November 2020 update on live performances and events at the NAC.

50 Years of Music with the NAC Orchestra

Conducted by John Storgårds

Reflection

I first heard the National Arts Centre Orchestra perform in the early 1970’s when my father, who moonlighted as a music critic, took me along to see a concert he was reviewing. On that night, and many subsequent nights, I remember seeing the greats of classical music, artists like Itzhak Perlman and Christoph Eschenbach, perform here. However, it was the NAC Orchestra and its charismatic founding conductor Mario Bernardi who captivated me most. Their way of playing was so refined, so polished.

Years later, I was thrilled to be offered a job working on the staff of the Orchestra, and a life-long adventure began. I have been fortunate to see this Orchestra triumph in New York, Vienna, Paris, and London. I have seen them perform with that same polish and excellence in Duncan, British Columbia, Cornerbrook, Newfoundland, and many points in between. The brilliant new compositions that have been created for this orchestra by so many remarkable Canadians represent a particularly noteworthy achievement. I know that music lovers across Canada join me in congratulating the NAC Orchestra on the occasion of their 50th anniversary and in wishing them continuing great success in the next 50 years!

Reflection

I have fallen in love with the NAC Orchestra, their energy, incredible artistry and magnificent ensemble playing. This admiration led me to move with my whole family from Iceland to Canada in order to work with them. It feels very special to join the Orchestra and the NAC as they celebrate 50 years. I hear and reflect on stories from the past, giving me a better idea of how to move forward. I feel a great responsibility to carry on my predecessor’s good work, and I’m excited that I will play some part in shaping its future. There is an extraordinarily fine and dedicated team behind the NAC Orchestra which I’m truly honoured to lead.

As an Orchestra, we have a powerful message to share with our audience and the world at large, of how different voices can create harmony; and through shared experiences, we can connect. Symphonic music opens a pathway back in time that gives us the active experience of humanity’s greatest artistic creations, fresh and live, here today. That’s the magic and power of music. I look forward to seeing you at our concerts and to sharing these moments with you.

Reflection

The National Arts Centre Orchestra has enriched the cultural life of the city, the region and the nation for the last 50 years. This week we celebrate all that this great orchestra stands for today: for the performance of bold symphonic repertoire played with passion and brilliance; as partners for and supporters of exciting and inspiring Canadian creative artists; as an ensemble made up of some of the finest instrumentalists in the world.

I am proud and privileged to lead this unique, world-class ensemble and would like to join you all in wishing them a very happy 50th birthday!


This is the first time the NAC Orchestra has played Sunleif Rasmussen’s Prelude for Brass.

Mario Bernardi led the NAC Orchestra in their first performance of Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante in 1974, with Walter Prystawski on violin, Donald Whitton on cello, Rowland Floyd on oboe and Gerald Corey on bassoon. The most recent interpretation of this work by the Orchestra was given in 2004 under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman, who was also the violin soloist. For that performance, two of the soloists were ones we hear again tonight – Charles Hamann and Christopher Millard – and the cello soloist was Amanda Forsyth.

The NAC Orchestra is performing Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra for the first time.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra at 50

Winston Webber, Assistant Principal Second Violin
 

“The Centre must have a heart that beats.”
– Jean Gascon, C.C. (1921–1988)

“A good orchestra is called for. A superb one would be more to the point.”
– Louis Applebaum, C.C., O.Ont. (1918–2000)
 

On October 7, 1969, from the first dramatic notes of Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony (No. 103), played by 23-year-old Montreal-trained timpanist Ian Bernard, a superb orchestra is what the National Arts Centre got, and then some. From day one, the fondest vision of the NAC’s founders was to have performing artists in residence – Jean Gascon’s “beating heart” that gave life and credibility to the whole enterprise. From this very first concert, the orchestra’s stellar success has proved the truth of that vision.

This writer has had the good fortune to sit right in the middle of this wonderful orchestra for 34 of its 50 years. My long legs and less than ideal posture are familiar to almost two generations of Ottawa concert goers. And that friendly audience is familiar to me – I look straight out at them. Lift my eyes from the music and, wow, there are 2,000 people, right there. I truly have the best seat in the house.

