NACO on tour: Music education front and centre

NACO Music Director Alexander Shelley is seen here working with students in Winnipeg during the Canada 150 tour. Photo: Fred Cattroll

When the National Arts Centre Orchestra goes on the road, the biggest part of every tour is not the concerts in glittering halls.

In fact, much of NACO’s time is spent in a form of cultural diplomacy that takes place in conservatories and public schools with young musicians from university to Grade 1.

The orchestra’s 50th anniversary tour is no different. Over two weeks, members of the orchestra team will be involved in some 60 events from London to Gothenburg, Sweden.

They will interact with musicians who are refugees in Utrecht, The Netherlands and Sistema students from difficult backgrounds in Stockholm. There will also be many masterclasses with players who are on track for professional careers as well.

For Genevieve Cimon, the NAC’s director of music education, these events are actually “a little bit about Canadian cultural diplomacy. They provide a way of really connecting in meaningful ways in the communities where we perform.”

As a national organization NACO doesn’t “want to be a museum piece. We are a living artistic entity inspired by the people we meet” and the issues they face.

“For every concert, we are giving around 10 education community events,” she said.

This tour is being called Crossings which speaks to many of the issues of our times.

“There is powerful storytelling to be had in music and orchestral music and contemporary music in particular,” she said.

One of the issues being confronted involves the migration of peoples from failed states.

“Sadly many immigrants coming to a new culture don’t know if they are being heard and not knowing how to communicate.” Music helps underline the importance of inclusion as an opportunity to enrich a community.

Genevieve Cimon is the NAC’s director of music education and community involvement. Photo: Luther Waverley

Music certainly inspires collaboration and the tour’s educational activities really get started with a bang in a broadband concert that crosses the Atlantic Ocean from London to Ottawa.

“What we will be doing to launch all the projects on this tour is bringing kids together from North London and Ottawa’s OrKidstra. They will make music together” through the NAC’s Hexagon Studio on May 13 at 9:30 a.m. EST and 2:30 p.m. London time. You can seen the event here.

“This project will allow the students on both sides of the ocean to dream just a little bit bigger,” Cimon said.

“I think that is something NAC does so well bringing people together.” The event is called ConneXXions 2019. It will see young musicians from OrKidstra and from the Brent Youth Concert Band and String Chamber Orchestra. Both groups will each play some music and then at the end of the broadcast, they will play a piece of music together that is called Crossings & Connexxions. And that, ladies and gents, is a first.

For Tina Fedeski, one of the co-founders of OrKidstra this tour is a first.

The organization was contacted by NACO last January and invited to connect with the Brent band in England. The idea of building bridges through music is what OrKidstra is all about, she said.

As the project firmed up, she said, “we thought it would be important to have a chance to make music together.”

Another co-founder of OrKidstra, Margaret Tobolowska, who is a former NACO cellist and a conductor (with OrKidstra) and a composer, will lead the OrKidstra students. She has also been working with two British composers, Detta Danford and Natasha Zielazinski, in the piece which will be jointly performed.

“We felt it was important it be interactive,” Fedeski said. “It is so exciting that we can be part of that bridge. It’s very empowering for us to feel that we can play such a role and be meaningful in what they are aspiring to do.”

Tina Fedeski is the executive director of OrKidstra. Photo: Peter Robb

Fedeski is fond of a quote from the founder of the Sistema movement, José Antonio Abreu Anselmi. It is: ‘A child who knows five notes can help a child who only knows three.’ Mentorship starts early.

Tobolowska says some 25 members of OrKidstra will perform in the ConneXXions event.

For several weeks she has been emailing back and forth with her colleagues in London ensuring that the joint performance goes off without a hitch.

“There is a very slight time lag,” she said, so the joint piece is built upon themes and a lot of improvisation that will happen within various musical structures. As well there will be a soundscape that will symbolize the crossing of the ocean and a pulse. Both the soundscape and a pulse will build in some flexibility to the performance.

That’s important because there won’t be a rehearsal together, she said.

“We are just going to wing it. The point is the kids should have fun,” she said.

The performance will last up to 12 minutes and it contains three segments.

“The idea is that music brings us all together and we are embodying that.”

Tobolowska calls OrKidstra “peace in action. For me it is so clear, it’s important for us to keep exposing the idea to the world.”

For Cimon, ConneXXions is part of the mandate.

“We have these resources and we should be bringing people together.”

Margaret Maria Tobolowska. Photo: Mark Maryanovich

OrKidstra and Tobolowska are involved in another event in Stockholm with Sweden’s Sistema Södertälje. Tobolawska has written some music and the OrKidstra students have contributed some lyrics to a reworking of a 17th century Swedish folksong called Dejlig Rosa. The new piece will blend old and new together in a piece called Garden of Maple Rose.

The Swedish children and members of NACO will perform this commission inside the Royal Chapel in the palace in Stockholm.

The Sistema students comes from the troubled and hard-scrabble north end of Stockholm and this will be their first time ever inside the chapel, Cimon said.

In Utrecht, NACO will be working with young Syrian and Sudanese refugee children from the Dutch city’s Overvecht district neighbourhood along with working with a professional ensemble called Catching Cultures made up of refugee musicians.

“It’s really exciting when see these kinds of events take place,” Cimon said. “We know it’s motivation for the kids to be practicing and looking forward to having this interesting exchange with professional musicians from an orchestra they have never heard of.”

One of the busiest members of the orchestra is Alexander Shelley, who is a gifted conductor, communicator and educator, Cimon said.

He’ll work with young conductors in London and talk to music students from all genres.

Other members of the orchestra will be giving master classes including concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki and NACO’s principal double bass Joel Quarrington.

The NAC’s commitment to education has grown in intensity and size over Cimon’s 18 years on the job.

“I am still recovering from Canada 150. We toured the country and did some 250 events from coast to coast to coast.”

When she started it was difficult to organize these events. Now people are “calling me.”

Cimon believes these experiences also enrich the NACO musicians.

“It has kind of become part of our DNA that we do this.”

She admits to having had debates with some musicians about the meaning of excellence. Cimon said she believes musical excellence can be about how well one plays a piece of music and “it can also be about how many smiles are on the faces of the children in a workshop.”

Share Post
Written by

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.