NACO 2018-19: Binging on Beethoven and singing a war requiem for peace inside a new shell for Southam Hall

Alexander Shelley and NACO are heading on the road. Photo: Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography

Ludwig Van Beethoven once said “music comes more readily to me than words.” For those who listen they can hear the truth of that in Southam Hall next fall.

All nine of his symphonies begin a new season of performance at the NAC. They will be paired with performances by three string quartets — Ironwood (made up of NACO musicians Jessica Linnebach and Carissa Klopoushak, violins, Julia MacLaine, cello, and David Marks, viola), Soma from Montreal and the Grammy winning Pacifica Quartet playing more Beethoven in the new community spaces inside the renovated National Arts Centre.

Alexander Shelley’s fourth season in Ottawa will begin with this major investigation of the great German composer (Sept. 13 to 22), something that should please more mainstream fans of the art, he says.

“For our audience I think this is one of those bucket list things … the nine symphonies,” he said in an interview in advance of the announcement of the coming season.

“Beethoven is known around the world as the composer of passionate symphonic music. This is the time when one can hear all that music.” But that’s not all. The annual fall festival will explore the why of Beethoven with academics such as Jan Swafford, who writes often on classical music for Slate magazine.

Audiences will also being hearing the music differently inside Southam Hall. The centre will be installing a wooden ‘shell’ that will project the sound of NACO in a new, and hopefully more brilliant way. It’s part of the major upgrade to the inner workings of the centre and Southam Hall that began with new seating.

The shell will almost certainly bring the biggest change to the sound in Southam Hall since the NAC opened in 1969. Shelley says NACO will have some rehearsal time to get used to the new space before the performances begin.

If Beethoven seems a bit safe to your musical palette, don’t worry there is ambition too for new work.

There will also be a new Vanguard series that will bring forward new musical experiences from a performance of all four pieces from Life Reflected to British composer Thomas Adès‘s violin conceto called Concentric Paths (2005).

The third piece in the Vanguard series is Benjamin Britten’s massive War Requiem (Nov. 9), which was written to mark the re-opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in the early 1960s. The cathedral was destroyed in German air raid during the Second World War.

“This is a project very close to my heart. Of course 11/11 2018 is 100 years since the armistice that ended the First World War.  Britten wrote it in remembrance of the two world wars with a text based on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who wrote in the trenches of the Western Front and died there in 1918.

“It is a pacifist requiem,” Shelley says. “His idea was to have an English singer, a German singer and a Russian singer in the Requiem. When I was thinking about what this means … it is to pass this story on to the generations to come in hope of avoiding it happening again.”

Shelley has been equally ambitious in assembling his team of musicians for the Requiem.

“I have had a long relationship with National Youth Orchestra of Germany, I thought what if we could get these kids to sit by side with NACO, a few 100 yards from the Cenotaph at a time when our collective mind is in that place.”

The Germans jumped at the idea. They will be joined by a Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, Canadian tenor Michael Colvin and Canadian baritone James Westman. It should be a moment that captures the hope for peace that piece presents, he says. The War Requiem is demanding and it is meaningful, he added. In addition the young German musicians will be in Ottawa for a week taking part in workshops in the community.

Anyone who can count will know this upcoming season will end right at the 50th anniversary of the NAC, June 2, 2019. The centre is planning a celebration then. The announcement on that is expected in May.

Pinchas Zukerman. Photo: Cheryl Mazak

To mark that, Shelley has invited Trevor Pinnock and Pinchas Zukerman to lead performances. Pinnock will conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (Jan. 16 and 17, 2019). Zukerman will conduct and perform in two concerts. The first with music by Elgar (Enigma variations) and Mozart (Sinfonia concertante for violin and Zukerman on viola) Nov. 21 and 22. The other concert will be Feb. 20 and 21 with Zukerman playing and conducting Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

No Shelley season could pass without some new Canadian work.

One of the commissions was issued a season ago but the man who was supposed to play Canadian Howard Shore’s Guitar concerto, the Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglic was injured. He’s healthy now and is booked perform May 1 and 2, 2019.

James Ehnes will perform a new violin concerto by written by the music director emeritus of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra who will also conduct.

And Amanda Forsyth will bring her cello back to Southam Hall for the performance (Nov. 14 and 15) of a new Cello concerto written for her by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich, professor at Queens University. Conductor Elim Chan will make her main series debut at NACO. She is a fellow in the Summer Music Institute’s Conductors Program.

One last highlight may offer a hopeful hint. The Canadian director and choreographer Donna Feore will be preparing a semi-staged performance of Mozart opera The Marriage of Figaro featuring Pembroke’s Joshua Hopkins who is booked to perform around the world these days.

“We all know opera does not play here. … Everybody here in the music team loves opera. The question is how do we proceed to create a sustainable culture of live opera here is one that needs to be solved properly,” Shelley says. Also in the show will be Ottawa mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta.

Renée Fleming, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Yefim Bronfman will make appearance too in this packed season.

The annual POPS series will feature the  music of the Wizard of Oz, the Beatles and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The season in Ottawa finishes in May 2019. The orchestra will then head out of town on a 50th anniversary tour of Europe with concerts in London, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Gothenburg. They will bring with Canadian performers including soprano Erin Wall, violinist James Ehnes, pianist Jan Lisiecki and countertenor David DQ Lee. The tour repertoire will include Life Reflected. 

Share Post
Written by

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.