Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.
Alexander Shelley began his tenure as Music Director in 2015, following Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 seasons at the helm. Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and former Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra (2009 - 2017), he has been in demand around the world, conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic, DSO Berlin, Leipzig Gewandhaus, and Stockholm Philharmonic, among others, and maintains a regular relationship with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie and the German National Youth Orchestra.
Each season, the NAC Orchestra features world-class artists such as the newly appointed Artist-in-Residence James Ehnes, Angela Hewitt, Joshua Bell, Xian Zhang, Gabriela Montero, Stewart Goodyear, Jan Lisiecki, and Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds. As one of the most accessible, inclusive and collaborative orchestras in the world, the NAC Orchestra uses music as a universal language to communicate the deepest of human emotions and connect people through shared experiences.
Alexander Shelley succeeded Pinchas Zukerman as Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra in September 2015. The ensemble has since been praised as “an orchestra transformed … hungry, bold, and unleashed” (Ottawa Citizen) and Alexander’s programming credited for turning the orchestra “almost overnight … into one of the more audacious orchestras in North America.” (Maclean’s magazine).
Born in London in October 1979, Alexander, the son of celebrated concert pianists, studied cello and conducting in Germany and first gained widespread attention when he was unanimously awarded first prize at the 2005 Leeds Conductors' Competition, with the press describing him as "the most exciting and gifted young conductor to have taken this highly prestigious award. His conducting technique is immaculate, everything crystal clear and a tool to his inborn musicality”. In August 2017 Alexander concluded his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, a position he held since September 2009. The partnership was hailed by press and audience alike as a golden era for the orchestra, where he transformed the ensemble’s playing, education work and international touring activities. These have included concerts in Italy, Belgium, China and a re-invitation to the Musikverein in Vienna.
In January 2015 he assumed the role of Principal Associate Conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he curates an annual series of concerts at Cadogan Hall and tours both nationally and internationally.
Described as “a natural communicator both on and off the podium” (Daily Telegraph) Alexander works regularly with the leading orchestras of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australasia, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin,, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Gothenburg Symphony, Stockholm Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Sao Paulo Symphony and the Melbourne and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras. This season’s collaborations include debuts with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre National de Belgique, Orchestre Metropolitain Montreal, Orquesta Sinfonica de Valencia, and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; alongside returns to MDR Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and the Tasmanian symphony orchestras. He will also embark on an extensive tour of Europe with the National Arts Centre Orchestra performing in cities such as London, Paris, Stockholm and Copenhagen
Highlights of the previous season include debuts with the Helsinki and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestras and Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, as well as at the Aspen Festival in Colorado. Re-invitations include Konzerthausorchester Berlin, RTE National Symphony Orchestra and a return to the Tivoli Festival with the Copenhagen Philharmonic.
Alexander’s operatic engagements have included The Merry Widow and Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet (Den Kongelige Opera); La Bohème (Opera Lyra/National Arts Centre), Iolanta (Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen), Così fan Tutte (Opéra National de Montpellier), The Marriage of Figaro (Opera North) in 2015 and he led a co-production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel in 2017 with the NACO and Canadian Opera Company.
Alexander was awarded the ECHO prize in 2016 for his second Deutsche Grammophon recording, “Peter and the Wolf”, and both the ECHO and Deutsche Grunderpreis in his capacity as Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s “Zukunftslabor”, a visionary project of grass-roots engagement, which uses music as a source for social cohesion and integration. Through his work as Founder and Artistic Director of the Schumann Camerata and their ground-breaking “440Hz” series in Dusseldorf, and through his leadership roles in Nuremberg, Bremen and Ottawa, inspiring future generations of classical musicians and listeners has always been central to Alexander’s work. He has led the German National Youth Orchestra on several tours of Germany and works with many thousands of young people a year in outreach projects. He regularly gives informed and passionate pre- and post-concert talks on his programmes, as well as numerous interviews and podcasts on the role of classical music in society. He has a wealth of experience conducting and presenting major open-air events - in Nuremberg alone he has, over the course of nine years, hosted more than half a million people at the annual Klassik Open Air concerts - Europe’s largest classical music event.
The Music Director role is supported by Elinor Gill Ratcliffe, C.M., O.N.L., LL.D. (hc)
Known for his virtuosity and probing musicianship, violinist James Ehnes has performed in over 35 countries on five continents, appearing regularly in the world’s great concert halls and with many of the most celebrated orchestras and conductors. Alongside his concerto work, he maintains a busy recital schedule and active chamber musician. Ehnes is the Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society.
