September 2020 Update on Live Performances and Events at the NAC.

Shelley’s Brahms

Celebratory tour “send off” concert


In a few short days we leave for our tour of Europe, leading us to London, Paris, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Gothenburg. Vibrant cultural hubs, each and all. I am proud that we will be showcasing the depth and versatility of Canadian artists through performances of our complete Life Reflected project featuring the stories of Alice Munro, Amanda Todd, Roberta Bondar and Rita Joe, as well as works by Ana Sokolović and Vivier. We will showcase great Canadian solo talent – James Ehnes, Jan Lisiecki, Erin Wall and David DQ Lee – and we will build bridges to communities, to music colleges and to high schools.

I am also delighted that we will bring our extraordinary orchestra to audiences across the continent. I am certain that their artistry and dedication, which so regularly light up our stages, will be inspiring and uplifting for all that hear them. Tonight we revel in these qualities as the Orchestra presents the two major symphonic works that we will take with us: Dvořák’s New World and Brahms’s Second. Here’s to our players and to a great send-off! 

The NAC Orchestra performed Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 for the first time in 1978, with Mario Bernardi on the podium, and their most recent interpretation was given in 2018 under the direction of Alexander Shelley.

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Zdenek Macal led the NAC Orchestra for their first performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, given in 1980. The Orchestra most recently played this symphony under the direction of Alexander Shelley in 2017, both in Southam Hall and on their Canada 150 Tour.


Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833
Died in Vienna, April 3, 1897

After the massiveness and severity of Brahms’s First Symphony, the idyllic, pastoral Second, with its wealth of singable melodies, made a strong popular appeal. Whereas Brahms had toiled for twenty years over his First Symphony, the Second was written in the space of a mere three months during the summer of 1877. The warmly lyric and relaxed character, the gracefulness of the many melodies, and a positive outlook are all attributable in some measure to the charms of the south Austrian countryside. In its pastoral quality, many listeners find a parallel to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony which, like Brahms’s Second, followed a grim, darkly serious and heroic symphony in C minor. The first performance was given by the Vienna Philharmonic, led by Hans Richter, on December 30, 1877.

Although the Viennese liked it, the symphony rode a rocky course towards critical acceptance in other cities. One smiles in amusement to read that in Leipzig, for example, where it was introduced in 1880, a critic felt it was “not distinguished by inventive power.” In Boston (1882), The Post called it “coldblooded,” and The Evening Traveller proclaimed that the symphony lacked “a sense of the beautiful” while in New York, The Post (1887) called for a return of Anton Rubinstein’s Dramatic Symphony to replace Brahms’s “antiquated” music. So much for the perspicacity of critics!

Right from the very opening notes, the listener is caught up in the symphony’s gentle, relaxed mood. The first two bars also provide the basic motivic germs of the entire movement and for much of the material in the other movements as well. The three-note motto in the cellos and basses, and the following arpeggio in the horns, are heard repeatedly in many guises – slowed down, speeded up, played upside down, buried in the texture or prominently featured. The second theme is one of Brahms’s most glorious, sung by violas and cellos as only these instruments can sing. 

The second movement is of darker hue and more profound sentiment. The form is basically a ternary structure (ABA), with a more agitated central section (B) in the minor mode. These two lines are everywhere organically incorporated into the fabric of the movement. Throughout the movement, the listener’s attention is continually focused as much on the densely saturated textures as on the themes.

The genial, relaxed character returns in the third movement, not a scherzo as Beethoven would have written, but a sort of lyrical intermezzo, harking back to the gracious eighteenth-century minuet. The forces are reduced to almost chamber orchestra levels, and woodwinds are often the featured sonority. Two trios, each a metrical variation of the opening oboe melody, interrupt the main section. This movement proved so popular at its premiere that it had to be repeated.

The forthright and optimistic finale derives heavily from the melodies of the first movement, though as usual with Brahms, this material is so cleverly disguised that one scarcely notices. As Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter commented, “The miracle of this symphony remains the fact that it sounds so easy and immediate and yet turns out to be so elaborately shaped” – a true case of art concealing art. The final pages call forth some striking passages for the trombones, and the joyous symphony ends in a blaze of D major.

— Program notes by Robert Markow


Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, "From the New World"

Born in Mühlhausen, Bohemia (today Nelahozeves, Czech Republic),September 8, 1841
Died in Prague, May 1, 1904

Although the “New World” Symphony was written in the New World, it is not specifically about the New World. True, there are themes that could be construed as being “authentic” songs of the American Indians or African-Americans, but in fact, as in Dvořák’s Slavonic works, he did not actually quote directly from folksong, but rather composed his own based on study of the source material. One “New World” aspect of this symphony is the role played by Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, which Dvořák had read in Czech translation some thirty years earlier. He re-read the poem in America and claimed that the scene of Minnehaha’s funeral in the forest inspired the Largo movement of his symphony, while the Indians’ Dance was responsible for the Scherzo. Dvořák actually visited Hiawatha’s land (Iowa and southern Minnesota), but the symphony was essentially complete by this time, so whatever influence Hiawatha had on him was purely literary, not geographical. The world premiere was given in Carnegie Hall on December 16, 1893, with Anton Seidl conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Alone of Dvořák’s nine symphonies, From the New World opens with a slow introduction. Within the space of just 23 measures, the composer incorporates moods of melancholic dreaming and tense foreboding, startling eruptions and a surging melodic line. The main Allegro section is launched by horns in an arpeggiated fanfare motif in E minor, a motif that will reappear in all remaining movements as well. 

Many listeners know the main theme of the famous Largo as the song “Goin’ home,” but Dvořák did not borrow the theme from a spiritual; it is his own, and the words were superimposed after the symphony was written by one of his students, William Arms Fisher. Although Dvořák himself claimed the movement was inspired by a passage from Longfellow’s poem, Otakar Šourek (himself a Czech), believes the listener is equally entitled to imagine instead Dvořák longing for his homeland: “the melancholy, wide expanses of the South Bohemian countryside, of his garden at Vysoká, of the deep solemn sighing of the pine forests, and the broad, fragrant fields.”

The Scherzo is one of the most energetic and exhilarating movements Dvořák ever wrote, and borders on the virtuosic as well for the dazzling orchestral display it entails. The contrasting Trio section is a charming rustic dance introduced by the woodwind choir and set to the lilting long-short-long rhythm of which Schubert was so fond.

In the finale, the development section develops not only material from this movement but from the three previous ones as well, especially the main theme of the Largo, which is fragmented and tossed about with almost reckless abandon. The grand climax of the long coda brings back the chordal sequence that opened the Largo, but now painted in broad, majestic strokes in the full brass and woodwind sections. The symphony’s final chord is a lovely, warm sonority that lingers gently on the ears.

— Program notes by Robert Markow