By Richard Todd
OTTAWA, Canada — It wasn’t the last concert of the season. It wasn’t even a regular subscription concert. But the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s May 19 program, “Life Reflected,” was an impressive climax to Alexander Shelley’s first year as the orchestra’s artistic director. Consisting of four multimedia works, two of them world premieres, the program honored four Canadian women, each notable in her own fashion.
It was the latest in a two-year collaboration between Shelley, director Donna Feore, and a host of other creative artists. The format was the same in all four works: orchestral scores by four composers accompanied texts by the women in question. Projections through a scrim enhanced the words and music.
The first was Dear Life, a condensation of Alice Munro’s partly autobiographical short story of the same name, with music by Zosha di Castri. The narration was recorded by Martha Henry, whose quietly expressive voice provided just the right degree of wistful eeriness, an effect wonderfully enhanced by Larry Towell’s dream-like photographs that hovered around the enterprise. Unfortunately, there were a few moments when the balance between the orchestra and the narration made the latter unintelligible.
Amanda Todd took her life at the age of 15 after more than two years of cyber bullying and physical intimidation. The text for composer Jocelyn Morlock’s My Name is Amanda Todd was taken from a series of flashcards that Todd posted on YouTube a few weeks before her death. The quotations were presented as part of the visual design rather than being spoken. Despite the grimness of the story, the piece evoked a kind of lightness — transparency, perhaps — that was effective artistically, if not entirely consistent with the scale of the tragedy. This performance was a world premiere.
So was Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, a celebration of Canada’s first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar. The words are in Bondar’s own voice, selected from countless broadcast news items, interviews, and lectures. The visual component includes everything from earth shots taken in orbit to headline announcements by well-known news anchors from the ’90s. Lizée’s music sounds quirky and experimental, in the manner of science fiction. Altogether, this was the most joyful and affirming of the evening’s offerings.
The most elaborate of them was I Lost My Talk by the celebrated Mi’kmaw poet Rita Joe, heard in a musical setting by John Estacio. It features choreography of great power by Santee Smith Tekaronhiáhkhwa, filmed in nature by the design collective Normal. (The collective created the video for the other works as well.)
The text concerns the poet’s years in a residential school where, like thousands of Native Canadian children, she was forbidden to speak her own language. This issue is much on the minds of the Canadian public these days, and the recitation of Joe’s poetry by First Nations actor Monique Mojica was strikingly pertinent and moving.
There were far too many people contributing to the evening’s smashing success to list here, but there’s no doubt about who was at the center of it all. Shelley was chosen to succeed Pinchas Zukerman, the NACO’s music director for 16 years. For once, the succession was immediate, without the two- or three-year interregnum that was the norm earlier in the orchestra’s 47-year history. During his tenure, Zukerman introduced a degree of improved discipline in the string playing, giving it a solid, Germanic sound. One of Shelley’s stated goals is to bring more vibrance and variety to that sound, a process that is presently underway. And the orchestra as a whole seems to be developing a fresher, more flexible range of expression.
His programming has proven fairly adventurous, with a greater emphasis on contemporary repertoire than was the case with Zukerman or his predecessors. In addition to the four works that made up “Life Reflected,” another notable “modern” offering was Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto. Its Canadian premiere in February featured soloist Nadia Sirota and was entirely persuasive. It also received a standing ovation, something that is rarely accorded new music in Ottawa.
Shelley’s career is still taking shape, though he holds positions including principal conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra and principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic. In Ottawa, he is popular with the public, and the NACO musicians play with what sounds like renewed enthusiasm.
Richard Todd is a semi-retired music commentator whose 35-year career included 21 years as the principal English-language critic in Ottawa, writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He is also a fine-art photographer.