Born in 1976 in Brandon, Manitoba, Ehnes began violin studies at the age of four, and at age nine became a protégé of the noted Canadian violinist Francis Chaplin. At age 13, he made his major orchestral solo debut with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.
Throughout the 20/21 season, Ehnes is named as Artist in Residence with the National Arts Centre of Canada. He has played with the NAC Orchestra many times since making his debut with the ensemble in 1993.
Ehnes has an extensive discography and has won many awards for his recordings, including a GRAMMY Award (2019) for his live recording of Aaron Jay Kernis Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, and a Gramophone Award for his live recording of the Elgar Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Andrew Davis. His recording of the Korngold, Barber, and Walton violin concertos won a GRAMMY Award for “Best Instrumental Soloist Performance” and a JUNO Award for “Best Classical Album of the Year”.
Ehnes has won numerous awards and prizes, including the first-ever Ivan Galamian Memorial Award, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Virginia Parker Prize, and a 2005 Avery Fisher Career Grant. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and in 2010 was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada.
James Ehnes plays the “Marsick” Stradivarius of 1715. He currently lives in Bradenton, Florida with his family.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer, and was active as a pianist, organist, and writer. A formidable figure in 19th century French music, he composed works in every genre, including operas, ballet music, sacred and secular choral works, songs and solo piano pieces, chamber music, symphonies and concertos…even a film score. His music is often described as “neoclassical”, exhibiting qualities such as clarity, balance, order, and precision (considered hallmarks of the French art music tradition), combined with his distinctive use of harmonic colour and mastery of counterpoint. Among his works best-known to audiences today are the “Organ” Symphony, Third Violin Concerto, Fourth Piano Concerto, the suite Le carnaval des animaux, and the opera Samson et Dalila.
Born in Paris on October 9, 1835, Saint-Saëns was a musical child prodigy, making his public début at the Salle Pleyel as the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, studying piano and later, composition and orchestration. In 1853, he became the organist at the Church of Saint-Merri, eventually moving on to La Madeleine in 1857, where he remained for 20 years. From the 1860s until the end of his life, he established an international reputation as a highly regarded composer and virtuoso pianist, performing on concert tours in England, southern Europe, Scandinavia, South America, East Asia, and the United States.
Saint-Saëns’s talents attracted the admiration and friendship of many notable musicians and composers, including Pauline Viardot, Gioachino Rossini, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt. Beyond his own works, the composer actively promoted—through performance and his writings—the music of several of his contemporaries, including Robert Schumann and Liszt. He was also instrumental in the revival of French interest in the music of J.S. Bach and Mozart. In 1871, Saint-Saëns founded, with his colleague Romain Bussine, the Société Nationale de Musique, to support and perform the music of living French composers.
A life-long traveller, Saint-Saëns had a special fondness for Algiers and spent much time there and in Egypt in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, he continued to compose, conduct, and perform, receiving many honours for his contributions. In August 1921, he gave his final public performances as a pianist and as a conductor. A few months later, on December 16, he died in Algiers.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Lili Boulanger was a French composer. An immense musical talent from a young age, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913. Despite suffering chronic illness, she composed prolifically, creating substantial, potently expressive works for choir, voice, piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra, and was at work on an opera when intestinal tuberculosis claimed her life at only 24 years old. Her distinctive style bears qualities typical of early 20th century French music, influenced, notably, by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy in her synthesis of tonal and modal harmony, combined with her imaginative use of instrumental colour and layered textures.
Born Marie-Juliette Olga in Paris, August 21, 1893, Lili Boulanger grew up in an eminent musical family; her father was French composer Ernest Boulanger and her older sister Nadia, also a composer, later became a significant teacher to many of the 20th century’s leading composers (and a tireless advocate for Lili’s music). Her musical talent showed at age two and was nurtured with lessons in violin, piano, voice, and harp. Although her fragile health condition (due to a weakened immune system from bronchial pneumonia contracted in 1895) precluded her from receiving a complete education at the Paris Conservatoire, she studied composition privately with Georges Caussade. In January 1912, she was admitted to Paul Vidal’s composition class, and after failing to win the Prix de Rome that year, won it in 1913 with her cantata Faust et Hélène. This led to her signing a contract with the publisher Ricordi, who, guaranteeing her a monthly income, enabled her to focus entirely on composing.