To talk about especially meaningful performances, after 50 years of concerts in Southam Hall, where does one start? Mention one amazing performance, loyal subscribers will say, probably rightly, that I forgot the TRULY greatest concert – that one 40 years ago with the Beethoven… Just in my own memory, there have been countless performances of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a specialty of the NAC Orchestra, each one raising the roof higher than the last. And truly hair-raising, almost dangerous performances of Beethoven’s Fifth with Gustavo Dudamel, Hannu Lintu and John Storgårds. It’s a thrilling experience to witness a performance so hot there’s a real danger of breaking something.

But the very first concert in 1969 has to have pride of place among all others – a young Mario Bernardi and an even younger orchestra showing, in one night, that the pantheon of great orchestras had to move over and make room for one more. And the new young personalities… at the risk of mentioning one at the cost of others, the first oboe, Rowland Floyd, walking on stage for the very first rehearsal dressed to the nines, carrying a Gucci briefcase and a Burberry umbrella, looking like a matinee idol and playing like a poet. Years later, after a decade's absence, Mario Bernardi returned to conduct the orchestra. Rowland had long since retired, and the first oboe then, as now, was the brilliant Charles "Chip" Hamann.  Mario was rehearsing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with its famous oboe solo and Chip played it as well as it could possibly be played – the most compelling sound, exquisite phrasing, peerless musicality. Then Mario stopped the orchestra, looked at Chip and said, “That reminds me… did you know that Rowland Floyd has taken up painting?”

How many other concerts that made life worth living, again to miss others equally deserving – a luminous, in-concert Pelléas et Mélisande in 1988 with Gabriel Chmura, a thrilling in-concert Madama Butterfly in 1989 with Franco Mannino – better than any commercial recording. A heartrendingly beautiful Eugene Onegin in 1983 – the final production of Festival Ottawa, with the great Lois Marshall in her last (only?) appearance in a fully-staged opera. The visits of the great German choral conductor Helmuth Rilling in 1987, bringing his magnificent choir, the Gächinger Kantorei, for performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Mozart’s Requiem in Ottawa, Montreal, Washington’s Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. In 2002, an astonishing evening of Astor Piazzolla with Franz-Paul Decker and the superlative bandoneon player Daniel Binelli – the greatest in Argentina – who took the CBC broadcast tape home to friends saying it was the best Piazzolla he had ever heard. And two performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Trevor Pinnock in 1997 – to this day remembered as life-changing experiences – and entertaining for the participants, when Trevor began the first rehearsal of the huge double choir and double orchestra, set up on stage left and right, saying, in the best of humour, “You on the left… if I point to you but it’s really the turn of you on the right, just remember, I’m dyslexic.”

Away from home, I’ve seen an audience in a converted basketball court in Kirkland Lake literally jump out of their folding chairs at the first chord of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, so impressive was the sound in that small space. And 3,000 critical, music-loving Germans in Leipzig refuse to stop applauding after a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman – after many bows, we had all left the stage, the lights had come up, but they just wouldn’t go home. Or the impeccably attired Japanese businessman in Fukoka, who came up to me as I was having breakfast in our hotel, to ask with the greatest respect, what the wonderful encore was that we played the previous night (it was the utterly charming Intermezzo from I Quattro Rusteghi by Wolf-Ferrari, conducted by the inimitable Franco Mannino). Or the time the same inimitable Franco Mannino, during Claudio Arrau’s lengthy cadenza in the Beethoven Emperor Concerto, discretely pulled out his pocket watch.

