NACO on tour: Warm welcome to Canadians from London audience

David DQ Lee, Ana Sokolovic and Alexander Shelley bask in the applause after performance of Golden Slumbers. Photo: Fred Cattroll

In his other life, NACO Music Direct Alexander Shelley is principal associate conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

That means he’s often in the various symphony halls of the capital including a small — some 900 seats — creampuff white venue known as Cadogan Hall. It’s pronounced Kaduggan, by the way.

The hall started life as a Christian Science church in 1907 and was converted into a concert hall for the Royal Phil in 2004. Since then its hosted concerts of all sorts including, on May 14, the National Arts Centre Orchestra on its 50th anniversary tour of Europe. This was the second concert of the tour, the first having taken place on May 12 in Saffron Hall near Cambridge.

Pianist Jan Lisiecki takes a bow after a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major in Cadogan Hall London Tuesday night. Photo: Peter Robb

On Tuesday evening NACO offered the 2019 JUNO award winning Canadian composition Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes by Ana Sokolovic (who was in the house), Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major performed by Calgary’s Jan Lisiecki, and Johannes Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major in the second half of the night.

Golden Slumbers is a NACO commission as well. It was written with the Korean Canadian countertenor David DQ Lee in mind and his three octave range was in full voice Tuesday night in this linguistically challenging and musically intriguing piece that Sokolovic calls a travelogue of sorts through a range of folk songs sung in Serbian, English, French, Ladino, German and Italian.

The piece calls for chorus and in this performance the ensemble is London Voices. They were certainly up to the task of navigating the languages and the twists and turns of Sokolovic’s inventive score.

In a brief interview during intermission Sokolovic talked about the thrill of having her music performed so well in London.

“It is a thrill because it is very rarely played” outside Canada. Only her bigger pieces have been performed internationally including her Svadba Opera, which has been performed some 50 times around the world, and Golden Slumbers, which is about 25 minutes long.

Golden Slumbers seems to have a bit of a glow around it. It is the second piece she wrote for the NAC after winning the centre’s award for composers in 2009.

“To commission a work like this you have to have courage to do it, then, of course to record it and finally to bring it on tour,” she said. “I am amazed to part of this group of five composers to be on the tour.”

It is important, she said, that NACO is demonstrating that they actually “believe in what they commission. It says to the world that there is quality there and it is good to present it.”

When she was thinking about the commission, she said, she was thinking about a specific kind of countertenor voice for the piece and a colleague from the Canadian Opera Company, Alexander Neef, mentioned Lee.

“I listened to his recordings and thought it would be a good idea to work with him because he has such a dramatic voice.”

And he was also willing to sing into the bass range that is required in this piece. Many countertenors, she said, don’t want to go so low in the range even though they can.

She says she will have to write a second version of the piece if another countertenor, who doesn’t like singing bass notes, is performing.

What Lee does is very rare, she said. Some countertenors will sing bass and baritone but not when they are also singing countertenor in the same performance.

Sokolovic’s tour ended Tuesday evening following these two performances and other composers will be joining the tour in Paris and beyond.

Sokolovic says it is such a smart move by NACO to present something new and fresh to the world; not only the work of composers but also of Canadian soloists and musicians.

It was a good move indeed as the London crowd definitely enjoyed the performance of Golden Slumbers.

The JUNO winning composition was followed by another JUNO winner, the young star pianist with the mop of tousled hair from Calgary, Jan Lisiecki. He won in 2018 for his Deutsche Gramophon recording of Chopin: Works for Piano and Orchestra with the NDR Elophilharmonie Ochester.

On Tuesday night he played Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with a clear sense of the jazz and blues inflections that run throughout this very attractive piece of music. Lisiecki has now played it a few times with NACO and the more they play it together the better it seems to sound.

His performance was greeted with bravos and a couple of curtain calls.

The program was constructed to demonstrate the range of music that NACO can handle with aplomb — something brand new, some blue and finally something of a European standard repertoire. The Brahms Second Symphony is a test of the classical chops of any orchestra and this night NACO seemed to be handling it with enthusiasm and more power that was felt in Southam hall when they played the piece on the eve of their departure.

Cadogan Hall is a more intimate space so the full force of the 70 some players was available to the listeners, who were very near by.

They obviously liked it enough to offer a standing ovation and again after an energetic encore by NACO of Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6 also in D major.

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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.