During her first residency in Rome, Lili completed several works, including the song cycle Clarières dans le ciel. The outbreak of World War I forced her to return to Paris, where she and Nadia established the Comité Franco-Américain du Conservatoire National to provide support—sending material goods and forwarding mail—to musician soldiers. She went back to Rome in February 1916, where she made progress on several large-scale works, including her opera La princesse Malein. However, by the end of the year, she was greatly weakened by illness and was home in Paris again, where she spent her final years finishing compositions she had begun earlier. She died on March 15, 1918, in Mézy-sur-Seine.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Jessie Montgomery is an acclaimed composer, violinist, and educator. She is the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Award from the ASCAP Foundation, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, and her works are performed frequently around the world by leading musicians and ensembles. Her music interweaves classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social consciousness, making her an acute interpreter of 21st-century American sound and experience. Her profoundly felt works have been described as “turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life” (The Washington Post).
Jessie was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s during a time when the neighborhood was at a major turning point in its history. Artists gravitated to the hotbed of artistic experimentation and community development. Her parents – her father a musician, her mother a theater artist and storyteller – were engaged in the activities of the neighborhood and regularly brought Jessie to rallies, performances, and parties where neighbors, activists, and artists gathered to celebrate and support the movements of the time. It is from this unique experience that Jessie has created a life that merges composing, performance, education, and advocacy.
Since 1999, Jessie has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports young African-American and Latinx string players. She currently serves as composer-in-residence for the Sphinx Virtuosi, their Organization’s flagship professional touring ensemble. She was a two-time laureate of the annual Sphinx Competition and was awarded their highest honor, the Sphinx Medal of Excellence. She has received additional grants and awards from the ASCAP Foundation, Chamber Music America, American Composers Orchestra, the Joyce Foundation, and the Sorel Organization.
The New York Philharmonic has selected Jessie as a featured composers for their Project 19, which marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting equal voting rights in the United States to women. Other forthcoming works include a nonet inspired by the Great Migration, told from the perspective of Montgomery’s great-grandfather William McCauley and to be performed by Imani Winds and the Catalyst Quartet; a cello concerto for Thomas Mesa jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall, New World Symphony, and The Sphinx Organization; and a new orchestral work for the National Symphony.
Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908)
Pablo de Sarasate was a Spanish violinist and composer. He was one of the 19th century’s most famous virtuoso violinists, performing regularly throughout Europe, North America, and South America. His friendship and close association with notable composers led to new works written for him to perform, which he popularized, along with concert pieces he composed, on his various tours. These works—charming and colourful, while also demanding technical brilliance—have since become a core part of the violin repertory, and continue to be beloved by violinists and audiences today.
Sarasate (christened Martín Melitón Sarasate y Navascuéz) was born in Pamplona on March 10, 1844. A child prodigy, he made his first public performance at age eight, and his talents attracted the attention and support of the Spanish elite and royalty. Following his studies with Jean-Delphin Alard at the Paris Conservatoire, Sarasate toured extensively as a concert violinist. By the early 1870s, he was famous in France, Belgium, England, the United States, and Argentina. In 1876, he gave his first performance in Vienna, an important debut in the German-speaking lands, where he eventually established his reputation and would visit annually.
According to critical reports, Sarasate’s violin playing was distinguished by a purity and sweetness in tone, and an astounding technical facility that he made to look effortless. Inspired by his abilities and showmanship, several composers wrote and dedicated works to him, including Max Bruch (Violin Concerto No. 2, Scottish Fantasy), Camille Saint-Saëns (Violin Concerto Nos. 1 and 3, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso), Éduoard Lalo (Violin Concerto in F major, Symphonie espagnole), and Henryk Wieniawski (Violin Concerto No. 2). Sarasate himself composed 54 works, many of them based on popular and folk melodies, all of them vehicles for his virtuosic style.
In 1904, Sarasate became one of the first violin virtuosos to make gramophone recordings, releasing nine of them, including one of him playing an abridged version of Zigeunerweisen, one of his most popular showpieces. Beyond his solo career, he was an avid player of string quartets. Sarasate died in Biarritz on September 20, 1908, from chronic bronchitis.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley