Last updated: February 7, 2023
I. Empty Chair
V. Bird Soul
VIII. Coda: Song
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante moderato
III. Allegro giocoso
IV. Allegro energico e passionato
* A Work Jointly Commissioned by Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and Houston Grand Opera. Piano and Voice Premiere [March 8, 2022] at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas Orchestra and Voice Premiere [February 9–10, 2022] in Southam Hall, at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada
Poems by Margaret Atwood © (Based on the original poems by Margaret Atwood © Margaret Atwood 2020). Margaret Atwood’s poem “Songs for Murdered Sisters” is from the collection Dearly, published by HarperCollins US, Penguin Random House UK and Penguin Random House Canada. Dearly is published in French by Editions Robert Laffont.
The score for Songs for Murdered Sisters is published by Bent Pen Music, Inc. (“Bent P Music” BMI) Represented by Bill Holab Music (www.billholabmusic.com) All rights reserved.
On behalf of the NAC Orchestra, a very warm welcome to tonight’s concert, in which we juxtapose a daring and powerfully emotional symphony from 1885 with a profound and beautiful new commission from our own time.
Brahms’s Fourth (and final) Symphony is, as is so often the case with this extraordinary composer, a stunning example of formal precision and efficiency leading to blistering emotional impact. As much as any work by J.S. Bach, it underscores how our sense of beauty is so inextricably linked with underlying structural rigour. In the last movement, for example, Brahms famously shackles himself to an, even for 1885, ancient and rigid passacaglia form. This constraint, this self-imposed limitation calls forth the most miraculous invention as Brahms gives us no less than 30 passionate and contrasting variations on the initial eight-bar woodwind chorale. To me, it is a symphony at once intensely human, constantly operating on a parallel, more veiled, metaphysical plane.
This performance marks the culmination of our Clara, Robert, Johannes recording cycle of all of Brahms’s and Schumann’s symphonies combined with the music of their great muse, inspiration, and critic Clara Schumann. It has been a privilege to dive with such depth and detail into the work and lives of these three geniuses and it is a journey I can only recommend to those of you yet to undertake it!
It is a similar privilege to tonight be premiering a new work by Jake Heggie and Margaret Atwood. Commissioning and performing new music stands at the heart of what we do at Canada’s National Arts Centre and this piece demonstrates the power and importance of this medium as a conduit for the stories and experiences of our time.
While only Joshua’s words can effectively introduce Songs for Murdered Sisters, I would like to say this: we are indebted to him for his trust, for asking us to walk alongside him on this journey and for finding some means of translating a senseless, brutal act into a work of art that might move, awaken, and transform.
Thank you for being with us.
- Alexander Shelley
I’ll never forget the burst of sympathetic applause as I rolled in on a scooter at the top of Figaro’s famous aria on opening night of The Barber of Seville in this very hall. It was September 2015, four days after my sister Nathalie’s murder. Your support meant so much to me in that moment and I hold it close to my heart tonight.
Just one week later, my wife and I met with Daphne Burt and Stefani Truant to discuss the development of a new musical work that would both commemorate Nathalie and address the worldwide epidemic of gender-based violence. They, along with Alexander Shelley, have championed Songs for Murdered Sisters from the very beginning. I am indebted to them and the entire team at NACO for making this vision a reality and I am so grateful we can gather in person to experience this incredible new work together.
For years, I found myself feeling numb about Nathalie’s murder—it was something too shocking to comprehend. But since receiving Margaret’s haunting words and then Jake’s gorgeous music, I have shed countless tears. The words and music, in their own separate ways and woven together, have opened a portal to my heart, connecting me to complicated emotions that had lain dormant. This work has provided meaning for me, transforming my grief into something palpable.
Songs for Murdered Sisters is a tribute to Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton, and Anastasia Kuzyk—and the countless sisters who have been taken over the years. I hope these songs awaken the hearts of those who may not yet recognize this epidemic. If this work can motivate someone to do their part, take action, and perhaps save someone from a similar plight, then I may truly hope to honour my sister’s memory. Please visit songsformurderedsisters.com to see how you can help.
- Joshua Hopkins
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante moderato
III. Allegro giocoso
IV. Allegro energico e passionate
When Austrian critic and Brahms champion Eduard Hanslick first heard the opening movement of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4, as a piano arrangement performed by the composer and a friend, he memorably commented, “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people.” To be sure, the Fourth Symphony is a highly intellectual work, in which Brahms creatively synthesizes Classical four-movement structure, Baroque music processes, and the Romantic era’s harmonic language and aesthetic principles of motivic development and unity. Yet, this Symphony also plumbs the depths of emotion; there’s a powerful seriousness and solemnity. It’s intensely passionate, encompassing anguish and tender warmth, though always controlled by the tightly wrought fusion of form and technique.
Brahms wrote the Fourth over two summers, in 1884 and 1885. On October 25, 1885, he conducted the Meiningen Court Orchestra in the premiere, and subsequently, they presented it on tour across Germany and the Netherlands, to acclaim. Since then, the work has been—and continues to be considered—the crowning achievement of Brahms’s symphonic output.
A defining feature of the Fourth Symphony is the use of near-constant thematic variation. In the E minor first movement, for example, the opening melody—a descending sequence of falling and rising motifs—undergoes varied treatment throughout. A woodwind fanfare preceding the soaring second theme in the cellos and French horns is also manipulated accordingly, including being combined with a sinewy motif in the strings. This “turning” passage is used to dramatic effect at the beginning of the recapitulation—as a mysterious response to a new, slow interpretation of the first theme by the woodwinds—after which the movement resumes course.
The E major Andante moderato features three themes in the first half of the movement that, when later reprised in the second half, undergo development and emotional intensification. Listen for the stern second theme building to a forceful climax, after which the third theme, played “sweetly” before, now soars to passionate heights. The third movement is a vigorous dance in C major consisting of two melodies—the first vigorous and stamping, the second graceful and delicate. Its structure is an original twist on the scherzo-and-trio, in which the trio—with an elongated version of the opening tune given warmth by French horns—has the effect of momentarily disrupting the start of the scherzo’s reprise.
Brahms puts variation technique directly in the spotlight for the E minor finale. Using the form of the Baroque passacaglia, he spins out 30 variations on an eight-note theme, itself his adaptation of the rising bass line from J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (For Thee, O Lord, I long). After woodwinds and brass present the monumental theme, the variations unfold in seven sections. Variations 1 to 3 lead into a noble, impassioned melody (Var. 4), which is then given increasingly energetic treatment in variations 5 to 9. Through a mysterious transition (Var. 10,11), we reach the movement’s quiet centre, with contemplative variations featuring solo flute, clarinet and oboe, and trombones (Var. 12 to 15). The original theme bursts in suddenly; from Variation 17, the tension mounts, peaking with rushing strings at Variation 21. Variations 22 to 26 explore triplet patterns; 27 to 30, “descending thirds” sequences (which reference the first movement’s opening melody). At the start of the coda, the original theme makes its final appearance, now urgent and intense. After reaching a final climax, the music relentlessly drives forward to the end.
Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD
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.
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
*Andréa Armijo Fortin
Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
Rachel Mercer (principal)
**Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
*Joel Quarrington (guest principal)
Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Charles Hamann (principal)
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Darren Hicks (principal)
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
*Peter Sullivan (guest principal)
Chris Lee (principal)
*Michael Kemp (guest principal)
Assistant Personnel Manager