NAC Orchestra's Canada 150 adventure comes to an end

December 9, 2017

NAC Orchestra’s Canada 150 adventure comes to an end

By Lynn Saxberg, Ottawa Citizen, December 9, 2017


IQALUIT — The National Arts Centre orchestra wrapped up its Canada 150 cross-country tour with a swing across the Arctic that included Alexander Shelley’s first view of the Northern lights.

The orchestra’s musical director described the whole tour as a grand adventure, especially the final Northern leg.

“And isn’t being on an adventure the most fun thing possible?” inquired the dapper conductor during an interview in the hallway of the igloo-shaped Anglican cathedral that served as a performance venue for a concert that attracted everyone from toddlers to elders.

Nine classical musicians, along with a handful of NAC staff members, spent three days in the Nunavut capital this week, where they entertained elders, delighted school children and performed a packed, fundraising concert to support the Quaggiqvuut! campaign to build a multi-million dollar performing arts centre in the city.

It was Shelley’s second time in Canada’s North, after last month’s visit to Whitehorse. “Before that, the closest I’ve been to that latitude would have been somewhere in Scandinavia,” said the well-travelled Brit, who leads the orchestra members to their final stop in Yellowknife on Saturday.

The non-musical highlight of the Iqaluit stop was catching a dazzling display of Northern lights as he and the musicians returned to their hotel after sharing a meal with folks from the town’s arts community. The “supper,” as the hosts called it, consisted of baked Arctic char, seal soup and caribou stew.

“Every second has been amazing,” Shelley said. “There’s the physical beauty of the place, and the starkness and the sense of being huddled together with this huge, empty vastness around you. It gives a cocooning feel, which I find interesting and enjoyable. The communities also tend to be close knit and through that closeness, have a very generous way of welcoming people.”

The orchestra’s Canada 150 tour was divided into five legs, starting in the Atlantic last spring and stopping in Central Canada in June. They visited the prairie provinces in October, followed by the West Coast and, finally, the Northern territories.

Shelley said he is not only bringing home a wealth of memories, but also a string of new contacts in arts communities across the country.

“That’s why I was so keen to go everywhere,” he said. “I’m always thinking about how we can support and partner with these communities. Having been here and knowing the individuals and where they work and perform means I can do my job. When we’re thinking about commissioning or anything artistic, I actually have a sense of what’s here.”

He’s also developed an even greater respect for the orchestra’s musicians and their ability to perform at the highest level in any situation.

In Iqaluit, for example, two of the musicians — violinist Marjolaine Lambert and flautist Kaili Maimets — thoroughly charmed elementary students at a francophone school, and younger ones at an Inuktitut immersion pre-school, with a fun, educational show that ranged from Mozart and Beethoven to Walt Disney, and was enlivened with costumes, props and plenty of enthusiastic participation by the young audience.

Other musicians — including trumpeter Karen Donnelly and clarinetist Kimball Sykes — gave master classes to older, more advanced students. Across the country, each day on the road was packed with similar outreach activities, some 250 in all throughout the year.

As for Iqaluit’s main event — an evening concert on Tuesday, Dec. 5 — the musicians tackled an amazingly diverse program that ranged from Carmen Braden’s avante-garde Raven Conspiracy for string quartet, to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, to the world premiere of a song cycle co-written by Dene singer-songwriter Leela Gilday and throat-singer Sylvia Cloutier, with inventive arrangements by Toronto’s Christopher Mayo. They also played with the city’s accomplished high-school choir, Inuksuk Drum Dancers, conducted by their ethnomusicologist music teacher, Dr. Mary Piercey-Lewis.

“Orchestral musicians are, by nature, some of the most versatile people in the world,” said Shelley. “We’re specialists in being versatile, that’s what we do. Something that was written in 1650 by an Italian is worlds apart from something that was written in 1920 by an American, and we perform all that stuff. But what I’ve noticed over the years, more important than the actual notes themselves is the connection between people. Frankly, that’s the magical thing.

“I’m so pleased with all the performances the orchestra did. They really gave their all, and with the sheer number of events we’ve had in terms of education outreach, it really is extraordinary. My sense is that we’ve been able to make a real impact in meeting lots of people, particularly young people. I think this tour has been a resounding success.”
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