Based in the national capital, the Orchestra can find itself with special responsibilities when performing out of town. At the start of the Orchestra’s 2014 tour of the U.K. in commemoration of the centenary of WW I, as we waited for our luggage in Edinburgh airport, we were shocked to see all the airport televisions showing scenes of chaos here at home. A horror – while we were in the air, a Canadian soldier standing guard at the War Memorial, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, had been shot to death by a terrorist. We all used a month’s worth of data on our phones overnight, trying desperately to reach family. The next evening in Usher Hall it was our solemn honour as fellow Canadians to dedicate the first commemorative tour concert to Cpl. Cirillo, and to all those who lost their lives protecting our wonderful country – the point of the whole tour, suddenly up close and personal. As we played Elgar’s Nimrod in their honour, we – and the equally respectful audience – couldn’t see for our tears.

A few years later, most memorably, we performed John Estacio’s new work I Lost My Talk in the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island, the home of Rita Joe. Based on her powerful words, it was breathtaking – the weight of unspeakable history and hopes for reconciliation that concert carried on its shoulders, and brilliantly, thanks to the artistry and diplomacy of our excellent music director Alexander Shelley, who was the driving force behind it. And, in another galaxy far, far away, performing the great (and long…) John Williams score to a screening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 10,000 cheering Potter fans packed into the Canadian Tire Centre over two nights. Other than the paralyzingly cold walk from the parking lot, great fun. And perhaps the first orchestra performance many of those 10,000 had ever seen.

Why does music mean so much? I don’t know, but it does. At its best, the music we play touches the sublime – we see into the hearts of great minds and great souls across centuries of history, and in those moments, fear and mortality disappear. Experiences for a lifetime. And the great thing is, as musicians and audience, we experience it together. That brilliant first concert 50 years ago still lives in the memories of some who are present with us in this beautiful hall tonight. No other great orchestra in the world can say that. Isn’t that something?


Sunleif Rasmussen

Prelude for Brass

Born in Sandur, Faroe Islands, March 19, 1961
Now living in Sandur and Copenhagen

Music lovers might be forgiven if they can’t name a single composer from the Faroe Islands, but those who can would surely nominate Sunleif Rasmussen as the leading figure of this self-governing archipelago (pop. under 50,000) of the Kingdom of Denmark. Rasmussen studied first in Norway, then, after a five-year stint in the Faroe Islands’ capital city of Tórshavn as a music teacher and jazz pianist, at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen, where his teachers included Ib Nørholm and Ivar Frounberg. His catalogue of over a hundred works favours instrumental music, especially chamber music in various unconventional combinations of instruments (clarinet and horn; saxophone and percussion; guitar, piano, accordion, violin and double-bass; etc.). On his publisher’s website, Classical Music Sales, it includes the following description: “Rasmussen’s music may not seem inherently Faroese, but deep within the musical structure, traces of accumulated Faroese folk songs linger, reborn in new forms. His compositions have a natural complexity, combining jazz with the rich Faroese folk tradition as well as with electroacoustic and spectral music. The result is highly evocative, beautiful, and not difficult to listen to.”

A number of Rasmussen’s compositions combine electronic and acoustic instruments, some of them produced in cooperation with the Danish Institute for Electro-Acoustic Music. Such, however, is not the case with the Prelude for Brass, composed in 2008–2009 during his tenure as composer-in-residence with the Southern Jutland Symphony Orchestra (Denmark). Written for the opening concert of the orchestra’s season, it was originally intended to be played in the very large foyer of the concert hall. Tonight we hear it performed on stage. The 15-minute work consists of four movements played without pause, and is composed for eleven instruments: four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba.

– Program notes by Robert Markow

Haydn

Sinfonia Concertante

Born in Rohrau, Austria, March 31, 1732
Died in Vienna, May 31, 1809

The genre known as the sinfonia concertante was fairly popular in Haydn’s day, though virtually all works of this type have fallen into obscurity except for those of Haydn and Mozart. The basic principle involved a fusion of the Baroque concerto grosso with classical formal design. Several solo instruments (usually from two to four) were featured against an orchestral background, not in the alternating tutti and concertino manner of Vivaldi and Handel, but rather more in keeping with the formal design of a symphony.

