has been really good at creating a parallel industry for Indigenous artists.” Gibson believes it is time for integration in the broader music industry through mentoring. She said she began in the music business with the help of mentors.
“How do we give Indigenous artists that opportunity. For example, there are things these artists are not getting, such as tech teams and backstage support. We also want to make sure they get introduced to all the artists at a festival and get an opportunity to just hang out, which is a really important part of the creative environment.”
This idea will be done elsewhere and will be part of what is being called an Indigenous takeover of the NAC as part of the first season of the new department of Indigenous Theatre in the fall of 2019.
She is also evolving her thinking around ticket sales. Currently, the fastest growing package for NAC Presents is a choose-your-own-shows pass. And this past year, single ticket sales topped 40,000. The standard subscription series is losing its appeal as the on-demand economy takes over. On the horizon, what about a membership to NAC Presents? With Heather Gibson, seemingly, every option is on the table.