NAC Orchestra celebrates 50 years with major European tour

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Fred Cattroll

The National Arts Centre is celebrating 50 years with a major European tour of seven cities and five countries.

The orchestra, led by music director Alexander Shelley will travel to and perform in: Saffron Walden, near Cambridge and London, England; Paris; Utrecht, The Netherlands; Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden.

The tour is being called Crossings and Shelley said in a media release that the name “is emblematic of what is at the heart of this tour. We are crossing expectations, generations and distances and as we engage with new and diverse audiences, artists and young people to experience music and to make music together.”

A feature of any NACO tour is the inclusion of Canadian contemporary music but this journey will feature six works, an amount considered the largest ever taken on an international tour by a Canadian orchestra.

I have noticed in my conversations of the past few days, the thing I keep coming back to is the phrase the excellence and depth of culture is Canada’s best kept secret.

“People associate this country with kindness and a certain kind of generosity but I don’t think people know enough about Canadian culture as they should. Part of what this tour is about is spreading that word and being ambassadors. That is what a national orchestra should be doing.

“I feel we can go on any of these stages and feel proud and say these are great composers, these are great musicians and this is a great orchestra.”

“An ambitious tour like this is fundamental to who we are. It’s about championing Canadian artists and allowing them to shine on the world stage; it’s about saying, loudly and proudly, that this exceptional ensemble is among the world’s best; and it’s about making connections with audiences overseas as we share Canadian music, culture and stories,” said the NAC’s CEO Christopher Deacon who is the former general manager of NACO.

“Seeing the artistic lineup this morning, the JUNO award winning compositions we are taking, the Grammy award winning soloist all the soloists, one can’t but be filled with pride on behalf of the institution on behalf of Canadian artists and Canada,” he added.

“Having gone on many tours with the orchestra, this one Alexander has really nailed it in terms of making a statement for Canada.”

It may not be the longest tour NACO has ever done, he said, that honour belongs to a tour of Canada some 27 years ago. But this one “feels the most bang on in terms of symbolism and artistic excellence.”

Music in Canada is not what it was when the orchestra debuted in 1969, he added.

“In fact, one of the things that has been deeply pleasurable about my career in recent years, with the arrival of Alexander Shelley, is the presence of a programming partner who made the fulfillment of these aspirations seem natural and easy and not like you got to eat your vegetables.”

The six works include the Life Reflected quartet of works by Jocelyn Morlock, Nicole Lizee, John Estacio and Zosha di Castri, Ana Sokolovic’s JUNO ward winning Golden Slumbers kiss your eyes and Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child in Paris.

Accompanying NACO will be a bevy of Canadian soloists including Calgary native Jan Lisiecki playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G in London and Cambridge. The Canadian violin virtuoso James Ehnes will also join the tour. He will play Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in several concerts.  Also on tour are the countertenor David DQ Lee and the soprano Erin Wall.

Life Reflected, which explores the lives of four women —Alice Munro, the Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe, scientist and astronaut Roberta Bondar and the teenager Amanda Todd — will be performed in Paris and Gothenburg.

Another feature of every NACO tour are educational collaborations with community partners in each city. Crossings will feature more than 60 events that are expected to engage some 3,000 people. The title also speaks to some of the themes of the projects on tour including human migrations, cross-generational projects and trans-Atlantic collaborations.

For example, in London, on May 13, the orchestra will work with the Royal College of Music and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, where Shelley is associate conductor, to connect  the acclaimed trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, violinist Esther Abrami from the Royal College of Music along with the Brent District School band in London with Ottawa’s Orkidstra in a concert that stretches across the Atlantic.

The NAC’s director of music education Genevieve Cimon said a special effort was made “to really connect people ahead of time.”

In Paris, on May 16, NACO along with the Insula orchestra, which is in residence at La Seine Musicale, will work with six students from the New Sorbonne. Before the tour has begun, NACO musicians have been working with students in Paris via the broadband reach of the Hexagon Studio in the NAC in Ottawa.

In Utrecht, on May 21Syrian refugee children are creating a piece of music that they will perform with the NAC’s Ambassador Brass Trio in a community concert.

In Gothenburg, on May 25, the orchestra will help put the finishing touches on a piece of music called Maple Rose shared between Sistema Södertälje and Orkidstra. This piece will be workshopped and performed in the Royal Palace in Stockholm.

The National Arts Centre opened officially on June 2, 1969 with the orchestra in the pit for a performance by the National Ballet of Canada. There have been seven music directors — Jean-Marie Beaudet (1969-1971), Mario Bernardi (1971-1982), Franco Mannino (1982-1987), Gabriel Chmura (1987-1990), Trevor Pinnock (1991-1997),  Pinchas Zukerman (1999–2015). Alexander Shelley was appointed in 2015.

The orchestra has made more than 40 commercial recordings and has commissioned about 80 compositions by Canadians.

Over the years, NACO has toured Canada several times, most recently in 2017 for the sesquicentennial and travelled overseas to China and the United Kingdom among other destinations.

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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.