NACO on Tour: Crossings and connections between London and Ottawa

Trans-Atlantic music making inside the Royal College of Music. Photo: Fred Cattroll

LONDON — The Atlantic Ocean was no barrier to music making on Monday afternoon here.

Monday morning in Canada’s capital, the music makers of Ottawa’s Orkidstra joined forces with the Brent District Youth Band, who were in Knightsbridge Monday afternoon local time, to participate in a unique feat of collaboration across the pond. They performed together a new piece of music called Crossings and ConneXXions. They were connected through broadband link between the NAC and a studio inside the Royal College of Music.

The event kicked off the education and community engagement component of NACO’s 50th anniversary tour of Europe.

It is the result of a partnership between the orchestra, OrKidstra, London’s Royal College, the Brent District Youth Band and String Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. On hand for the event were virtuoso trumpet soloist Alison Balsom and the Instagram star and student violinist Esther Abrami, who attends the Royal College, which is located just south of Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the world famous Royal Albert Hall.

Both women spoke and played. Abrami performed a chunk of Bach’s 2nd Partita for Solo Violin while Balsom played an impressive arrangement of music by Debussy to the accompaniment of a nearby concrete drill. It’s not likely that a winner of the Artist of the Year at the 2013 Gramophone Awards would be fazed by that kind of noise and she wasn’t.

The Royal College of Music opened in 1882.

A big part of Balsom’s life is also centred on music education.

Her message to the musicians young and old Monday was that music “can heal and unite and ignite the brain and soul in a way that nothing else can. Music can communicate and inspire and it can be a tool to rebuild lives.”

Abrami is a social media star, especially on Instagram where the young French woman from Aix en Provence, France, has some 170,000 followers. It helps, no doubt, that she can play the violin well and is also quite striking.

She talked about how she has built a worldwide following based on a social media project in which she is using her own career as a music student and performer to reveal the world of classical music to an audience of young people who right now don’t think it’s “cool.” And it’s working, she said. She now has messages from young people who are playing music and loving it.

For OrKidstra, this is the first time it has been involved in a NACO tour but the connections are in place. Alexander Shelley, the NACO music director, is a musical ambassador for the organization and regularly works with the young people involved. But this will be their first contact with London’s Brent District band.

OrKidstra co-founder and current artistic director Tina Fedeski said that when the conversations were first being held about this project, “we thought it would be important to have a chance to make music together.”

Alison Balsom. Photo: Fred Cattroll

The result was Monday’s call and response performance between Ottawa and London. It was led on the Ottawa side by Margaret Tobolowska, a former member of NACO and a co-founder of OrKidstra where she still conducts the senior strings. 

For Fedeski, this kind of connection with NACO matters because the orchestra has and outreach ability that is not just local.

“It is international. It’s very empowering for us to feel that we can play such a role,” too. 

Tobolowska sees her role in the event as facilitating the music-making. It was a tricky bit of musical management because there is a slight time delay in the television feed that is travelling across the Atlantic. 

To compensate the composers and conductors built a music structure that allowed some flexibility.

The two groups played their own pieces of music — Brent played a new work called Sea Crossings and OrKidstra played a new work called On est tous humains and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and then they played together the piece Crossings & ConneXXions, which lasted about six minutes.

To the ear, the joint performance was seamless. One couldn’t distinguish who was playing what. It was a real ensemble, which is kind of remarkable because, given the various commitments of each group of musicians, there was not a ton of prep time, said Detta Danford, who was the conductor — and flute player — with the Brent band in London.

Danford is a freelance musician, composer and music educator who works regularly with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s Resound education program.

“It was a very fast process. Basically we had one day with the students during which they rehearsed the piece.”

She was involved in a longer process with Tobolowska in Ottawa figuring out the structure of the piece.

Detta Danford leads members of the Brent District Youth Band and String Orchestra in a live broadband performance of a new work called Crossings & ConneXXions. They were playing with Ottawa’s OrKidsta who were inside the NAC. That’s OrKidstra in the monitor. Photo: Peter Robb

In rehearsal Monday, there were some issues in the balance between the two orchestras which were smoothed out in the actual performance to a small crowd of dignitaries, students and others in the Royal College of Music’s Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall.

And the end of the day the idea of making music with people in Canada is” really good. It’s the first time I have done something like this. I’ve had conversations with people over Skype. To actually make a performance together over the internet was pretty amazing. It feels full of potential.”

Tobolowska told ARTSFILE before the concert that the musical stucture would be flexible enough to accommodate the music sharing. She also said the the music would be improvised to allow for even more flexibility.

During the performance the sound coming from Ottawa built a story through a soundscape that seemed to establish a journey by sea from the old world to the new. In London, the Brent musicians were responding in “a more free way” with a palette of musical colours, Danford said.

After the concert Danford said that she was able to really begin to appreciate exactly what was being accomplished during this live collaboration.

“I could really hear sounds being passed around.” And she said that there were times when the blend was so good that two groups of about 25 musicians some 4,000 kilometres apart were a fully integrated orchestra.

Two young musicians from the Brent band: Evie Kerrigan-Smith on trumpet and Naiya on violin. Photo: Peter Robb

Tobolowska said before the event that, “this is new for us too.”

In Ottawa, the group arrived in Shenkman Atelier insid ethe NAC at about 7:30 a.m. The event started on time at 9:30 a.m. in Canada and 2:30p.m. in London. 

Maurizio Ortolani is the NAC’s senior director of digital engagement, and the man overseeing the project. 

“The biggest trick on something like this,” he said, “is responding to the variables in the network. It has its ebbs and flows like anything else. As much as we can rehearse these things, we face a new reality every time.”

It helps to have “amazing” technicians who were improvising and responding live to changes right along with the musicians.

In the hall there were five remote cameras in use and three in the Atelier.”

There was a control room in London and the NAC is now well-equipped with a new control centre to handle projects such as this. Both ends were involved in controlling the technology and were in constant communication in much the same way a large TV production with a remote team would operate, he said.

Instead of satellites “we are dealing with next generation internet.” They were using the UK’s research and education network and the CANARIE network in Canada. The event on Monday.

This allows organizations such as the NAC and the Royal College of Music — both of  whom have just signed a memorandum of understanding to do more of this, he said — to make connections possible that otherwise would not be possible.

For two students with the Brent band, the event was just plain cool.

“It was kind of weird because they were a couple of seconds behind us, said trumpeter Evie Kerrigan-Smith of North London, who turns 16 on Thursday, “but it was so cool that it still sounded amazing together.”

“Sometimes we thought it was our orchestra playing and it was theirs, said 17 year old first violinist Naiya Vekaria.

In all they said they had about eight hours rehearsal time. They were both kind of worried it might not connect before they started playing but in the end it “just stayed about perfect the whole time.”

Both young women are interested in other careers but they recognize what music gives them and they say they intend to keep at it.

“Learning an instrument gives you a lot of skills such as determination. When you learn a piece at first it sounds so awful, but you just have to keep telling yourself to keep practicing and it will be fine.”

And it was on a rather historic Monday afternoon inside the 137 year old Royal College in a venerable hall named for a legendary cellist.

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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.