NACO: Alexander Shelley heads east in first Canadian tour

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Classical music fans in Ottawa have got to know Alexander Shelley well over the past few years. Now the rest of the country is going to meet him up close and personal.

The Canada 150 tour will start April 25 when Shelley leads the NAC Orchestra on a tour of Atlantic Canada. On the tour the orchestra will make an historic stop at Eskasoni on Cape Breton Island where it will perform for the residents of the Eskasoni First Nation the home of Rita Joe, the pre-eminent Mi’kmaw poet whose powerful I Lost My Talk about her experience in residential school was used as the basis for a major musical commission by the NAC.

In an interview, the young British-born music director said he can’t wait to get on down the road to the East Coast.

“I see it as a a firm mandate of ours. It’s one of the great pleasures of the job to bring work that we have been developing to Canadians. It’s what we should be doing.

“We create these works with the composers and writers and artists in order that it should reflect some element of Canadian life.

“That’s why it’s almost more important to me that we go to places such as Eskasoni and smaller cities than taking NACO to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. That’s great too and we are doing that too but for me the mandate is to go to these places as well and say ‘This is what the arts centre is working on. This is how we are trying to further the development of Canadian music and we’d like to show it to you.”

NACO will be touring from April 26 to May 7 and they’ll visit  St. John’s, NL., then travel to Moncton, Charlottetown, Eskasoni, Saint John, NB, finishing up in Halifax. Next fall the orchestra is touring the west from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2. NACO will stop in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. NACO will also perform in Toronto this June.

The concerts in Western Canada will feature the 22-year-old Calgary native Jan Lisiecki, who has reached international regard for his solo piano work.

In several of these cities, NACO will perform all four pieces in the Life Reflected series. These were new Canadian compositions about the lives of four Canadian women that was commissioned by the NAC and first performed last season.

The Atlantic leg will feature just I lost My Talk, with music by John Estacio. It is, Shelley said, the most accessible of the four pieces of Life Reflected. I Lost My Talk also features a film featuring Indigenous dancers and live narration by Guna and Rappahannock performer Monique Mojica.

Shelley says that the overriding theme of the performances in Atlantic Canada is ‘Finding a voice in new places’. So also on the program will be performances of the New World Symphony by Antonin Dvorak written after the composer came to North America for the first time. Canadian virtuoso James Ehnes will accompany NACO on tour and he’ll play Joseph Korngold’s Violin Concerto. Korngold wrote the piece after the Second World War ended. Korngold, who was a refugee from Europe was celebrating his new found freedom. The Sibelius Concerto in D minor for Violin and Orchestra will also be performed.

Shelley visited the East Coast a year ago to begin laying the groundwork for the tour. A major part of any NACO tour involves education so much of his time was taken up with meeting youth orchestras and choirs in the region. There will be 80 education and community engagement activities in all during the Atlantic leg of the tour.

In St. John’s, Shelley says, a large youth choir called Shallaway, will be on stage with NACO. They will sing a piece based on a Brahms Intermezzo, he added. Shelley says he was impressed by the music community he discovered.

“I found St. John’s to be a very evocative place with its dark stone and water. You feel exposed to the elements there. The music communities there reflect that close knit place. I can’t wait to go back.

Here is more detail on the upcoming spring tour:

  • St. John’s, NL, April 25-27:  Musicians of NACO will host a professional development workshop with Newfoundland teachers. Second clarinet Sean Rice returns to his alma mater, Holy Heart School, to perform a new work written for him. The NAC Orchestra will perform a concert at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre featuring the  Newfoundland choir Shallaway.
  • Saint John, NB, April 28-30: A three-day Young Artists Summit for Emerging Indigenous Performers is scheduled. This summit is part of Music Alive, the NAC’s education and outreach program to rural and remote schools in western and northern Canada. This event launches Music Alive in Atlantic Canada. The program has now reached more than 105,000 students, teachers and community members across Canada.
  • Moncton, April 28-29: NACO musicians will work with Sistema New Brunswick. There are six Sistema centres in New Brunswick. On April 29 the orchestra will perform ‘side-by-side’ with Sistema New Brunswick.
  • Charlottetown, May 1: Shelley will lead a workshop and concert with Charlottetown’s Singing Strings on Music Monday. Later NACO will perform at the Confederation Centre for the Arts.
  • Eskasoni, NS, (May 3): The NAC Orchestra will lead workshops with more than 500 students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School.Later that day NACO will perform I Lost My Talk at the Eskasoni Hockey Arena. On the program, Eskasoni student Kalolin Johnson will perform her song, We Shall Remain (It Wasn’t Taken Away).
  • Moncton (May 4): NACO tours Francophone schools followed by an evening concert at the Imperial Theatre.
  • Halifax (May 6): Education and outreach with the Halifax All City Music Program, the Nova Scotia Youth Orchestra and students from the Maritime Conservatory followed by an evening concert at the Dalhousie Arts Centre.
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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.