The solo concerto was not a genre to which Haydn devoted much serious attention. However, he had been incorporating concertante elements into his many symphonies throughout his life, notably in such works as the early trilogy of Nos. 6, 7 & 8 (Le Matin, Le Midi, Le Soir), No. 31 (Horn Call) and No. 96 (Miracle). Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante, composed in 1792 for the famous concert series in London (the Salomon concerts), represents the culmination of this composer’s excursions into concertante (multiple soloists) writing. Haydn presumably was persuaded to write the work by his impresario Salomon, who wanted “his” composer to respond to the successful sinfonie concertanti by Ignaz Pleyel, one of Haydn’s former students. Salomon himself played the solo violin part at the first performance, which took place on March 9, 1792 to great success. Each of the four soloists is given an equally generous role to play.

The listener is cautioned against expecting fully developed sonata form, high drama, unusual harmonic language or music of emotional depth. Airy elegance, graceful lyricism and witty exchanges of musical dialogue are the keynotes of this charming and appealing work.

– Program notes by Robert Markow

LUTOSŁAWSKI

Concerto for Orchestra

Born in Warsaw, Poland, January 25, 1913
Died in Warsaw, Poland, February 7, 1994

Witold Lutosławski (pronounced VEE-told Lu-to-SWUV-ski) is universally regarded not only as one of Poland’s most distinguished composers, but as one of the most widely-known and admired twentieth-century composers from any country. Many of his orchestral works approach repertoire status, including Mi-parti (1976), Livre pour orchestre (1968), the Concerto for Orchestra (1954), Funeral Music (1958), the Cello Concerto (1970), and the Third Symphony (1983). In later years, each new work by this composer received numerous performances all over the world, among them the Chain series (1983, 1984, 1986), the Piano Concerto (1987), Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1991) and the Fourth Symphony (1992).

The widespread acceptance of Lutosławski’s music is not difficult to understand. While maintaining a distinctly contemporary idiom uniquely his own, Lutosławski did not abandon values of the past, and many of his works stand as glorious examples of “beautiful” non-tonal music. The “human” quality in music was vitally important to Lutosławski, and most concertgoers find his music eminently accessible, despite its obvious modernity. His compositions are suffused with great energy and momentum. A powerful thrust is found in most of his works, often through rhythmic impetus and by the contrasts and superimpositions of sonorous masses. In addition, folk music elements are prominent in his earlier works, including the Concerto for Orchestra.

The musical climate in Poland during the years Lutosławski wrote his Concerto for Orchestra (1950–1954) was hardly conducive to the creation of such abrasively modern sounds as are found in this work. The cultural watchdogs appointed by the Stalinist regime in neighbouring Russia made life difficult for artists who failed to kowtow to “Socialist Realism.” The Concerto for Orchestra was finished just as the political and cultural thaw began, following the death of Stalin in 1953. The first performance was given on November 26, 1954 by the Warsaw National Philharmonic conducted by Witold Rowicki, to whom the work is dedicated.

The most famous example of a Concerto for Orchestra is that of Béla Bartók. (The NAC Orchestra performs this work on October 3.) In Bartók’s work, each section of the orchestra is at some point propelled into the spotlight to enact the role of soloist(s). In Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, the entire ensemble is handled as a single virtuosic instrument. Inasmuch as Lutosławski was deeply interested in colouristic possibilities of various instrumental combinations, we find a vast array of fascinating sounds in this work. His predilection was for bright rather than warm colours, brilliant rather than gently glowing surfaces, sharply contrasted rather than subtly blended sounds, and angular as opposed to lyrically curved lines. These qualities, combined with the overtly virtuosic treatment of the orchestra, give a thrilling edge to the Concerto for Orchestra.

The Intrada (Introduction) opens with a striking effect: pounding timpani provide a pedal point over which the cellos soon proclaim the darkly turbulent, powerful first theme, which is based on a Polish folksong. This idea sweeps through progressively higher string sections until the horns announce the second theme, also derived from folksong, in a somewhat more lyrical cast. These ideas are developed in a series of episodes. Following the climax, Lutosławski brings back the opening idea but now, instead of massed strings in their lower register he uses solo woodwinds and strings in their upper registers. Instead of the powerfully pulsating timpani we hear the delicate sound of the celesta, also in its high range.

