Ready, set, apply! The NAC Orchestra Bursary is back

A young man with short black hair carrying a cello under his arm.
2016 Bursary winner, Bryan Cheng (cello) © Andrej Grilc
A young man with short dark hair wearing a leather jacket carrying an instrument case on his back.
2013 Bursary winner, Kerson Leong (violin)
The exterior of a wide, angular building in the Brutalist style, with snow on the sidewalks and cars passing on a wet street. The NAC's original hexagonal logo appears on the building's signage.
The National Arts Centre as seen from Elgin Street in the late 1980s. © NAC Archives

Making the cut

It’s 1981 and a $1,000 prize is on the line in the first-ever edition of the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Bursary Competition. Anything could happen.

You make the cut. You get to compete in the NAC Orchestra Bursary competition! You’ve rehearsed the concerto on repeat, and you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.

It’s competition day. Let’s go!

You’re walking up Elgin Street towards the National Arts Centre listening to The Police on your headset – their music always gets you energized yet relaxed – perfect for competing. The imposing and majestic Parliament buildings draw nearer with each step and you remind yourself ‘even Trudeau started somewhere’. This might just be your big break. You’ve arrived… at the NAC anyway. As you reach for the door, you switch your Walkman off and take a deep breath. “This is it.”

Winning is just the beginning

Violinist Andrée Azar took home the $1,000 prize in 1981 (worth $3,126 in today’s dollars). She then went on to join the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and les Violons du Roy. From Walkmans to AirPods, from Trudeau to Trudeau, the more things change the more they stay the same. The Police are still great, and the Bursary Competition continues to provide outstanding young musicians a launching pad into their professional careers.

2016 winner, cellist Bryan Cheng has just been named the 2023 recipient of the Canada Council for the Arts Virginia Parker Prize, the nation’s highest honour for young musicians.

Kerson Leong, 2013 winner, was hand-picked by Yannick Nézet-Séguin to be his artist-in-residence with the Orchestre Métropolitain during the 2018-2019 season and has performed in such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium and the Auditorium du Louvre.  His latest album was awarded ‘Editor’s Choice’ by Gramophone, ‘The Strad Recommends’ by The Strad, and the ‘Choc de Classica’ by Classica, as well as five-star recommendations from the Sunday Times and Diapason.

Robert Uchida, 2003 winner, is Concertmaster of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. He enjoys a rewarding career as a soloist, orchestral and chamber musician, and educator. His debut recording of Andrew Violette’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin won international acclaim, with Strings Magazine praising his “ravishing sound, eloquence and hypnotic intensity.”

Over the decades, hundreds of competitors have followed in their footsteps, and many have landed right on our doorstep. Bursary winners and finalists among the ranks of today’s NAC Orchestra include Leah Roseman (violin), Steven van Gulik (trumpet), Darren Hicks (bassoon) and Paul Casey (viola) along with frequent NACO contributors Renée London (violin) and Lara Deutsch (flute). Now retired, Elizabeth Simpson (French horn) and Kenneth Simpson (percussion) were both also Bursary winners.

Check out the complete list of complete list of past winners.

Crescendo: The Bursary continues to grow

Now 43 years later, the NAC Orchestra Bursary competition has grown to offer a suite of awards totalling nearly $25,000 – that’s $7,996 in 1981 dollars – an 800% increase in the inflation-adjusted prize amount since the Bursary’s inception!

New this year, Donald Renshaw, the NAC Orchestra’s former principal trombone who passed away in December 2022 at the age of 66, will be honoured with the new Don Renshaw Memorial Award for Brass. Don was a longtime supporter of the Orchestra’s community engagement activities, including the Bursary.

In 2024, up to eight finalists will be chosen from the preliminary auditions to compete in the finals for the prizes listed below. Criteria for each prize are outlined on the Bursary, Awards and Prizes page.

  • NAC Orchestra Bursary ($8,000) is the top prize in the competition. One award of $8,000 is given to the most deserving candidate.
  • Crabtree Foundation Award ($5,000)
  • Friends of the NAC Orchestra Award ($3,500)
  • NAC Orchestra Vic Pomer Award ($2,000)
  • Friends of the NAC Orchestra Evelyn Greenberg Award ($2,000)
  • Piccolo Prix ($1,000)
  • Two honourable mentions ($350 each)
  • Sturdevant Prize for Orchestral Excerpts ($1,500)
  • The Don Renshaw Memorial Award for Brass ($500)

Today, the competition is also national in scope, inviting applicants from around Canada while maintaining its local character by seeking candidates with ties to the National Capital Region as outlined in the eligibility criteria. The competition alternates yearly between two groupings of eligible instruments; this year’s applications are open to wind, brass, percussion, and timpani. In 2025, the competition will be open to strings and harp.

Applications open on December 1st, 2023 and the competition takes place on April 7th, 2024.

Good luck to all applicants!

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