Thirteen Strings embarks on an ambitious season of light

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

The 2017-18 season for Ottawa’s chamber orchestra Thirteen Strings begins this month. In advance of the first concert called Metamorphoses on Oct. 15, ARTSFILE spoke with artistic director Kevin Mallon about his season of light. Tickets and information about the concert season can be found at

Q. Your new season is focussed on a theme of light. Why?

A: I have been working for some time to create an event to celebrate the centenary of The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). My partner in this venture is the Ottawa writer Kevin Burns. The concert echoes the words of the 18th century eye doctor John Taylor, who was apt to say: “The Subject is Light.” I decided it would be an interesting feature of the entire season if each concert were seen as if through a different lens or transforming light. The audience is led along a particular path, encouraged to see the music from a particular perspective and not just through the music itself … To reinterpret John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as if it were Ways of Hearing: It is hearing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with sounds, but sounds can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we hear and what we know is never settled.’

Q. You have new works sprinkled throughout the season, can you speak to these pieces.

A. In my time with the orchestra (this is my eighth season), we have commissioned and performed many works by contemporary Canadian composers. It was once thought acceptable for all Canadian orchestras to sprinkle the odd Canadian work in the season, just to fulfil a CanCon ideal. But thankfully, in line with the Canada Council, whose mandate is to “foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts,” Thirteen Strings has as one of its goals to foster and promote Canadian composers. To this regard the season includes three new works.

Andrew Ager: The Talk of the Town: Thirteen Strings was invited to be part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Canada Mosaic, where different orchestras in Canada, were able to invite a composer of their liking (called “Sesquie” composers) to write a short fanfare for their orchestra in celebration of Canada 150. Thirteen Strings choose Andrew Ager. This will be his third work for the orchestra after Suite from ‘The Wings of the Dove’ (2013) and Concerto grosso (2016).

Andrew has been very committed to the orchestra. He is a constant attendee and is certainly part of our community. As such he was a natural choice to represent Thirteen Strings in this important project.

John Geggie has written for the Thirteen Strings once before, his St. Andrew’s Variations (2013).  Reaching out to composers in our community there is really no more immediate choice than composers inside the orchestra. The December concert has a bit of a new mix up, with us also partnering with the Ontario Youth choir. The concert will also feature Schoenberg Christmas music. In reality this is simply an arrangement of the hymn Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen (A Spotless Rose is a common translation) by Michael Praetorius.

Q. And then there is a work by you. What’s this piece? When did you write it? What are you trying to say with the work?

A. This new work is called The Dawning Light of Ostara/Les premières lueurs d’Ostara has, as its basis the fact that on Good Friday we present a religious piece. I, however, am always trying to stress the possibility for each listener to find spirituality within and using the religious works offered as a way off finding this. I decided I would take this one stage further by looking to pre- Christian celebrations. While Christians look to the celebration of the Resurrection, we can equally look to the spring equinox as a celebration of a time of rebirth.

Today, we see a secular culture celebrating the spring equinox, while religious, Christian culture celebrates the resurrection. Easter is a pagan festival. Early Christianity accepted practises, most of which we enjoy today at Easter. All the fun things about Easter are pagan. Bunnies are a leftover from the pagan festival of Eostre (Ostara), the great northern goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare.

I will be writing the work in the next few months. During August I walked 120 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago. This was a personal pilgrimage and I enjoyed much solitude. I contemplated the new piece as I saw the beautiful early dawns, as I want to express the dawning of a new time of possibilities.

Q. You have mentioned the concert celebrating the CNIB centennary. Tell me more.

Yes, definitely this is the highlight of the season, and the one with greatest scope with two actors, who will depict Handel and Bach; both of who went under the hand of John Taylor, with surgeries of varying degrees of success. The orchestra plays two concerti form the seminal Brandenburg Concerti. And a concerto grosso of Handel.

Q. Tell me about the uOttawa/Thirteen Strings prize that is part of this concert. 

A. One of the pieces included is to represent the modern day. The composition prize will have a “light” theme this year. This will be the third year of this collaboration with the music department and the first time the competitors will be asked to write with a specific theme in mind. This has proved to be a terrific project. A shortlist of composers from the music department, are given the chance to hear their works workshopped by the orchestra. A panel of judges and myself chooses a winner, with input from the orchestra. The winner receives $1,300 and the piece is then performed in one of the concerts of the season, This year, that concert will be the The Subject is Light 1718-1918-2018 — the new work representing the 2018 portion of the concert.

Q. Other highlights of the season?

A. Surely a highlight of the season is the Feb. 23 concert, which will be performed by guest conductor Bernhard Gueller and guest pianist Ilya Poletaev. Gueller cut his musical teeth as a cellist under conductor Sergiu Celibidache and as a member of the Munich Philharmonic. Poletaev is a Canadian pianist, now living in Montreal, who is a prizewinner in many international competitions. He captured First Prize at the prestigious XVII International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig. He was also the First Prize winner of the XX Concorso Sala Gallo Piano Competition in Monza, Italy, where he also received the Audience Prize, the Bach Prize, and the Orchestra Prize. He also captured First Prize at the 2009 Grieg International Competition.

It is important for the orchestra, which is achieving so many accolades, to work with artists of this calibre. It also helps the flexibility and poise of the orchestra to work under different conductors. (I will be on another pilgrimage to Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.)

Q. Reflect on your time with Thirteen Strings.

A. I have worked to solidify the orchestra inside a community of supporters each of whom considers it “their” orchestra. Of course, the intimacy of the church setting helps, as musicians are often intermingling with the public. As mentioned, I have had as part of my vision, the performing and commissioning of new Canadian works, but juxtaposed with this is the chance to hear baroque music played in an idiomatic style, with small orchestral forces. The orchestra moves forward always, a small miracle considering the difficulty and economic restrictions on the arts today.

The concerts

Oct. 15 at 3 pm.

Candlelight Christmas
Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m.

Galant! With elegance and poise!
Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

The Way of the Cross
Mar. 30 at 7:30 p.m.

The Subject is Light
May 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday afternoon at the opera!
June 3 at 7:30 p.m.

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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.