NACO’s golden year: Alexander Shelley plans for the 50th

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Rémi Thériault

The National Arts Centre Orchestra is about to mark the golden anniversary of its first concert in 1969 at the end of this month.

For Alexander Shelley, that’s one part of a very big month for NACO. But before the 50th anniversary concerts of Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, there is other important business on the agenda.

First will be a performance of the Verdi Requiem on Sept. 11 and 12 in Southam Hall and Sept. 14 in Kingston, Ont. It will be led by Shelley for the first time with NACO.

But, no surprise, he’s done it before.

“It’s a piece I love. It’s rewarding to come back to the requiem masses.” Shelley, who has an Irish Catholic grandmother knows the Catholic mass. He was raised in the Anglican church and he knows that liturgy too. For him, the line between reverence and drama in requiems is interesting.

“The texts are dramatic. They invoke terrible and horrifying, and beautiful things.

“In the most famous requiems, Verdi’s and Mozart’s, you can see how their dramatic imaginations are brought to life.

Both Mozart and Verdi wrote opera and thought about drama and theatre. One of contrasts between them, Shelley said, is that Mozart was genuinely devout while Verdi was a self-professed atheist.

But the fact Verdi was not religious doesn’t mean he shouldn’t write a requiem, Shelley said.

“I don’t buy that he had to be religious to write this music. It is a human expression of the ethereal or the heavenly whatever you want to call it.

“For Verdi, the stunning power of the requiem story spoke to his core. As well as he was moved by his relationship with the poet Mazzoni. There are two times in Verdi’s life when he wrote music like this. The first was after the death of Rossini and the second was after Mazzoni passed.

“It id a very dramatic and reverential human reaction to an incredible concept, this idea that you pray for the soul of someone who has passed.”

The requiem will be performed on the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The timing is coincidental, Shelley said, because the Verdi Requiem has been on his to do list  for some time, but it is fitting. “How much has been affected by what happened on that day?”

Funnily enough, he said, before his appointment in 2015, the then general manager of the orchestra Christopher Deacon was in Salzburg, Austria and heard his performance of the Verdi.

Since he has joined the NAC, Deacon, now the CEO, has been urging Shelley to do the requiem. He’s getting his wish on Wednesday.

But before then, NACO will join the rest of the NAC and celebrate the launch of the Indigenous Theatre department with two important concerts.

On Sept. 19. NACO will perform a concert of compositions written and performed by artists of Indigenous heritage including composers Barbara Croall, Ian Cusson, Andrew Balfour, soprano Melody Courage and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman.

The performance of Peer Gynt will have be narrated by the Indigenous singer and actor Tom Jackson.

“Ian, Andrew and Barbara have different stories and connections culturally. The concert will show that Indigenous music is not one thing,” Shelley said, “it is lots of different things.”

The performance of Ian Cusson’s piece is a world premiere of a co-commission by NACO and the Canadian Opera Company.

NACO will also premiere Cusson’s Le Loup de Lafontaine on Sept. 27

“This is part of the way we want to operate, giving composers opportunity to watch the development of the score. Even though I am not conducting that piece, I have learned it,” Shelley said.

“Stories are our medicine is one of the tag lines for Indigenous Theatre. We are a Nordic nation and one of the themes we keep referring to is the Ideas of North. Peer Gynt is from Norway and is one of their founding stories. It is a timeless story.

“I thought it would be an interesting contrast to the first half of all new music. Peer Gynt contains some of most famous and memorable music in history.

“This show might look different but I recommend it. All of the music is beautiful and accessible. It’s easy on the ear in the best way.”

The co-commission is intended to be a replacement for a song performed in the opera Louis Riel which was wrongly appropriated from the Nisga’a people of British Columbia.

“I conducted Louis Riel in 2017,” Shelley said. “There was a discussion about the appropriation of the music.” A decision to ask Cusson to write a new aria was taken.

“I think he has hit it out of the park.”

Shelley said that changing something that has already been written is very much on a case by case basis.

And while he refused to venture an opinion on the appropriateness of this decision, he did not that historically, “this has been actually been par for the course.

“For example, I have conducted Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Messiah at the NAC. He re-orchestrated it, changed things scrapped some stuff because in his day the idea that the original was sacred and could never be touched was absurd. People constantly changed stuff.”

In this 50th year, NACO is commissioning more than ever it seems.

For Shelley that’s just part of the package.

“I want us to do everything. I want us to the core repertoire. I want us to do less well known older pieces. I want us to be a hub for new music. We give so many concerts it’s important we do those things.

“It’s absolute imperative that the national orchestra stands behind Canadian creative artists. If we didn’t do that would be a scandal.”

To mark 50 golden years of music Shelley has programmed two concerts, one on Sept. 30 that will be led by John Storgårds and Shelley will conduct on Oct. 3. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 11, there will also be an audio-visual exhibition inside the NAC looking back on the history of the orchestra and events in the public spaces including performances and talks.

Anniversaries tend to focus the attention of media and the community and it also leads to important conversations inside 1 Elgin St., he said.

“There is a healthy mix in the building between talking about how to be a vessel that celebrates important traditions and continues them. And that also constantly re-evaluates those traditions.

“Every day we are talking about what our obligations and our responsibilities are.

“I think it is a mature and contemporary National Arts Centre that is more of a look forward than back. We need to be industry leaders. We are given a mandate by the federal government to do that.”

When he started thinking about the 50th anniversary week, Shelley said he wanted a simple clear format for concerts that showcase NACO.

So he has programmed two “of the great 20th century scores by Lutoslawski (Sept. 30) and by Bartok (Oct. 3).

They will “show the orchestra’s credentials,” he said.

“I also wanted to show off the fact that we stand behind creative contemporary composers.”

So he asked the composer Kevin Lau to turn his score for ballet, Dark Angels, into a concert suite that NACO can tour. That will premiere Oct. 3.

Then he also wanted to underline that NACO features some exceptional individuals. These two concerts will feature performances by concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, principal cellist Rachel Mercer, oboist Charles Hamman, bassoonist Christopher Millard and flutist Joanna G’froerer

This past spring NACO toured Europe as part of the 50th anniversary.

“When you think about a tour like that, you have to think about all the different aspects of what you are trying to achieve. On the one hand, it’s important to me that we continue to grow our profile on the international stage because the orchestra deserves it.

“To that end, we are increasing our recording activities and intend to increase touring. We are building networks with organizations around the world and we are also increasing our commissioning. It all builds awareness.

He also believes that when NACO tours, it’s important to represent “who we are.”

That means taking pieces like Life Reflected on the road. It means featuring Canadian soloists.

The tour was, in many ways, a first step on that road, he said.

It has borne fruit, he believes, but “we need to keep foot on the pedal and keep spreading the message.”

NACO will not be touring this season, but Shelley says the centre is talking to promoters in North America, Europe, South America, China and the Far East.

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.