NACO’s Canada 150 tour: Alexander Shelley’s school house rocks

Alexander Shelley worked with hundreds of young musicians across Atlantic Canada. Photo: Fred Cattroll

HALIFAX • Alexander Shelley’s first tour as the conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra has been a lesson in learning.

There have been some great musical moments on tour including a wonderful opening concert in St. John’s, Newfoundland and a moving performance in Eskasoni, Cape Breton Island, the home community of Rita Joe, the poet who wrote I Lost My Talk.

The tour concluded Saturday evening at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium with a rousing concert that offered some changes in the normal program. Instead of the Korngold Violin Concerto, James Ehnes performed the Sibelius Violin Concerto with real verve. He shredded it in fact. And with the family of Rita Joe in the house, the evening ended with the song We Shall Remain by the Eskasoni teenager Kalolin Johnson. Fittingly her moving performance was on the campus of Dalhousie University where she will begin to study sciences next fall.

But, earlier in the day, Shelley was talking about education.

Over the 10-day excursion through Newfoundland, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, “I reckon I must have worked with more than 1,000 kids, which has been very rewarding. Apart from the fact that it is good and useful to do these kinds of educational events on tour, it’s a nice way to meet the community. I’m also very interested in terms of our ongoing role is how we can continue to be of use” to these same communities.

“It’s a very exciting to think that we could maintain these relationships and be viewed as a resource and support.

“It’s a worldwide issue that, increasingly, arts institutions are having to step into the breach because governments lack interest or funds for the arts in schools. We can lobby and stick up for how important these things are and we can just get our hands dirty and get in there.”

Shelley knows, as anyone who works in music education knows, that young people learn real skills with music.

“They learn to communicate non-verbally. They learn the individual discipline required to play an instrument. They develop the ability to take criticism from a teacher and to turn that into something positive. And they get to understand how hierarchies work in an orchestra. That’s a big part of modern management.

“If you can function in an orchestra, you can function anywhere.”

NACO is not the only symphony orchestra that does music education, but Shelley who works with orchestras in Europe and elsewhere, believes what NACO does “is very impressive. It feels very worthwhile.”

All tours have highlights and the music director mentioned three.

“(In St. John’s) I was very impressed by the Shallaway Youth Choir. They learned a new piece from memory. At the first rehearsal, they were off-book. … That was an example of excellence.

“You can’t help but be impressed with Sistema New Brunswick, with the size of the movement and by how much Ken MacLeod and Tony Delgado have done. You feel something very special is happening.”

And then there were “14 to 16 memorable hours” in Eskasoni.

“It was unforgettable from being welcomed by the community and seeing how they lived to working with all the kids from around Cape Breton the next morning. And then going into a performance with depth of meaning …  that was perhaps the standout moment.”

The piece at the centre of the NACO tour is I Lost My Talk, a setting of the Rita Joe poem by the Edmonton-based composer John Estacio.

The NAC and Shelley are walking a fine line with this music, between empathy and being patronizing.

“You can’t not be who you are,” Shelley said. “I’m a white English guy and I am a musician. I try to understand the context of the music I am playing. With I Lost My Talk the fact is there is such recent history and because of the acute current sensitivities around this very important question it was all the more difficult.

“I felt personally comfortable in my own skin, I wasn’t worried I would get something wrong. I also felt comfortable that every member of our team — from the first idea of doing this — bent over backwards to make sure we were not taking the wrong steps. … But we were still faced with those fundamental issues.

“But if you can’t try to engage with an important social issue because of your own heritage it means we can’t ever get anywhere. … As long as we realize that we are all trying to treat each other with the utmost respect and empathy then it’s what we have to do.”

Shelley knows many Indigenous peoples are angry about broken promises and aren’t interested in celebrating Canada 150. That’s their right, he says.

And he is also very aware that he works for a national institution “and we have to hold ourselves to a high standard. After all the money which runs our institution comes from the people.

“When I was standing on stage in Eskasoni, I had remarks prepared for me and they were very well written but they were pretty corporate and I basically ignored them. When you are on stage, you feel  the energy of the people in the room. And you feel very quickly what is appropriate.

“In Eskasoni, I just wanted to talk about how we had been moved by the community’s generosity.  I don’t think would be right for us to say: ‘We’re the National Arts Centre Orchestra.’ In that moment we are just musicians who are trying to play a symphony beautifully and whatever message it brings to each individual is what it brings to them.”

Now that the Atlantic leg of the Canada 150 tour is over, NACO is moving on to the rest of the country. With a shows in Toronto and Quebec City coming up and then a tour of western and northern Canada in the fall.

“I can’t believe that by the end of this year, I’ll have been to every province and territory. It’s a big place. We’ve only been in this bit.”

There are other big things on the horizon. One, he cited, is the staging of the Harry Somers opera Louis Riel that will kick off the Canada Scene festival.

“I went to hear it in Toronto. I thought it was an excellent production. It got mixed reviews interestingly.

“It’s a hard slog because the score is intense, but it starts becoming beautiful, like a lot of things, once you start to get into it. Then we have Canada Day and the opening of the renovated building. I can’t wait to see what that will be like.”

Further down the road is a possible European tour, which is in the planning stage, he says. The goal would be to bring the entire Life Reflected package on the road. Life Reflected is a collection of four commissioned works based on the stories of four Canadian women. One of them is I Lost My Talk. The others are Dear Life, based on an Alice Munro story, Bondarsphere, about Roberta Bondar and My Name Is Amanda Todd, about the B.C. teenager who took her own life after being targeted online.

As if that wasn’t enough, Shelley will jet right away to Nuremberg, Germany to close the season of the orchestra he leads there. Then he’s off to Switzerland, back to Canada, and then back to Germany again before heading to Australia and New Zealand.

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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.