Atwood, Heggie & Brahms – Kingston

NAC Orchestra 2023 Tour

2023-02-14 19:30 2023-02-14 21:30 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Atwood, Heggie & Brahms – Kingston

In-person event

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins performs Songs for Murdered Sisters, a deeply personal new song cycle that conveys the tragedy of lives needlessly lost, composed by Jake Heggie based on original poetry by Margaret Atwood. Bookending the concert are the Faust-Overture by Mayer and Brahms's furiously passionate Symphony No. 4. Co-commissioned by the National Arts Centre and Houston Grand Opera, Songs For Murdered Sisters is dedicated to the memory of Hopkins's sister Nathalie Warmerdam,...

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The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts,390 King Street West,Kingston
Tue, February 14, 2023

≈ 2 hours · With intermission

Last updated: February 7, 2023


EMILIE MAYER Faust-Overture, Op. 46 (12 min)

JAKE HEGGIE, MARGARET ATWOOD Songs for Murdered Sisters* (30 min)

I. Empty Chair
II. Enchantment
III. Anger
IV. Dream
V. Bird Soul
VI. Lost
VII. Rage
VIII. Coda: Song


JOHANNES BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (40 min)

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 ( 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 to see how you can help.

- Joshua Hopkins



Faust-Overture, Op. 46

Many concertgoers can cite Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as representative women composers of the 19th century. Another name to add to this list is that of Emilie Mayer (1812–1883), whose life spanned almost exactly that of Richard Wagner. Mayer was born in a small town in the extreme northeast of Germany, went to neighbouring Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) to study with Carl Loewe, and in 1847 moved to Berlin to study with Adolf Bernhard Marx and Wilhelm Wieprecht.

Her music was played and published throughout her lifetime, though often at her own expense. What sets Mayer apart from most other women composers of the time is the sheer size and breadth of her catalogue: eight symphonies, 15 concert overtures, 12 cello sonatas, nine violin sonatas, seven piano trios, an opera, songs, piano music, and more. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls her “the most prolific German woman composer of the Romantic period.” Following her death, Mayer’s music fell into obscurity; only in recent years has some of it resurfaced and been recorded.

Mayer’s Faust-Overture was published in Stettin in 1880. In mood and style it much resembles Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture, whose subject is a restless, troubled soul. The slow introduction (Adagio) probably is meant to depict Faust alone in his study. The score’s sole programmatic indication comes near the end, where the words “Sie ist gerettet” (She [Margaret] is saved) appear at the point where the music moves from B minor to B major. Formally the main Allegro section of the 12-minute Overture is laid out in modified sonata form, with a first subject in the minor mode and a secondary one in the major. There is no development section to speak of. The coda returns to the minor mode up to the point where Margaret is “saved,” where B major once again prevails to the triumphant end.

Program note by Robert Markow


Songs for Murdered Sisters

I. Empty Chair
II. Enchantment
III. Anger
IV. Dream
V. Bird Soul
VI. Lost
VII. Rage
VIII. Coda: Song

On September 22, 2015, three women in Renfrew County, Ontario, were murdered in their respective homes by a man with whom each had had a relationship. One of the victims of this shocking crime spree, now recognized as one of the worst cases of domestic violence in Canadian history, was Nathalie Warmerdam, beloved sister of baritone Joshua Hopkins.

In grappling with his grief, guilt, and anger, and wanting to also draw attention to the global epidemic of gender-based violence, Hopkins conceived of a song cycle that became Songs for Murdered Sisters. This shatteringly powerful new work by notable opera and art song composer Jake Heggie sets new texts by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood. A co-commission by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and Houston Grand Opera for Hopkins, Songs for Murdered Sisters is dedicated to the memory of Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton, and Anastasia Kuzyk, as well as Pat Lowther and Debbie Rottman. It was released in February 2021 as a film, directed by James Niebuhr, with Houston Grand Opera, and then in March as an album on the Pentatone label, with the composer at the piano. Tonight’s performance with the NAC Orchestra is the cycle’s orchestral world premiere.

The song cycle charts a man’s emotional and spiritual journey as he wrestles with the devastating aftermath of his sister’s murder. Here, composer Jake Heggie describes each song:

1. Empty Chair
Fragile harmonies bring to mind a music box now silenced—a warmth and presence now flown—as the singer contemplates a chair where his sister used to sit. Nothing is left now, just emptiness and air.

2. Enchantment
Trying to make sense of his sister’s murder, the singer imagines fairy tales and fables that could explain her absence: something magical and mysterious. The music swirls and sparkles with imagination and wit but is ultimately haunted and pulled back to reality.

3. Anger
Stark, timeless, dark chords grow louder as the singer imagines the angry man who murdered his sister—the man she had tried to love. He pictures how innocently she would have opened the door, only to be met with a terrifying, red anger.

4. Dream
A melancholy, distant tune is suspended in a cloud of delicate harmonies as the singer dreams about his sister. They are young, with no inkling of what the future will bring. But then she tells him she has to go, and truth once again comes crashing in on him.

5. Bird Soul
Wondering where his beloved sister’s soul could be, the singer looks to birds in the sky in search of answers. Which bird would she be? The music evokes bird song as it sparkles, dips, and soars, echoing the long emotional quest.

