The National Arts Centre Orchestra at 50

A reflection by Winston Webber

“The Centre must have a heart that beats.” - Jean Gascon.

“A good orchestra is called for. A superb one would be more to the point.” - Louis Applebaum

And on October 7, 1969, from the first dramatic notes of Haydn’s “Drumroll” symphony, 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 they’re 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 the Beethoven 7th symphony, a specialty of NACO, each one raising the roof higher than the last. And truly hair-raising, almost dangerous performances of Beethoven’s 5th with Gustavo Dudamel, Hannu Lintu and John Storgards. 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. Many years later, when Mario Bernardi had returned to conduct after a decade’s absence and Rowland had long since retired, 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 the Bach St. Matthew Passion, the Haydn Nelson Mass and the Mozart 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 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 I’ve seen 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 who comes up to me as I’m having breakfast at our hotel in Fukuoka, asking with the greatest respect what the wonderful encore was that we played last 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.

Being 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 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 the dead soldier, Corporal Nathan 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 were performing John Estacio’s new work “I Lost My Talk” in the Eskasoni First Nation on Cape Breton Island. Based on the words of Rita Joe, 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?


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