NACO at 50: Life Reflected situation Normal

A scene from I Lost My Talk part of the Life Reflected quartet. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Samuel Greffe-Bélanger is a producer with Montreal’s Normal Studio. He’s pretty hip to new technology and the latest software. And yet these days he’s become a classical music junkie.

He blames Life Reflected, the NAC Orchestra’s quartet of four new Canadian compositions.

Greffe-Bélanger worked on Normal’s team on the NACO project and he was captivated, he said, with the artistic effort so much “I am a classical music fan now, I was not before.”

He says he goes to concerts regularly and listens to a lot of contemporary artists.

SamuelSamuel Greffe-Bélanger is a producer for Normal Studio of Montreal. He has been working on Life Reflected for the past four years.

“When you are working with contemporary musicians, it helps you understand the thinking behind classical music and then you can go back and explore.”

Normal Studio specializes in scenography, technology and visual design. It has been creating what it calls ”unique immersive experiences” since 2009. One of those experiences is Life Reflected.

NACO isn’t the only Ottawa based music ensemble to imply them in a project. Silvie and Bryan Cheng used the studio’s expertise to create a visual interactive set design for their innovative Canada 150 project.

One of three producers at Normal. for set design and the visuals on Life Reflected. Cheng2Duo of Ottawa approached Normal because of Life Reflected to work on a Canada 150 project.

Normal was in on the ground floor of this project starting in 2015. Now he will be in Paris for the performance in La Seine Musicale on May 17.

This is the third time this show has been taken on the road.

In 2017, all or some of it, was performed on NACO’s Western Canadian tour, in Atlantic Canada and it has also appeared at the Luminato Festival in Toronto.

It is a technically complex production that took more than a year.

Along with the show’s producer Donna Feore and NACO Music Director Alexander Shelley, “we created the first piece, Dear Life (with music by Zosha Di Castri, based on a story by Alice Munro and featuring a voice over by the actor Martha Henry and photographs by Larry Towell). It was first presented in the spring of 2016.

That performance “was a proof of concept. What we found out that night is that the show itself was quite organic.

“For example, the scrims (giant translucent curtains) in the front stand still if there is no audience in the hall, but whenever there is an audience the scrims move. There is a pulse, a breath.

“The audience actually brings something organic to the show.”

The Normal team did try to stop the movement but “at the end of the day we just accepted it.”

“You know what; it is just part of it. This example reflects the whole way we built Life Reflected technically and creatively.”

They presented individual chunks of Life Reflected three times before the premiere of the entire quartet in May 2016.

“We fine-tuned the whole thing but at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty organic show.”

By that he means the show evolves. It is a living thing in a way.

“Each and every video sequence is triggered by a video operator. Each sequence is called by a stage manager.

“We have a lot of cues that we are waiting to trigger so that if anyone in the line misses a cue, then Alexander Shelley as the conductor has to adjust by speeding up or slowing down the tempo. And the musicians have to follow.”

It is an intricate game of dominoes.

To tour Life Reflected required even more fine-tuning.

“For example, we started with three projectors ‘cross-shooting’. One projector on the left was using the right screen; a projector on the right was doing the left screen. There was a blend in the middle.

To be able to tour the show, we had to simplify the approach. Now the projectors are doing their own screens, there is not much blend now.”

This was done so that the centre screen will always be clear and in focus.

Each venue poses some challenge.

For example, in Southam Hall the ceiling was part of the canvas for us.

At Luminato, there wasn’t a ceiling and we were afraid it wasn’t going to look good. It turned out that black space was actually awesome.

“The 3D effects worked better than in Southam Hall. After that we began to feel more and more confident about the adaptability of the video.”

The producers have also learned that the most important thing about the production is that all the elements matter. You can’t cut one.

“We need the (scrims) and the background. We need to lock the orchestra into the multi-media box that we have created.

“It can be tricky to tour the show because it needs a lot of space. The box that surrounds the orchestra needs the stage space. Most venues are created to just accommodate an orchestra. But we need twice as much space.

“We would have loved to show it in London or in Amsterdam, everywhere, but there are only a few venues on the tour that can accommodate the show, one of them is in Paris and the other is in Gothenburg, Sweden.”

One thing that has complicated matters are the subtitles for Gothenburg. These had to be integrated into the design without disrupting the integrity of the performance.

But such changes are minor.

“It’s such a pleasure to be able to show this production internationally,” Greffe-Bélanger said.

Life Reflected is ground-breaking for NACO and it has been equally ground-breaking for Normal Studio.

“The new thing about Life Reflected for Normal Studio was to work with an orchestra and to understand the dynamic of an orchestra and how you present an orchestra and understand it from the triangle player to the senior management.”

It was the beginning of Normal’s work with orchestras. After that the studio has worked with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra on the 375th anniversary of Montreal, along with a number of Christmas shows with the OSM as well.

And, “because of Life Reflected we did The Man with a Violin in Washington” with the violinist Joshua Bell.

“So Life Reflected opened up a new path for us into which we have plunged in. It has become one of our trademarks.”

They did have to work for it, he said.

“At first we were trying to get the NAC Orchestra on board with us. The musicians were uncomfortable with the projector in their eyes.

“So we sat the musicians in the audience with the producer Donna Feore. She showed them the visuals and when they saw that they were all on board.

“I was told beforehand that the musicians are the best at what they do and we ware putting a fringe curtain in front of them.

“We needed to have empathy for their situation. When we brought them on board and convinced them we respected them then boom.

“And this is how we work with orchestras now. First things first, we shake hands with the first violin and everybody else.”

In 2015, many performing arts organizations were asking for “immersive” spectacles.

NACO said “let’s immerse the orchestra. It was a clever move. We created a 3D canvas by putting the orchestra inside a translucent box.”

Before the tour began the producers ran the cues of the show five times to make sure the machine was well-oiled.

There is built in flexibility, that helps the performance adjust to new venues. Sound travels at different speeds in different halls and even a half-second difference is a big change.

“There is a lot of space for everybody. I think this is why it works,” Greffe-Bélanger said.

It is, he said, one of more complex shows he has worked on.

“Because of the approach, all the people involved, the technical aspects of it, it is one of most complicated shows I have worked on. I have been on it now for four and a half years and it’s definitely one of the most important and interesting shows that I have done.

“And for Normal, it’s one of the most important things the studio has done. The world is interested in it.”

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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.