Lutosławski pays tribute to Bartók in the second movement (Capriccio notturno), where he evokes the mysterious murmurings, buzzings and twitterings found in Bartók’s “night music.” Wisps and tendrils of gossamer delicacy fly by breathlessly in some of Lutosławski’s most elegantly scored music. This brief movement’s central Arioso brings us momentarily into the light, as solo unison trumpets proclaim a slower, more rhythmical idea (another folksong transformation). Then the restless nocturnal scurrying resumes in varied form. Of special note is the witty conversation delivered at furious speed by an assortment of delicately tapped drums just before the movement dissolves into silence.

The third movement is by far the longest, comprising three connected parts: the Passacaglia (a series of variations built over a steadily recurring theme in the bass line), the Toccata (a vigorously aggressive idea initiated by violins in rapid eighth notes), and the Corale (begun softly in clarinets and oboes, with a secondary theme in the flute). Each section rises to a great climax before giving way to the next. Thematic links between them, as well as between melodic ideas from previous movements, are in some cases quite obvious, in others more subtle; most listeners will sense, at least at a subliminal level, the organic unity and exquisite craftsmanship that contribute to making the Concerto for Orchestra such a rewarding artistic experience. Elements of Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale mingle, interact and swirl together as the Concerto rushes headlong to a spectacular conclusion.

– Program notes by Robert Markow

50 Years of the NAC Orchestra: Conductors and Music Directors

Jean-Marie Beaudet (1908–1971)
Music Director 1964–1970
Original visionary who persuaded the NAC founders to create a small, virtuoso orchestra of the highest possible quality. His knowledge and experience were essential to founding conductor Mario Bernardi. Having to resign for health reasons shortly after the Orchestra got off the ground, his importance was far greater than is generally remembered today.

Mario Bernardi (1930–2013)
Founding Conductor 1968–1971, Music Director 1971–1982
Originator of the NAC Orchestra’s brilliance and precision. “Ottawa, where the winters are long and the notes are short,” as the joke went. At the very first rehearsal, just before starting, he turned to a friend in the hall and said, “I feel like I’m in the cockpit of a new airliner and I’m not sure it will get off the ground.” He needn’t have worried. Had a well-earned reputation as a taskmaster but was a superb musician, especially supporting voices. Brilliant and collegial leading from the keyboard in Ravel’s G-major Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for Festival Ottawa. Along with Walter Prystawski, creator of the Orchestra’s unique identity – a surpassingly rare accomplishment.

Franz-Paul Decker (1923–2014)
Principal Guest Conductor 1991–1999
Deeply cultured, gently eccentric old-school European, trained at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, making his opera debut in Cologne in 1945 (!), knew Richard Strauss (who he met in 1948 over a card game) and so gave a direct connection to the great, pre-war European musical tradition. Conducted 85 operas during his career, and world premieres of dozens of Canadian works. With the NAC Orchestra, conducted unforgettable performances of Richard Strauss and Piazzolla. One of those rarest of conductors who achieve their unique sound from the first rehearsal, so compelling is the personality.

Trevor Pinnock
Artistic Director and Principal Conductor 1991–1996, Artistic Advisor 1996–1998
A world-famous baroque specialist and top-selling artist for Deutsche Grammophon branching out during his tenure in Ottawa, not hesitant to push his limits. In the right repertoire, including premieres and recordings of his chosen composer-in-residence Linda Bouchard, he created performances of penetrating sincerity and unforced brilliance. His 1997 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is remembered with awe and gratitude to this day.

Franco Mannino (1924–2005)
Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor 1982–1986
Charismatic, irresistible “personaggio vivo e straordinario.” Second to none in Italian opera – memorably La Cenerentola and Madama Butterfly – his in-concert NAC Orchestra CBC recordings of these operas equal or surpass any commercial release. His NAC Orchestra CD of Italian opera overtures was everyone’s favourite Christmas present for years. During his time, the NAC Orchestra was literally the most exciting Italian orchestra in the world.

