Review: NACO offers a bright, shiny Beethoven’s Ninth in an impressive end to festival

NACO closes its festival of Beethoven with a bravura Ninth Symphony. Photo: John Kealey

May 7, 1824 is a special moment in the history of music. It’s the day Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in Vienna.

In its premiere, the Ninth was unlike anything heard before and it remains such a towering achievement that it comes back to concert stages again and again and again and again and still the people line up to listen.

In Ottawa, the NAC Orchestra has played it several times over the years, a few of those performances conducted by current music director Alexander Shelley. But none have been quite like the performance on Saturday night that closed the Focus Festival on Beethoven.

If you stretch the definition, Saturday’s concert was a premiere itself of sorts. That’s because the orchestra, with soloists and combined choir, was performing the Ninth inside a brand new acoustic shell, a massive piece of modern sound technology that cost the Canadian taxpayer a sizeable chunk of the $115 million spent upgrading the performance spaces inside the 49 year old National Arts Centre.

Well those taxpayers who packed Southam Hall on Saturday night got their money’s worth.

In the days before Sept. 13, the opening concert of the 2018-19 NACO festival, the orchestra was set deep on the stage surrounded by black ‘walls’ and a relatively open ceiling with strange white ‘baffles.’

The sound produced was always a bit distant, muffled, as if the orchestra was wrapped in gauze. We have long been told the the NAC Orchestra is world class, but, to be honest, the world class sound was almost never heard clearly in Southam Hall. I have been privileged to travel with NACO on three tours and on the road one had constant confirmation of the talent present in this ensemble in every modern hall they appeared in.

Now, finally, we can hear in Southam Hall what I heard in Salisbury Cathedral in a magical performance of  Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and the Bruch violin concerto.

And what better piece of music to test drive a new technology.

Saturday night’s performance, which prompted three curtain calls by the way, was crisp, sophisticated and balanced. Instrumental voices from the back rows were allowed to emerge with clarity including the wonderful woodwinds, the richly emotional French horns and the driving double basses, who sounded the opening notes of the Ode to Joy theme with a purpose.

This was the first time the full shell, in all its constituent parts, was employed as it was hosting a combined chorus of about 125 voices drawn from the Ottawa Choral Society, the Cantata Singers, the Ottawa Festival Chorus and the Ewashko Singers. And much like the orchestra, the choir could now be heard, full, robust and not overwrought because of the need to shout from the back of beyond on the old Southam Hall stage. The soloists did their work with verve. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton was a dashing and forceful presence in his NAC debut. Joining him was tenor Michael Schade, soprano Karina Gauvin and mezzo Julie Boulianne. All did their jobs well, although Schade’s voice was briefly overwhelmed at one point when the choir really let loose.

Saturday night’s Ninth makes the performance of Britten’s War Requiem on Nov. 9, a date to circle on the calendar. And the Messiah on Dec. 18 and 19 should have some extra spice.

Finally a word about the music director who not only handled the orchestra with his usual precision and aplomb, he also introduced the performance with a well-thought-out, informative briefing on the history of Beethoven and his famous symphony. The man never seems to put a foot wrong.

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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.