NACO on Tour: Life Reflected makes splash in its Paris debut

A scene from Bondarsphere part of NACO's Life Reflected. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Since when do new Canadian compositions get a premiere in Paris? The answer: pretty much never. So the performance of the NAC Orchestra’s Life Reflected quartet of Canadian music in Paris on Friday night was something to pay attention to.

The orchestra played this contemporary music in the new La Seine Musicale, a massive cultural complex on Ile Seguin in the southwest part of Paris known as Hauts-de-Seine, in the community of Sevres, well-known for the porcelain that has been made there since 1738.

La Seine Musicale is a striking building in its own right looking like a round bird’s egg, with a giant sail on its back. It is situated on the long narrow island in the middle of the river Seine. It was built on the site of a former Renault car plant and encompasses some 36,500 square metres with a large hall and a smaller auditorium that seats about 1,150. NACO played in this hall Friday night.

La Seine Musicale is located on an island in the Seine River. Photo: Peter Robb

La Seine Musicale was the perfect cutting edge venue for a ground-breaking and technically demanding work such as Life Reflected with its elaborate visual set design, use of translucent scrims and extensive video.

Without doubt, this was the best performance of this production that I have seen, helped by the fact that the hall was intimate without feeling overwhelming.

Each piece of Life Reflected tells a different story about a Canadian woman. And each piece is fully realized and multi-disciplinary thanks to the work of producer Donna Feore and Montreal’s Normal Studio. The music itself ranges from challenging to lyrical, but you can’t really analyse it without considering the context in which it is found.

The first piece is called Dear Life and it is based on a short story of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. The music by Zosha Di Castri is moody and ominous, as is the story by Munro. You expect something grim might be about to happen, but it doesn’t. You also sense some dark secret is to be revealed, but it isn’t. Thus it works in tandem with the text read by Martha Henry, soprano soloist Erin Wall‘s vocal gymnastics and the stunningly bleak black and white photographs by Larry Towell.

The music for My Name is Amanda Todd won Vancouver’s Jocelyn Morlock a JUNO. The story is a tragic one. Todd was a young teenager who was sexually harassed and bullied online to the point that she committed suicide. This segment of the performance was equally affecting but the music and the graphic display was more uplifting in the end, despite the sadness of the story.

Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, which is an homage to Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space is full of wit and not a little whimsy with its loops and blips. The use of archival footage of Bondar’s journey into space captures nicely the enthusiasm with which Bondar seems to approach everything.

Finally the evening concluded with the powerful story of Rita Joe’s I Lost My Talk.

The story of a little girl whose language and culture was taken from her in residential school combines John Estacio’s lush and moving score with a beautiful film shot in Killbear Provincial Park in the Parry Sound area of Ontario. The film captures a group of dancers choreographed by Santee Smith telling Rita Joe’s story in movement. On the screen the young Rita engages with the actor Monique Mojica who was live on stage Friday night. She spoke the words of Joe’s poem. It made for a powerful closing piece.

If there were any nerves about this first performance of Life Reflected, they should be gone now. This one went swimmingly. Next performance will be in Gothenburg, Sweden on May 26.

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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.