Review: NACO’s fall festival opens with some Northern fire from Canada and Finland

Alexina Louie's Triple concerto a real firecracker.

A late-Romantic symphony orchestra is one of the prettiest sights in the world. The gleaming back wall of brass, the orderly thicket of woodwinds, the strings like a glossy herd of arch-necked thoroughbreds — bay, brown, chestnut — pack the stage in a pleasing picture of solidity and heft.

This attractive image greeted patrons at Tuesday evening’s launch of Ideas of North, NACO’s 10-day festival exploring the musical links between Finland and Canada. The orchestra was arrayed at full force for Sibelius’ tone poem Tapiola. Alexander Shelley, with his flair for imaginative, thoughtful programming, deliberately chose to start the festival with Sibelius’ last major orchestral work, pairing it with his First Symphony in the second half.

Sandwiched in between was the Ottawa premiere of Alexina Louie’s Triple Concerto for Three Violins and Orchestra. As part of their Canada 150 commissions, NACO, the Toronto Symphony and the Montreal Symphony jointly asked Louie to craft a showpiece for their three dazzling young concertmasters (NACO’s Yosuke Kawasaki for NACO, the MSO’s Andrew Wan, and the TSO’s Jonathan Crow).

In my pre-concert chat with her, Louie candidly described the enormous, blood-sweat-and-tears challenge of writing a virtuosic piece for three hotshot violin bros that also showcased the orchestra, and somehow fitting it all into a neat 15-minute package. Her effort has paid off in a tight little firecracker of a concerto, so efficiently structured that not one note seems wasted. (Read an ARTSFILE interview with Alexina Louie here.)

It opens with Louie’s signature bristling percussion and narrow harmonies in the brass, before exploding into a torrent of non-stop furious playing for the soloists, who only pause for breath during the briefest of slower interludes. The finale, which Louie described as her birthday present to her country, ends the piece in a celebratory mood, the notes showering down with the pop and glitter of sparklers on a cake.

But back to Sibelius. Under Shelley and principal guest conductor John Storgårds, there has been a seismic shift in NACO’s sound in the Nordic repertoire over the past year. The orchestra is now consistently producing richly satisfying, molasses-dark colours, overlaid with the wintry shimmer of hoarfrost in the high strings and woodwinds.

Tapiola had an epic narrative sweep, full of mysterious, eerie utterances from the winds, with brass lines like far-off icy peaks. The long, swirling crescendo of strings before the end achieved a thrilling, tornado-like effect, screeching and destructive.

The First Symphony began with Kimball Sykes’ plaintive, remote clarinet solo before bursting into the triumphant main theme. Shelley kept the energy high and the tension quivering, somehow finding that ambiguous balance between Sibelius’ hesitant glances back to late Tchaikovsky and other influences, and the emergence of his own independant, Finnish voice.

Ideas of North continues at NACO Thursday with Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu leading the orchestra in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and his Océanides tone poem. Pianist Angela Hewitt will also present the world premiere of Nameless Seas, a new work composed for her by Matthew Whittall. (For ARTSFILE interviews with Hannu Lintu and Matthew Whittall click here and here.)

For more on Ideas of North, please see

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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.