Natasha Gauthier Review: NACO finds great Solace in a return to performance

Maestro Alexander Shelley conducted the evening performance wearing a black face mask.

By Natasha Gauthier

After a COVID-induced absence of almost eight months, the National Arts Centre Orchestra returned to Southam Hall Saturday night for the first in a series of weekly livecast concerts.

Many things have changed since the orchestra’s last performance in March. The hall seats were empty. Musicians sat at least two metres apart from each other. Everyone, including conductor Alexander Shelley, wore black face masks. Woodwind and brass players sat behind protective plexiglass panels and only lowered their masks when playing. Some, like principal flute Joanna G’froerer, have even installed clear anti-aerosol shields around their embouchures as an extra precaution. To someone who isn’t a public health expert, it certainly looked as if management had taken every measure to keep the musicians and technical crew as safe as possible, although only time and testing will tell. 

A different, more welcome change was evident in the program. It would appear that the shift to online performance has spurred the orchestra into choosing more diverse, socially relevant and musically exciting fare. Saturday’s concert included works by two women composers, three composers of colour, and the oldest piece on the program dated from the 1940s. Both soloists were young Canadian musicians from BIPOC communities. About 2,000 people logged in to hear this concert — almost 1,500 on Vimeo and another several hundred on Facebook — proving you can attract an audience in this town without relying on Beethoven or Brahms. 

Aptly titled Solace, the concert opened with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Walker, who died in 2018 at the age of 90, was the first African-American composer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Walker was just 24 when he wrote Lyric, which he originally titled Lament as a tribute to his grandmother. Walker was influenced by his older classmate at the Curtis Institute, Samuel Barber, and comparisons with Barber’s Adagio for Strings are inevitable. But Walker was already establishing his own voice: poignant, dignified, with gentle figures in the low strings wrapping themselves around the violins like a consoling embrace. 

NACO was physically distanced but musically very much together, Natasha Gauthier reports

Shelley took the orchestra to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum with Jessie Montgomery’s bubbly, vivacious Starburst, written for the Sphinx Virtuosi, a Detroit-based chamber ensemble of African-American and Latinx musicians. 

Gatineau’s Christ Habib was the guest soloist for Jacques Hétu’s Guitar Concerto. The 24-year-old Lebanese-Canadian virtuoso’s clear, crisp tone and unfussy approach were ideally suited to Hétu’s neo-classical, cerebral style. Habib’s calm, focused execution was especially impressive considering the challenging circumstances, playing masked to a silent hall. It’s easy to see why he made the CBC’s “30 under 30” classical artists to watch for 2020. 

Soprano Jonelle Sills — another CBC 30 under 30 nominee — also showed remarkable poise with the strangeness of her NACO debut. The 28-year-old Toronto native did double duty, first as the soloist in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, and then as the regal narrator in Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen

It’s exceptionally difficult to gauge singers over the internet. You’re missing the whole visceral, tactile, dimensional aspect of vocal production — is it the kind of voice you feel in your sternum, or ringing behind your forehead? Does it fill the whole hall easily, or does the singer have to push? There are famous singers who always sound better live than on recordings, and vice versa.

That said, Sills’s voice came across as warm and rich, ruby-hued to match her gown. She did sound slightly tight and tentative at the beginning of the Ives, and the quality of the voice isn’t always even through her range — I would have liked to hear more heft and presence at the bottom end of her register.  

Shelley created a shimmering, fuzzy, hypnotic soundscape that amplified the evocative, cicada-buzz nostalgia of Barber’s music. 

The irony of Sills, a Black Canadian woman, singing about experiences that would not have been so contented and peaceful for anyone like her living in Tennessee at the turn of the last century, was not lost on me. It was smart of NACO to contrast this idealized memory of the South with Simon’s powerful Portrait of a Queen, which traces the journey of Black people in America through the voice of one proud Black woman.

We meet her living sovereign and free in Africa and follow her as she experiences enslavement, emancipation, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, and finally expresses her shining hope for future generations. It’s an incredibly powerful work and I was concerned Sills was too much of an ingenue type to carry it off. But she made it her own; what it lacked in commanding, matriarchal gravitas it made up for in passion and vibrant expression. This was a young queen, vital and strong, speaking from a full and open heart. Sills also needs to be commended for performing both the Barber and the Simon from memory, when nobody would have faulted her for using a score. 

The concert ended with the titular work, Jocelyn Morlock’s remarkable Solace from 2001. Derived from 15th-century Flemish composer Josquin’s Missa L’Homme Armé–itself inspired by a popular tune of the day — Solace intertwines three groupings: an “early music” ensemble of strings playing themes from the Renaissance mass; a quintet of violins floating in high harmonics above the other musicians; and a warbling dialogue for solo violin and cello (wonderfully played by Yosuke Kawasaki and Julia MacLaine), sounding like a songbird arguing with a monk.  

The production team deserves a round of applause for the high quality of the video and audio, including the seamless editing of interviews with the various composers and soloists.

The final title screen informed viewers that the concert was dedicated to Erin Wall, the wonderful Canadian soprano who died of cancer at the age of 44 on Oct. 8.

Only a few hours later, Ottawa learned that cancer had taken another magnificent musician, the beloved violinist and University of Ottawa teacher Yehonatan Berick, 52. ARTSFILE extends its sincerest condolences to Berick’s partner, NACO principal cellist Rachel Mercer; their children; and to his family, friends, and students. May his memory be a blessing. 

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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.