Gabriel Chmura
Music Director 1987–1990
A serious musician, seriously talented – 1971 winner of the Herbert von Karajan Competition in Berlin and gold medalist of the Cantelli Competition at La Scala. Respected and loved for his meticulous preparation and gentleness. In his short tenure with the NAC Orchestra, achieved a stylish CBC recording of early Haydn symphonies, a luminous in-concert performance of Debussy’s only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, and extensive tours in North America, including Carnegie Hall.

Pinchas Zukerman
Music Director 1999–2015
Quite simply, one of the greatest violinists and violists of our time. Brought confidence and a world-wide perspective, leading the orchestra in performances to be remembered for a lifetime: the 1990 European tour – a never-to-be-equalled performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on the day after German reunification, and the 2000 Middle-East tour during the Second Intifada – including an immense diplomatic effort for the Orchestra to perform in Palestine that only at the last minute fell victim to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. A larger-than-life personality who gave the orchestra larger-than-life experiences.

Alexander Shelley  
Music Director 2015–present
A musician of wide talents and even wider interests – conducts Stravinsky and plays jazz piano during rehearsal breaks. The best of the new generation of conductors – collegial, urbane, multilingual, with a driving ambition for new creation, cross-cultural connections and reconciliation. Over the past few years, has led the Orchestra brilliantly in its first performances of major works of Richard Strauss. Inspired and led the Life Reflected project completed in 2015, performed to acclaim in cities across Canada and Europe – an immense artistic and cultural achievement.

John Storgårds
Principal Guest Conductor 2015–present
A hearty, athletic Finn having a unique chemistry with the Orchestra that generates performances of effortless depth of sound and primal intensity. Has been equally brilliant in Beethoven, Schumann, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and new works. Maintains the friendliest of collegial relationships with NAC Orchestra Music Director Alexander Shelley, who returns the favour. As a senior manager said, “A dream for any orchestra is to have a conductor who is popular with the audience, popular with the musicians and popular with management. And we have two of them!”

Alain Trudel    
Principal Youth and Family Conductor 2012–2019
Really a big kid himself, an excellent solo performer on a “cool” instrument – trombone – as well as a conductor, consistently engaged young audiences with his effortless bilingualism and enthusiasm.

Mario Duschenes (1923-2009)     
Primary Conductor of Educational Concerts (untitled) 1973–1988
A dedicated, life-long educator with a distinguished background – born in Germany, later studying flute, composition and conducting in Switzerland during the war. Author of the famous series of Duschenes method books for the recorder. His gentle, intelligent approach to concerts for young people endeared him to generations of children and their parents.

Boris Brott     
Primary Conductor of Educational Concerts (untitled) 1989–2004 | Principal Youth and Family
Conductor 2004–2012
Energetic and ambitious, brought an attention-getting style to a wide variety of educational programs.

Jack Everly   
Principal Pops Conductor 2004–present
Widely popular with audiences and the Orchestra musicians, Jack is an amazing “pops musicologist” who entertainingly shares his love of the great golden-era Broadway shows and Hollywood movie scores by researching and recreating the original music for great classics such as West Wide Story, An American in Paris, The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca. Some of these priceless original scores were lost or quite literally buried in landfills by Hollywood execs who had no idea what they were doing. Fortunately, Jack does.

50 Years of the NAC Orchestra: Concertmasters

Walter Prystawski, 1969–2006
Along with Mario Bernardi, creator of the orchestra’s famous discipline and unique identity  – a surpassingly rare accomplishment. A peerless musical leader and originator of the orchestra’s team-spirited culture – an esprit de corps that exists to this day.

Yosuke Kawasaki, 2007 to present
Among the very best of the new generation of concert-masters. A superb violinist, also setting a personal example of the highest level of preparation, an energetic and committed performance style and a wide knowledge of historical performance practice. More than any other single musician, responsible for the continuing development of the orchestra that all acknowledge.


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