Review: NACO opens season with shiny new sound, new shell, new look and old-fashioned Beethoven festival

NACO returned on Halloween with the first in a series of livestreamed concerts. Photo: John Kealey

Could there be anything more pedestrian than another Beethoven symphony cycle? For all NACO’s efforts to glitz up this year’s Focus Festival with podcasts, posters and a piano sonata marathon, it’s hard to see the relevance of such staid programming.

Even with rehearsal time constraints, there could at least have been an attempt to juxtapose Beethoven with some contemporary composers. Here was a missed opportunity to present newer works from a diversity of voices to explore Beethovenian themes such as individuality, freedom, equality, the struggle against marginalization and revolution.

An excerpt from Pulitzer-winner Jennifer Higdon’s shimmering All Things Majestic — a orchestral suite depicting the Teton Mountains — might have complemented Beethoven’s Sixth, for example. In past seasons we’ve become accustomed to more creativity and risk-taking by NACO, so this ultra-conventional choice to open the 2018-19 season was disappointing to say the least.

And yet.

Even if the works were familiar, there was a lot to love about hearing them in fresh, exciting new surroundings. The orchestra has unveiled its new acoustic shell, a simple, angular structure wrapping around the back of the stage, crafted out of white European oak stained a toasted honey colour. Visually the effect is an elegant, modern update of your parents’ wood-panelled basement, cozy but neutral, with the musicians scooched forward to the edge of the stage, intimately close.

Aurally, the difference with the old hall is striking.

The first thing you notice is that the orchestra can now achieve a true, delicate, floated pianissimo, one with quality and personality. Reverb is more generous, without being sludgy. In forte and fortissimo passages the sound is transformed, vibrant, saturated — on the colour spectrum it’s as if someone dialled up all the missing burnt oranges, ochers and golden yellows. The low strings have gained a dark, caramel creaminess, but the shell is especially flattering to the woodwinds, bringing even small details into sharp focus. Because they no longer have to constantly push and strain to be heard, the musicians’ body positions and expressions look much softer and more relaxed. Chapeau — NACO finally has the hall it deserves.

Shelley’s wife Zoe gave birth to their first child, a boy, just two weeks ago; earlier this week, the orchestra announced Shelley’s contract was renewed to 2023 (“We don’t trade our captain,” NACO’s new CEO Christopher Deacon quipped on Thursday night, a barb instantly understood by anyone who follows the NHL). With so much good news surrounding him, the joy and optimism spilled over into Shelley’s conducting this week.

Beethoven’s first three symphonies made up Thursday’s very long program. The triple bill was overly ambitious; Symphonies 1 and 2 leapt out of the gate, all youthful swagger and panache; I especially loved the coy, almost cheeky mood Shelley set in the Andante cantabile of the First symphony.  But the extensive first half of this first concert after a long summer break left the musicians’ energy and focus depleted for the demands of the Eroica. The Funeral March had sombre dignity, but not nearly enough tension, and by the variations of the Finale the players simply sounded like they were running out of gas. Nonetheless, Shelley provided a clear, measured view of Beethoven’s progression in both form development and artistic maturity through the three symphonies.

Everyone was refreshed for Symphony No.5 on Casual Friday, presented by itself but padded with a musical education component (I like the approach of using the musicians themselves as a resource for audience communication, and hope to see more).

Shelley’s approach to Beethoven’s Fifth is a very different from that of John Storgårds, NACO’s principal guest, who conducted it here two years ago. The Finnish conductor’s interpretation was ferociously violent and vehement. Shelley gave us less rage, more soul. The first movement was tightly contained within its disciplined, rhythmic urgency. Phrasing in the second movement was luxurious and supple, but always with the sense of con moto nipping at its heels.

The new worlds of dynamic range that have been opened up made for an especially thrilling transition between the third and the fourth movements. There was magic too in the irresistible, explosive exuberance Shelley built and maintained throughout the last movement.

Along with their new shell, the orchestra debuted their new dress code. Gone are the formal white tie attire for men and matronly long sleeves for women. Instead, the gentlemen are in sleek black suits with narrow black ties, while women are allowed any length of sleeve they like.

New sound, new shell, new look: all bold steps forward into 2018. Hopefully bolder, more progressive programming will follow.  

NACO’s Beethoven Festival continues September 19 with Symphonies 4 and 6.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.