Thirteen Strings celebrates a decade of Mallon

Kevin Mallon has led Thirteen Strings for the past decade. Time to celebrate.

Ten years ago, Vancouver was hosting a very success Winter Olympics, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, Kesha topped the Billboard 100 with Tik Tok and the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. In Ottawa Jim Watson was elected mayor and the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra hired a new music director.

Kevin Mallon was raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland where he studied violin and composition. Before landing in Canada, Mallon performed with organizations such as the Hallé Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic.

In 1993, he joined the University of Toronto and the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. In 1996, he founded the Aradia Ensemble.

In 2010, a job opened in Ottawa that appealed to him. The post was the music director of the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra. Mallon applied and got the gig.

On Feb. 18, the orchestra will celebrate his decade with a concert of music by Mozart and graced by an appearance by the legendary Canadian born pianist Janina Fialkowska.

In his 10 years there have been recordings for Naxos — the first was of music by composer Franz Beck, and contemporary of Mozart and the second was of music by the Kingston, ON composer John Burge. The music on this disc was all commissioned by Thirteen Strings.

“On that CD the music is very beautiful. There is one piece in particular called One Sail that I find a really moving and exciting piece. (NACO’s principal cello) Rachel Mercer played it on the recording.”

Of course there have been many shows with great soloists, but for Mallon one of the signature accomplishments of his tenure is the Thirteen Strings Composition Workshop which features works by young composer studying at uOttawa.

Each year five compositions are workshopped by the orchestra with one eventually winning a prize of $1300 and a concert performance of the work.

“Over four years, there are 20 compositions which we were instrumental in getting going. It’s something of which I am particularly proud.”

When he started work in Ottawa, he was presented with a talented ensemble that played a mix of old and new works from Baroque to contemporary pieces.

“That’s a model I inherited.”

He thought that this February concert should feature Mozart as a way to celebrate his time so far at the podium.

The presence of Fialkowska is exciting.

Mallon knew her husband Harry Osterle before he met Janina Fialkowska.

“He used to run a festival in Germany where Tafelmusik used to go. During my years with Tafelmusik, we used to go to Bavaria at the start of every season. Harry was the manager there.”

With Tafelmusik, he was a violinist doing some conducting on the side until “2004, when I had a serious accident. I fell off a stage and tore my left shoulder. It seemed the right time to focus on conducting.”

His shoulder healed but by then he was working with an opera company in Ireland and that led to a gig in Odessa, Ukraine. Next stop Ottawa.

“In my game you rarely have a fulltime position. You mangle together lots of other jobs to make a living.

Thirteen Strings fits into this pattern. He is back and forth by VIA Train (when they are running) between his home in Toronto and here.

These days, Mallon says he thinks the orchestra has become more stable. They have moved all their concerts into one venue — the Carleton Dominion Chalmers Centre.

“And we have a loyal audience that is right behind us.

When he took over he said he liked the fact that the orchestras has a broad repertoire.

“I have been labelled with the Baroque and Classical mantle. One does get branded. It’s just ridiculous how it goes on.

“But the one thing about getting older is that you aren’t so bothered about those things.  You let your work speak for itself and just get down to things that really interest me such as composition.”

He was a student of composition in university.

He studied with Peter Maxwell Davies, “who was a very intense man.” He put composition aside as his playing and conducting career developed but recently the desire to write music has resurfaced, he said.

“I am starting to dream and hear music again, to work things out in my head.”

The Feb. 18 concert will feature a work by Mallon. It is a setting of the text of a medieval polyphonic song called Stella Splendens (Radiant Star).

“This piece has a slight Spanish pedigree. It talks about all sorts of things all coming from the mightiness of the light.

His music is partly trying to capture the light of Spain but also his own reflections on the  Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

“You see the Arabic influence in the Alhambra. I hear in this piece the Arabic and Spanish influences going through it. Light is important when you start thinking about music in bright terms. I like the idea of mixing modern composition with an ancient piece of music.”

This is something that his old teacher, Maxwell Davies, used to do.

There are metaphors in the text for the breath going through things reflecting the medieval idea of the Breath of God.

Mallon was a choir boy who grew up in a “fairly” religious family. But these days he considers himself to be a spiritual person, not a religious one.

“I was a Buddhist for quite a long time. The appeal was the gentleness, the accepting of all viewpoints, of having an inner practice.”

This upcoming concert, he said, is a way to show that the orchestra has achieved a certain musical poise.

Going forward “I would like to record more of the classical repertoire with the orchestra. I’m really dreaming about the Boccherini symphonies. which I think the orchestra would play really well.”

Mallon has recorded some 50 CDs on the Naxos label so he has a connection.”But these days you have to fund pretty much everything to get a CD done. So you pick your spots.

“But at a certain point it is also important to make a statement and often that’s with a CD or on YouTube.”

He would also like to raise the orchestra’s international profile through some touring. That takes some co-ordination because the musicians have other gigs, many with contracts with the NAC Orchestra. The orchestra was founded in 1976 by Brian Law with members of NACO.

A decade of work is also a time to take stock. In Mallon’s case, he’s committed to the orchestra to the foreseeable future.

“It is a huge part of my life, but you become philosophical about the way forward. Things change. I don’t think an orchestra wants to have a conductor for life. That doesn’t happen anymore.

However, “I don’t feel the end yet.”

He is motivated by the idea that “for those of us who believe in culture know that it brings something deep and peaceful to our society.”

In Thirteen Strings, Mallon doesn’t see his role as that of teacher or leader.

“It’s really about an interchange of ideas. These musicians are very fine players and will often have very valid opinions about what the music should say. I hope we have the opportunity for everyone to bring their opinions forward.”

“When I was young I saw a form of conducting that was more tyrannical. I don’t feel that now. I learned very early on that if you are a (jerk), you eat alone.”

He said he has a great sense of achievement. Over these 10 years, I have a sense of pride that we have lasted; that the orchestra has grown and that we are more stable financially and musically.”

And he likes the fact that the group has tackled projects with a bigger involvement of other disciplines such as a concert two years ago with the CNIB.

Thirteen Strings presents Mozartmania
Featuring Janina Fialkowska
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Feb 18 at 7:30 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.