Thirteen Strings: Quarrington, Fialkowska featured in 2019-2020 season

Joel Quarrington. Photo: Fred Cattroll

A decade is a decent amount of time in any job, but when you lead a chamber string orchestra the anniversary is something to take note of.

So that’s why Thirteen Strings will pay tribute in this 2019-2020 season to music director Kevin Mallon who is a warrior in the good fight to keep the arts alive and growing in Ottawa. Mallon talked to ARTSFILE from his family home in Belfast, Northern Ireland during his annual visit to see his mom and keep in touch with his family.

“We keep pumping away and you like to think you are doing something for the audience,” he said by Facetime from his sister Keira’s old room. “It’s still called Keira’s room even though she hasn’t lived at home for more than 30 years.”

Mallon has six siblings and grew up in a middle class neighbourhood in Belfast. The big local issue at the time of this conversation — and still today — is the impending Brexit from the European Union and what that might do to restart trouble in Ireland. “They are shooting themselves in the foot,” he said of the British MPs pushing to leave.

Much safer and more enjoyable to be planning a season of music in Canada, methinks.

A decade ago Mallon, who was in Toronto, spotted the notice about a conducting job in Ottawa and “I applied like everybody else. I didn’t know much about it to be honest. I went through process with five other candidates. We tried out and the orchestra chose. There are few jobs for conductors, so every one is coveted.”

Mallon’s been in Canada for some 25 years now. He’s worked with Tafelmusik and when the Thirteen Strings job came up he was conducting Orchestra Toronto. He also found the period music Aradia Ensemble, which he is currently “getting it going again.”

Along the way he has earned a reputation for his handling of the Baroque repertoire, something that he continues in Ottawa. Speaking of anniversaries, Thirteen Strings itself is approaching 45 years of continuous operation. It formed in 1975 under the baton of Brian Law.

But going for Baroque isn’t Mallon’s only pursuit.

“We have several streams of music we specialize in. The first point of emphasis is the string repertoire writ large. This coming season has a lot of string rep.

“There is a rich vein of English music from the early 20th century, that has been a big place for us.”

Kevin Mallon is marking 10 years with Thirteen Strings.

Finally Thirteen Strings has a focus on contemporary Canadian music. In fact they have just recorded a CD of music by the Kingston, Ont. composer John Burge that will be released on the Naxos label in coming months. The orchestra also offers a composition prize for young composers studying at uOttawa.

“If you look at the program there is a lot of innovation in there. It is a fact of life for Thirteen Strings to always be examining new ways to entice audience and reinventing themselves.

“I think this is what keeps classical music alive. It is difficult to get people to go to concerts. What we all have to remember is that small chamber work is as important in its own right as the the larger works that appear at the NAC.

“We have to keep believing in what we do and also finding a way to get new audience and keeping them interested. That means accessible concerts with more challenging stuff in there.”

This year’s season features six concerts and the three streams of music that Mallon has identified. All concerts are at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre at 7:30 p.m.

Contrabassissimo Oct. 21

This concert features the NAC Orchestra’s principal double bass Joel Quarrington leads the season with a performance of Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2 in B minor and his Elegy in D major. Mallon says of Quarrington, “He is a superstar. I have performed these pieces before with him and I was looking for a moment to do them again.”

The concert will also feature two important pieces of string repertoire: the Holberg Suite with the Camerata Junior Strings which debuted last year, and Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.

The University of Ottawa’s John Armstrong.

Christmas Candlelight Dec. 3

For Mallon, “it seemed only right that since we have been doing pieces by students at uOttawa that we do something by a professor.” Hence the composition by guitarist and composer John Armstrong guitarist and composer.

“We have been trying to get a work out of him and now it’s happening.” The evening will also feature a performance of a lesser know Gloria by Vivaldi (RV 588) that Mallon believes hasn’t been performed in Ottawa in some time if at all. In addition, the Thirteen Strings Chamber Choir, which debuted last season, will be back. Also on the lineup is Scarlatti’s Christmas Cantata.

Janina Fialkowska. Photo: Julien Faugère

Mozartmania. Feb 18, 2020

This could have been called Mallon’s big night as this concert will mark his 10 years at the helm of Thirteen Strings. It will be a big night indeed with a performance by one of Canada’s great pianists Janina Fialkowska who will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12. The orchestra itself will play Mozart’s Divertimenti as a package and the evening will also feature Mallon’s own setting of the ancient song Stella Splendens.

“Every couple of years I write a piece for the orchestra. I was going to write one anyway and it happened more by accident that it would be on that program. It will cleanse the palate of the audience before the Piano Concerto which will close the concert which is an important one for Thirteen Strings.”

Joel Allison. Photo: Ian McIntosh Photography

Bach for Easter April 10

Traditionally Thirteen Strings has done a Good Friday concert which has been intended as a way for people to get in touch with their spirituality. To that end, Bach is always a good idea. This concert will feature his Orchestral Suite with two oboes and a bassoon and the Cantata: Ich habe genug featuring Ottawa baritone Joel Allison. The evening will close with a piece now believed to be the work of Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann.

Thirteen Strings will be joined by the Choir of de la Salle high school led by Robert Fillion to perform Bach’s easter chorales as interludes between the larger pieces. Mallon hopes they will be joined by choir singers from other organizations. In this way, he is hoping to recall the 18th century when Bach’s audiences in the famous Thomaskirche would have sung them regularly.

Barbara Croall. Photo: Richard Moore

Day and Night May 8

This night will be given over to the drum in a concerto composed for timpani by the composer Barbara Croall, featuring soloist Edward Reifel. The concert will also feature the winner of the uOttawa composition competition.

“We often do one concert a season that’s a bit more esoteric,” Mallon said. To underline the point this evening includes a piece by Arnold Schoenberg. But the orchestra isn’t going too far out. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is “highly romantic. It is a bit challenging,” Mallon said, “but German Romanticism is at its core.”

Pandora Topp performs Édith Piaf. Photo: Harriet Carlson

Edith Piaf with Pandora Topp June 12

The actor Pandora Topp has prepared a performance the celebrates the legendary Edith Piaf. Mallon will arrange Piaf’s music for strings. This concert will close the Thirteen Strings season. Also on the bill are performances of what Mallon says are rare examples of string repertoire from the early 20th century in France including Jean Francaix’s Symphonie d’Archets, Saint-Saens Sarabande and Faure’s Pavane.

For tickets and more information, please see

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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.