Thirteen Strings: Walking the walk and talking the talk with Kevin Mallon

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

The Camino de Santiago is one of those bucket list things. The journey from France to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain is for some, a moment of deep spiritual significance, for others it’s an adventure and an test of their ability to handle a long journey on foot.

For Kevin Mallon, the music director of Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings, his walk along the final 120 kilometres into Santiago was a time for contemplation and renewal and ultimately creation.

The product of this burst of artistic energy will be unveiled in the Good Friday concert by Thirteen Strings. On the program, along with two concertos by Vivaldi and Boccherini’s powerful and beautiful Stabet Mater, is Mallon’s short piece called The Dawning Light of Ostara.

Before you pull out the Google machine dear reader, Ostara, or Eostre, is a German goddess who was celebrated by pre-Christian peoples in the spring of the year, right around Easter. The piece is a nod to those ancient traditions the Christian world has incorporated into its rituals and festivals.

“I can tell you where it starts for me,” Mallon said in an interview. “In all of these religious concerts I try to make it something that is a moment of contemplation in general so that a Christian audience can enjoy it for the beautiful Christian music and for the average lay person.

“In this instance, because it is a Good Friday concert, around which we have developed a tradition, I wanted to get something that opens up the boundaries a little bit.”

It’s not that this is a nod to paganism per se, he says, it’s really more about the opening of the dawn and trying to look at it as ancient peoples might have.

There are commonly known traditions, such as the Easter Bunny and the Egg, that also go back to pre-Christian days. They have been incorporated into our modern ceremonies too.

“I suppose I’m looking at a way of experiencing first light. I remember when I was walking the Camino, I would get up very early in the morning because you would be walking before the heat started. And as you were walking these incredibly beautiful dawns would happen.

“I was thinking about the beauty of that when I started to write this piece.”

Mallon says his Camino walk was “much tougher than I imagined.”

“I did the last leg into Santiago, which is very popular. So, to avoid the crowd I wouldn’t get on the road at 6 a.m. I’d have breakfast with people but stay back while the others left to linger and write in my journal. I was behind the crowd. I had great time talking to people including a rabbi who was doing it, like me, as a personal spiritual quest.”

“And then. you go into Santiago and it is a modern town. It’s shocking to be back into a situation where you aren’t saying hello to everybody every day.”

All of a sudden, he says, he was back in the real world where everyone was checking their cell phones.

“It seems like you have to work harder at contemplation today.”

That’s the nice thing about music, he added, it can take you out of the present and put you somewhere else.

“That’s why I want people to really come to our concerts. It’s like I want us to get out of the concrete jungle with its distractions and be dragged away from all of that and sit for a moment.

“I just feel that if I can get people into a concert hall they will be moved with something that is so different from their daily lives. We believe in this and think it is important.”

In his piece, Mallon is also thinking about what other peoples can offer the world.

“We live in a country that is rich with native tradition. Maybe eventually we will take that seriously. Maybe eventually we’ll take Indigenous people seriously because they have a lot to contribute to humanity’s relationship with the earth which we seem to have lost.

When Mallon is writing music he tends to start with a “feeling of it first. I see it a little bit in colours. I definitely have been thinking about that concept of morning for this piece.”

He was also thinking about The Rite of Spring, not that there is a musical comparison.

“It is the earthiness that Stravinsky saw. I love that. When I went to Tuscany, they have very red soil. I would come home and my clothes and suitcase were full of this red dust. The people are very earthy there. I couldn’t help but get this red residue all over the shoes.”

So, he says, there are signs of inspiration, if you look for them.

“I suppose that’s what I’m trying to go for, more than some religious significance.

Mallon’s piece is about five minutes long, he says, and sets a contemplative mood before the soprano Nathalie Poulin takes on the emotion of the Stabat Mater.

Thirteen Strings presents The Way of the Cross
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: March 30 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.