Stars will align in rare concert event with NAC Orchestra

The band Stars takes centre stage with the NAC Orchestra on Saturday.

Amy Millan has a secret. She’s a committed “thrifter.”

On tour with her band Stars, the singer and guitarist is known to frequent thrift shops, picking up this and that for herself, her mates and her kids.

It’s a fun “reuse and recycle” sort of thing. And the pickings can sometimes be pretty sweet, such as the gold and glitter gown that she’s thinking of rocking on Saturday in Southam Hall when Stars performs in concert with the NAC Orchestra. This is part of a series of concerts bringing pop, rock and folk artists to perform with NACO.

She picked up the gown in Los Angeles in a part of the city known as Eagle Rock.

“I actually found it in a goodwill shop. It’s obviously a one-of-a-kind dress. In my fantasy, it was made for some old Hollywood star to wear to an award ceremony and then, because famous people only wear things once, she sent it off to the thrift store where I was able to find it. I can now wear it to the show.”

For Millan and Stars, this show “is the very first time we have ever done anything like this.”

She also thinks it’s a perfect match for Stars, given that many of the six members of the band are classically trained musicians.

“Chris Seligman played French horn, Evan Cranley and  Torquil (Campbell) played trumpet. I played the flute.”

Millan said she actually really wanted to play the clarinet, but when she showed up for band in high school they handed her a flute.

It helped that her piano teacher was also a flute teacher.

“I was able to stay with her. She was an incredible teacher and huge influence.

“We all have roots in classical music. If you look at our catalogue, we have always hired amazing string players to play with us. If you look back at one of our very first records Heart we sampled Berlioz in a song called Look Up,” Millan said.

“I feel like we have just been waiting for this kind of opportunity. We are thrilled that the NAC has given us this chance to work with a real orchestra. It’s a once in a lifetime.”

Millan started in music with those piano lessons.

“I think what the lessons really did was help train my ear. I was always a bit of a cheater. I would listen to my teacher play something and be able to learn it from hearing her play rather than figuring out what she was doing.

“I don’t have incredible discipline but those piano lessons helped develop my ear so I could tell whether something was flat or sharp. What happened was I broke my leg when I was 15 and couldn’t move. My mom out a guitar in my hands and said ‘Make yourself useful’.”

She taught herself how to play the guitar and then started writing songs. That led to a band called Edith’s Mission with Emily Haines and then to Broken Social Scene and Stars.

And now it means a gig with NACO. “No band makes more sense to hook up with a symphony than Stars,” Millan said, referencing the band’s penchant for the large lush sounds of what some have called baroque pop..

The idea for the concert was actually something the band had been considering. They had even been talking to booking agents about whether something could be arranged, Millan said.

So when NAC Presents Executive Producer Heather Gibson came calling with the idea of a concert with the orchestra, the band was raring to go, Millan said.

“Heather reached out at the perfect time.”

For the past six months, the band has been working with the NAC and music arrangers preparing a set list.

The opportunity has also meant the band has a chance to play some songs that they rarely play in a rock venue.

“We are taking advantage of a large orchestra to pull out some songs that we don’t usually play because we need that large lush sound. It will make these songs come alive in a way they never have. A song like Changes for example, from The Five Ghosts album is a tune we don’t play very much in clubs. But it will work with NACO.”

The NAC hired three arrangers — Todor KobakovDarren Fung and Rebecca Pellett — who have been sharing MIDI files with the band. The orchestra will be conducted by Mélanie Leonard, the music director of the Sudbury Symphony, and Stars fan.

The band hit the studio with those files and have been working with the music on the road. In fact, during their normal two-hour sound check before a show, they’ve been running through the arrangements.

When they get to Ottawa this week, they will rehearse with NACO on Friday and Saturday, Millan said. She’s not worried.

“I’m pretty confident in everybody’s ability to do their job.

“We are pulling our most sweeping songs, ones that are able to tell a story with the many instruments at our disposal.”

The band has 12 arranged tunes and will add four or five other songs to flesh out the night in Southam Hall.

She won’t be picking up a flute however.

“I don’t think I could compete and I have too much respect for the other players to think I would dare to play the flute.”

Blending a rock band and an orchestra will be a matter of trust.

“We trust them and I am hoping they trust us to come in with our best game. Another thing that really helps us as a band is that we will have been on tour for three weeks.

“We will have many shows under our belts. It’s not like we would be coming in green and haven’t been on stage for a long time.”

She knows that the biggest key in a concert is the listening.

“We are all dedicated to listening to one another and feel one another’s presence and we feel that will make for a beautiful show.”

They have run through all the arrangements, Millan said, and the band is pretty confident all is well.

“There is a song, On Peak Hill, which is off our very first album. We have had a difficult time bringing that to the stage because it is so subtle. But we know that it will become a new song in this concert.”

There is an extra bonus. The group will walk away with the arrangements done for this concert and will be able to repeat the show with another orchestra or two or more across the country.

NAC Presents Stars with the NAC Orchestra
Special guest: My Brightest Diamond
Southam Hall
When: Dec. 15 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.