One of Those ‘Off” Seasons

Paul Wells

An essay to better understand the NAC Orchestra’s 50th season

“I just met a lady downstairs,” Alexander Shelley tells me. “She must have been in her mid-90s. She was very sweet. She shook my hand and she said, ‘I think I’ve met you before.’

“And I said, ‘Oh, maybe you’ve been to a concert. I’m the music director of the orchestra.’

“And she went, ‘Oh, you’re Christopher Deacon.’

“And I said, ‘No, I’m Alexander Shelley.’

“And she said ‘Oh! You’re Alexander Shelley! Oooh!’ And then she said, ‘I’ve been coming here for decades. I love what you’re doing with the orchestra. I love that you’re bringing in all this new music.’ And it was the last thing I expected her to say. I thought she might say, ‘Oh, I liked the Beethoven festival.’ And then she started to talk about it all.

“That’s sort of invigorating, and I think it wouldn’t have been as easy if I hadn’t had the opportunity to open myself a little bit up to the audience.”

This is where we are, as the National Arts Centre Orchestra announces its 2019-2020 season. We are all getting to know one another. Artists and audience. All of us and Alexander Shelley.

Beginnings are exciting, as you know. Endings are bittersweet. But the middle is where much of the work gets done. Can 2019-2020 really be Alexander Shelley’s fifth season as music director of the NAC Orchestra? It can. It is. We have gotten to know him, and he us, and he is settling in for some serious exploration.

He has made Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms pillars of recent seasons. All three will be back this year, but they’re joined by less familiar names, in ways I find exciting but that may benefit from explanation. So I asked Shelley to sit down with me and share his thinking. We met in his office, which is comfortable and undecorated, befitting a man who is rarely in his office.

“You have to build trust,” he said of his first half-decade (that still sounds weird) here. “And that’s something I also love doing, because it helps with everything else: If you can start to get to know your audience and they can start to get to know you, you say, ‘I don’t have all the answers — but I’m passionate about this and that. And I’m going to try and share my passion where I can.' Then you start to build a dialogue.”

Some years are more about building trust, some are more about relying on the trust that’s been built. “I don’t think one needs an excuse to do Beethoven,” he said of last season’s glorious opening week of Beethoven symphonies, “because it’s like Shakespeare or Dickens. There’s always stuff in there. But I also try to buy, for want of a better word, a bit of credit for the next season, when we can explore. And this is one of those” — he searched for a word — “off seasons.”

Mind you, much of it will be right on. An orchestra, especially one this brilliant, can do a lot over a season. The core repertoire is a solid theme in Shelley’s 2019-2020 plan. Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto — conducted by the great Pinchas Zukerman, with Jonathan Biss, who has been updating Ottawa audiences on his progress since he was just a kid, as piano soloist. Mozart’s last symphony. Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, Sibelius and Haydn, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber. Verdi’s awesome Requiem. This orchestra takes proper care of the eternal.

Then there are the other passions Shelley wants to share.

The season’s second week will feature several works by Indigenous composers as the whole building celebrates the inaugural season of NAC Indigenous Theatre.

Almost every program Shelley conducts will feature work by women composers. Often contemporary, as you might expect. Sometimes historic, which you might not. Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto will be recorded, part of a long-term project linking her work with that of her husband Robert Schumann and of her dear friend Johannes Brahms.

Compelling compositions that had their debut in recent seasons, by Vancouver’s Jocelyn Morlock and Toronto’s Kevin Lau, will be back for another listen. “We want to put our money where our mouths are: when we commissioned these pieces, we said, ‘We’re going to keep performing them,’” Shelley says. “And so we are.”

And the deep bench strength of this remarkable orchestra will be featured as perhaps never before.

Fall 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the NAC. Celebrating the orchestra — the valiant women and men who play with so much heart and craft, year after year — was an easy decision. “An orchestra of this calibre is made up of musicians who absolutely, in their own right, are persuasive soloists,” Shelley says. “This season will help to underscore that.”

On many nights the featured soloists in concerto settings will be drawn from the orchestra’s ranks. Visiting stars are exciting, of course, but so, in another way, are local heroes. I asked Shelley about some of them.

Principal flautist Joanna G’Froerer, a fixture in the orchestra for 27 years. “Just the quality of her sound, the integrity of what she does, and then her purity of form, physically, when she plays, draws you in,” Shelley says.

Cellist Rachel Mercer, who joined the orchestra in 2016 and became the principal cellist a year later. Most of her career before now was in chamber music, solo or in twos or threes with close associates. But she turns out to have a gift for this larger canvas too.

“Rachel is, neither in her character nor in her playing, a demonstrative person,” Shelley says. “But what comes out is so persuasive that you almost can’t believe it. With so little obvious effort or need to put her elbows out and say, ‘I’m this big personality,’ she can dominate a room. She can light up a room. She can make music that is either right in the foreground or she can melt into the section.

“I’ve always loved her playing. But I needed to mature in how I thought about a section leader in order to fully appreciate what she offered.”

Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, the violinist who on most nights sits directly to Shelley’s left. And doesn’t always stay put in his seat. “Yosuke is such an unbelievable ball of energy. He has so many colours and nuances. He has so many options. I think of him as a real master of understanding the myriad stylistic opportunities in different works. And whatever he chooses to do, he can then be true to the music he’s performing. And that’s what makes him a great leader.

“He is genuinely one of the great leaders of the world” — a claim that’s less sweeping than it may sound, because “leader” is a British word for concertmaster — “because as a conductor, I need only say one word, and immediately he gets it. And he does it. And he tries it out. And frankly, often I don’t need to say one word. I can think something and I can see that he’s registered what I thought.”

Two programs in September are designed to showcase the orchestra as a whole. Shelley will conduct Béla Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, from 1944. The following week, John Storgårds, NACO’s principal guest conductor, will conduct Witold Lutowslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, from a decade later.

“These are two masterpieces that may not be that well-known to our audience. I think the Lutoslawski has never been played here and the Bartok was quite a long time ago. And there was a lot of back-and-forth about that.” These seasons are hardly the expression of one man’s whims. They are team efforts, with logistics, budgets and the audience part of every calculation. “Couldn’t we do Tchaik 5, if we’re celebrating the orchestra?” Shelley asks, paraphrasing some of the back-and-forth. “Tchaik 5” is musician-talk for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, immense and familiar.

“But I love the idea of doing two concertos for orchestra. Because we’re doing a whole lot of things in one go. First of all, both those pieces do what it says on the can, which is, they show off the orchestra as a series of groups. You can revel in the expertise of the different groups.

There’s a strong mid-century feel to both pieces. Sure, they’re spiky at times — Why would they not be spiky? Life is spiky — but the Lutoslawski, for what it’s worth, is one of my very favourite pieces of music. It’s relentless, majestic. I did not expect to hear it in Ottawa. Shelley and Storgårds are making the unexpected easier to expect. (And anyone who mourns the loss of Tchaik 5 will be reassured to learn the orchestra is playing Tchaik 4 and Tchaik 6 this season.)

“They’re two works that deserve to be part of the repertory here, they deserve to be heard in Ottawa, because they are masterpieces. They’re two composers who are not heard as often as they could or should be in Ottawa. And I know that — by virtue of the fact that our audience have built a relationship with me and built a relationship with John — there’ll be a trusting, open feel in the hall.”

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