ARTSFILE has been taken on board the NACO tour of Atlantic Canada from April 26 to May 7. Follow our coverage from each stop along the way: St. John’s, Newfoundland, Moncton and Saint John, New Brunswick, Charlottetown, P.E.I., Eskasoni, Cape Breton, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Four provinces, 10 communities, more than 80 education and community events, 60 organizations, 50 artists and educators and 6,000 participants: Tours by the National Arts Centre Orchestra are always full of concerts, but as well there is always an intense effort to encourage music education and this spring’s journey to Atlantic Canada is no different.
At the centre of that is Genevieve Cimon, the NAC’s director of music education and community engagement.
For the past two years she has been hard at work lining up organizations, artists, educators, to deliver on th centre’s on-going commitment to developing music education in Canada.
The NAC’s educational arm is called Music Alive and this tour will effectively launch Music Alive in the Atlantic region.
“The priority is to reach mostly rural and remote communities across the country. We want to develop community led and community designed programs. This formal launch allows us to institutionally commit” to those efforts in this region. Over the past two years, she says a strategic plan has been created that is intended to give artists more work, training and opportunities.
“We don’t want to presume that we are fixing something. If anything what we are doing is lending support to local champions.”
An important aspect of this tour is outreach to indigenous artists and communities. A major highlight will take place at Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Eskasoni is the home of the Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, whose poem I Lost My Talk was the basis for a major musical commission by the NAC Orchestra last season with music written by the Edmonton composer John Estacio. The NACO tour will come to Eskasoni on May 2 and 3. And the community will also welcome students from across the island for the very first time to make murals and music together.
I Lost My Talk will be performed as well as a new song by Eskasoni high student student Kalolin Johnson and her teacher Carter Chiasson.
But there are outreach events with indigenous artists and students in other locations as well, including one in St. John’s, Newfoundland, late Wednesday afternoon called Reconciliation Through the Arts and will involve students of the Shallaway Youth Orchestra and the indigenous group Eastern Owl.
And Thursday evening during the opening concert of the tour, the Shallaway choir will sing an NAC-commissioned work called Heirloom by Toronto-based composer Larysa Kuzmenko with a text by Robert Chafe. The text speaks to the history of relations with Newfoundland’s indigenous peoples.
In Saint John, New Brunswick, a summit with 10 emerging indigenous artists from the four Atlantic provinces including two from Labrador, has been organized.
The tour stop in St. John’s is also jam-packed with master classes and events including one involving NACO’s master bassoonist Christopher Millard with three students. This one illustrates a phenomenon which is affecting youth orchestras and schools across the country. Cimon says that young people are not choosing to learn how to play reed instruments except for the saxophone. So ensembles are struggling to find oboists and bassoonists.
The St. John’s guitarist and composer Duane Andrews will be featured in a school program involving the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra, James Ehnes and members of NACO including music director Alexander Shelley. Later Wednesday evening a NACO string quartet will play with Andrews in a kitchen concert in the legendary Rocket Room.
Before NACO leaves the Rock there will be another full day of events including a session involving Ehnes and fiddlers in the small town of Bay Roberts about an hour outside the city.
In Moncton there will be a series of events involving 240 young people involved with Sistema New Brunswick. Among other things, the young people will form three orchestras and 35 NACO musicians will rehearse and play with each orchestra.
In Charlottetown, NACO will celebrate Music Monday with about 1,000 children who will all parade to Province House.
The tour will finish in Halifax. Among the many events is a session involving hip hop artists who were asked to work with interested students from the African Nova Scotian community. The NAC asked groups in the cities on the tour what kinds of projects they were interested in, Cimon said, and Symphony Nova Scotia suggested it need to reach out the the black community in Halifax.
In the project organizers found that the DJs and the young people involved felt very isolated.
“This is a recurring theme,” Cimon said. “Even in big city you can get isolated. Professional musicians say that if a young person is going to make it in the business he or she needs to know how to work with other people.” The session in Halifax has tried to install team work and listening skills, she says.
Another pattern, one that is happening across Canada, is the shrinking of budgets for music education in the schools.
Newfoundland used to have some of the best music education programs in country and it still has a huge tradition, but budgets are being cut, Cimon says. The tour will be in St. John’s during the annual Rotary Music Festival.
New Brunswick has felt the squeeze for decades and while Nova Scotia has a vibrant music program in its schools, it too is under pressure, she added.
Main art: NACO’s Canada 150 tour is much more than concerts. There are dozens of education and community events planned across Atlantic Canada. Photo: John Kealey