6. Lost
The singer contemplates the countless women murdered by angry, jealous, fearful men over thousands of years. Countless lives…countless tears. The chords echo this timeless repetition and the sorrow that surrounds it. 

7. Rage
A haunted wind seems to sigh through the brass, percussion, and the lowest strings of the harp as the singer’s anger, frustration, and outrage grows. Why couldn’t he have saved his sister? Should he avenge her by killing the man who killed her? The music nearly boils over until he wonders if the ghost of his sister might ask something different of him: “Would you instead forgive?” The music suddenly blossoms and flows with new warmth and beauty at the possibility of redemption.  

8. Coda: Song
A simple tune brings comfort as the singer realizes that when he breathes and sings, his sister is with him. He hums. The air vibrates. The eternal ohm.   

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD

by Margaret Atwood

1. Empty Chair
Who was my sister
Is now an empty chair

Is no longer,
Is no longer there

She is now emptiness
She is now air

2. Enchantment
If this were a story
I was telling my sister

A troll from the mountain
Would have stolen her

Or else a twisted magician
Turned her to stone

Or locked her in a tower
Or hidden her deep inside a golden flower

I would have to travel
West of the moon, east of the sun

To find the answer;
I’d speak the charm

And she’d be standing there
Alive and happy, come to no harm

But this is not a story.
Not that kind of story….

3. Anger
Anger is red
The colour of spilled blood

He was all anger,
The man you tried to love

You opened the door
And death was standing there

Red death, red anger
Anger at you

For being so alive
And not destroyed by fear

What do you want? you said.
Red was the answer.

4. Dream
When I sleep you appear
I am a child then
And you are young and still my sister

And it is summer;
I don’t know the future,
Not in my dream

I’m going away, you tell me
On a long journey.
I have to go away.

No, stay, I call to you
As you grow smaller:
Stay here with me and play!

But suddenly I’m older
And it’s cold and moonless
And it is winter…

5. Bird Soul
If birds are human souls
What bird are you?
A spring bird with a joyful song?
A high flyer?

Are you an evening bird
Watching the moon
Singing Alone, Alone,
Singing Dead Too Soon?

Are you an owl,
Soft-feathered predator?
Are you hunting, restlessly hunting
The soul of your murderer?

I know you are not a bird,
Though I know you’ve flown
So far, so far away..
I need you to be somewhere…


6. Lost
So many sisters lost
So many lost sisters

Over the years, thousands of years
So many sent away

Too soon into the night
By men who thought they had the right

Rage and hatred
Jealousy and fear

So many sisters killed
Over the years, thousands of years

Killed by fearful men
Who wanted to be taller

Over the years, thousands of years
So many sisters lost

So many tears


7. Rage
I was too late,
Too late to save you.

I feel the rage and pain
In my own fingers,

In my own hands
I feel the red command

To kill the man who killed you:
That would be only fair:

Him stopped, him nevermore,
In fragments on the floor,

Him shattered.
Why should he still be here

And not you?
Is that what you wish me to do,

Ghost of my sister?
Or would you let him live?

Would you instead forgive?

8. Coda: Song
If you were a song
What song would you be?

Would you be the voice that sings,
Would you be the music?

When I am singing this song for you
You are not empty air

You are here,
One breath and then another:

You are here with me…


Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98

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


  • Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • Baritone Joshua Hopkins
  • 2012-margaret-atwood-photo-by-jean-malek
    Text Margaret Atwood
  • Composer Jake Heggie
  • Featuring NAC Orchestra

NAC Orchestra

First Violins
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Jeremy Mastrangelo
Marjolaine Lambert
Emily Westell
Manuela Milani
Emily Kruspe
*Erica Miller
*Martine Dubé
*Renée London
*Oleg Chelpanov

Second Violins
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
Leah Roseman
Carissa Klopoushak
Frédéric Moisan
Zhengdong Liang
Karoly Sziladi
Mark Friedman
**Edvard Skerjanc
*Andréa Armijo Fortin
*Heather Schnarr

Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
David Thies-Thompson
Paul Casey
*Tovin Allers
*Sonya Probst

Rachel Mercer (principal)
**Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Timothy McCoy
Leah Wyber
Marc-André Riberdy
*Karen Kang
*Desiree Abbey
*Daniel Parker

Double basses
*Joel Quarrington (guest principal)
Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
Vincent Gendron
Marjolaine Fournier
*Paul Mach
**Hilda Cowie

Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Stephanie Morin

Charles Hamann (principal)
Anna Petersen

English Horn
Anna Petersen

Kimball Sykes (principal)
Sean Rice

Darren Hicks (principal)
Vincent Parizeau
*Carmelle Préfontaine

Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Elizabeth Simpson
Lauren Anker
Louis-Pierre Bergeron
*Olivier Brisson

Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik

*Peter Sullivan (guest principal)
Colin Traquair

Chris Lee (principal)

*Michael Kemp (guest principal)

Jonathan Wade
*Louis Pino

*Angela Schwarzkopf

Principal Librarian
Nancy Elbeck

Assistant Librarian
Corey Rempel

Personnel Manager
Meiko Lydall

Assistant Personnel Manager
Laurie Shannon

*Additional musicians
**On Leave