NACO on tour: Canadian music steps onto a world stage

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Rémi Thériault

What is the purpose of a national orchestra? Well, there are many, but surely one is for Canadians perform the music of Canadians on foreign stages.

That is certainly the case with the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s 50th anniversary tour of Europe.

For the British-born Alexander Shelley, it is a point of pride to be bringing to seven European cities — in five countries — six works by Canadian composers and four world class soloists — the pianist Jan Lisiecki, the violinist James Ehnes, the soprano Erin Wall and the countertenor David DQ Lee.

Can’t get enough Canada on this tour.

“I was talking to Howard Shore recently,” Shelley said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “One of the things he mentioned is that he had mentored Nicole Lizee. I hadn’t realized that.” Lizée’s Bondarsphere, about Dr. Roberta Bondar, astronaut, scientist and photographer, is one of four works featuring the stories of Canadian women in the NAC’s Life Reflected quartet. 

In that conversation with Shore, Shelley realized that “the circle closed itself so to speak. We had commissioned something from her. He mentored her.”

There is now a tangible line going through Canadian music now, Shelley believes, from an older generation to a younger one. He compares it to the evolution of Canadian visual art from the Group of Seven to today. 

“There is a school of Canadian music building. That means it’s not just an important part of our tour, it’s a focal point. We are bringing more Canadian music on this tour than any orchestra has before.”

In fact they will be playing six pieces. Life Reflected includes Zosha di Castri’s Dear Life based on an autobiographical short story by Alice Munro, John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk, based on a poem by the Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe, My Name is Amanda Todd about the B.C. teenager who killed herself after being bullied on line, music by Jocelyn Morlock and Lizée’s Bondarsphere. 

As well NACO will perform The Lonely Child by Claude Vivier and Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes by Ana Sokolovic. Sokolovic and Morlock are both JUNO winners for these pieces.

On Tuesday night in London’s intimate Cadogan Hall, Lisiecki will be at the keyboard playing Ravel and Lee will sing Golden slumbers kiss your eyes by Sokolovic.

For NACO, “we can be proud of the fact that we are the generator of much of this music,” Shelley said.

He also is pleased also that all this new work doesn’t feel at all like secondary for the musicians either.

“We do believe passionately in our Brahms and our Schumann and refining and honing our skills as an orchestra. But equally, we wouldn’t be who we are without being committed and bold representatives of new music.”

Shelley knows there may be failures and some people won’t like some of the new work.

“But being actively involved in a creative process, actively bringing along new music,  things that have never been heard before, that is something symphony orchestras need to put front and centre.”

Shelley has actually been thinking this way from the start of his tenure in Ottawa.

“When I was thinking about how to do my job there were certain emphases I needed to place here that were different from any other.

“One of things at top of my list was that NACO had to be a vocal advocate for contemporary creative artists. I wouldn’t say that is de facto the case for the music director of the New York Philharmonic. Of course, they could do that and it would be laudable, but I don’t think there is a necessity there as much as there is here in this job.

“Canadian taxpayer money goes into the National Arts Centre. We have this responsibility to be a national engine for various different things.”

A lot of Canadian music, and culture, is more of a blank slate for the rest of the world, he said.

“One of things I look forward to on tour is firstly presenting an extraordinary orchestra to European listeners. Secondly we want to start to filling that slate.” 

It is a remarkably diverse slate he will fill.

“None of these pieces fit into a comfortable envelope that says that’s Canadian music and that’s what it sounds like.”

For Shelley, Canada’s “cultural side is in some ways the country’s best kept secret. There is much Canadians can be proud of, he said.

“So this is a moment that can take advantage of and say you know about hockey and you know about the core values, now look at this culture. Look at Alice Munro and look to these classical composers and this great orchestra. This is something we have to take very seriously on this tour.”

He knows some of the music won’t be well received, including inLife Reflected. But at the esoteric level, this is serious art making.

‘The process involved a lot of discussion about the roots of why we were expressing something through music and visuals. Because that was so thorough, we all sensed the seriousness of the stories and the messages we were trying to communicate to an audience maybe more than other commissions.”

Shelley says he expects there will be two camps in the audiences in Europe.

“One will hold people who will prefer more superficially accessible works that may have a more clearly distilled message and there will be others who love the avant-garde nature of say Zosha Di Castri’s musical language when paired with the distilled words of Alice Munro, who can pack a sentence with more meaning and subtext than most people.

“It’s unlikely everyone will love everything in Life Reflected but that was never really the point.”

Life Reflected is very much identified with Shelley. It is a signature work and, he said, “an accurate reflection of how I would like, in my role as music director, to empower the creative artist.

“Almost everything I have ever worked on, I know that if I really commit to it and find the beauty and brilliance and invest the time to find it I am almost never disappointed. If you spend time with a talented artist you will learn to love what they write. You will learn to feel it and empathize with it and understand it.”

Life Reflected also exploits the potential of the modern concert hall with its use of video and film and spoken word and theatrical staging. 

“The options in the concert hall are now so varied, we want to try to use as many different things as possible.”

Life Reflected is drifting towards what opera tries to do, he said. His initial inspiration was to entice people who love visual arts, who love contemporary literature into a concert hall.

Golden Slumbers is certainly one of the most successful NAC commissions ever. It is often performed and has that JUNO win as a cherry on top. 

“The countertenor remains an incredibly unusual timbre for people. It is quite fascinating to hear a male voice go into a range people associate with female voices or a child’s voice. The fact that she then picked up folk texts and language that is earthy makes the piece very relatable for people.”

Finally NACO will also perform Claude Vivier‘s The Lonely Child. In it a soprano — Erin Wall — is singing to a child who is afraid of the dark.

It is a very moving idea. Vivier was an orphan who was afraid of the dark all his life. The idea of the Lonely Child is an archetype for the child in all of us afraid of the dark and the unknown.

It is even more poignant considering Vivier’s life story. He was murdered at age 34 by a mugger who preyed on gay men. 

“I had listened to it during my research into Canadian music when I landed in Ottawa. He is one of those greats who could have been. The piece really struck me and I have been looking for an opportunity to do it since.”

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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.