Review: NACO’s first Canada 150 tour concert a full musical meal

NACO and the Shallowly Youth Choir take a bow Thursday evening. Photo: Peter Robb

ST. JOHN’S, NL • When Canada is your stage, the message you send matters. So what messaging can be found in the first concert of NACO’s Canada 150 tour.

The mostly full house at the Arts and Culture Centre heard loud and clear some new Canadian music and words calling for reconciliation with indigenous peoples. And they heard NACO handle one of the mainstays of orchestra performance in Dvorak’s New World Symphony and seem fresh and energized. Plus they got a chance to see a Canadian virtuoso dazzle with his take on Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major.

The evening opened with a charming performance of a new commission for children’s choir by the Toronto-based composer Larysa Kuzmenko with text by the Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe.

Kuzmenko is to be commended for seamlessly adapting Brahms Intermezzo to accommodate the choral singing. And Chafe’s text for the piece called Heirloom certainly served to offer a message of acknowledgement, apology and a pledge to do better to indigenous peoples for their treatment in Canada.

It also showcased the very talented Shallaway Youth Choir of St. John’s which offered a perfect blend of youthful clarity and adult poise in the premiere of this work in front of a hometown crowd.

Next up was a performance of the New World. It’s so familiar a piece as to be teetering on the edge of being a cliche. But truly, when well played, as NACO did with zest on Thursday night, Dvorak’s masterwork introduces the listener to our continent with fresh eyes. We hear and imagine the colours of the mountains and the prairies. And we hear the urgency of the growing industrial energy of America at the end of the frontier in the 1890s.

You’d think these two pieces might have been enough, but after intermission, James Ehnes, Brandon, Manitoba’s gift to the violin, offered up one of his signature performance pieces, the Korngold Violin Concerto, which was written by Erich Korngold after the Second World War and the defeat of the Nazis. Ehnes just gets this piece and it certainly flowed off his Stradivarius Thursday night.

The finale was I Lost My Talk, John Estacio’s setting of the powerful, yet simple, poem of the Mi’kmaw poet laureate Rita Joe. The piece is one of four new works commissioned and performed by NACO last year under the title Life Reflected. I Lost My Talk also features a film of indigenous dancers patrolling the rocks and woods of the Canadian Shield and the presence of the indigenous actor Monique Mojica (who also appears in the film) speaking the powerful words of Rita Joe.

The poem, which is about the loss of her Mi’kmaw language and culture while enrolled in residential school, ended the concert with the plea: “Let me find my talk/So I can teach you about me.”

Thursday night’s show put an exclamation point on NACO’s stay in St. John’s. Friday morning the orchestra boards a flight to Moncton, N.B. and a series of education and outreach events with young people from the music program Sistema New Brunswick.

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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.