Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and its Music Director Alexander Shelley have channelled their bold vision for classical music’s future into a strikingly diverse 2023-24 programme. The season’s repertoire range embraces national and world premiere performances, recent works by Andrew Balfour, Jimmy López Bellido, Gabriela Montero and Caroline Shaw, Roope Mäenpää’s Luovus, a symphony for Sámi yoik singer, and familiar pieces placed in fresh contexts. The Orchestra’s line-up of guest artists is equally distinctive, with pianists Emanuel Ax, Louis Lortie, Isata Kanneh-Mason, Gabriela Montero and Yeol Eum Son, violinists James Ehnes and Ray Chen, cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, saxophonist Jess Gillam and conductors Joana Carneiro, Roderick Cox and Jeannette Sorrell among them.
Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra are set to launch the season with Focus: Clara, Robert, Johannes. The festival trains the spotlight on the music of Clara and Robert Schumann and Brahms and the creative dialogue that helped sustain their mutual friendship. It coincides with the completion of the Orchestra’s acclaimed Clara, Robert, Johannes recording project, the fourth and final volume of which is scheduled for release on the Analekta label on 22 September. The five-concert series begins on 13 September with a sequence of Clara’s songs, followed by Robert Schumann’s Symphony No.1 ‘Spring’ and Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1, with Emanuel Ax as soloist. Soprano Midori Marsh opens the second concert on 14 September with a second selection of Clara’s songs, before Nicolas Altstaedt takes the solo part in Robert’s Cello Concerto and Alexander Shelley directs the Orchestra in Brahms’s Symphony No.1. On 17 September NACO Creative Partner James Ehnes joins forces with pianist Stewart Goodyear and string players from the Orchestra for an afternoon of chamber works by the three composers.
“We are thrilled to present Focus: Clara, Robert, Johannes as a captivating exploration of the interconnected lives and music of these remarkable composers,” observes Alexander Shelley. “Through an array of exceptional concerts and thought-provoking talks, we invite audiences to embark on a musical journey that delves into the profound artistic relationships between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms.”
Focus: Clara, Robert, Johannes continues on 20 September when James Ehnes appears as soloist in Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The programme also includes a trio of Clara’s songs and Schumann’s Symphony No.3 ‘Rhenish’. Altstaedt and Ehnes return to the National Arts Centre stage on 21 September as soloists in Brahms’s Double Concerto. The festival’s final concert begins with a miscellany of Clara’s songs, freshly orchestrated by Canadian composers Sarah Slean and Cecilia Livingston, and includes Clara’s Piano Concerto, with Isata Kanneh-Mason as soloist. Clara Schumann scholar Julie Pedneault-Deslauriers and Brahms biographer Jan Swafford will lead pre- and post-concert discussions, enabling audiences to discover more about three titans of nineteenth-century music.
“The relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann and Brahms is one of the most enthralling narratives in classical music history,” comments Nelson McDougall, Managing Director of the NAC Orchestra. “People are so often drawn to music by the stories behind it. We’re interested in the fact that the young Clara was, for a time, much more famous than Robert and in how that shifted after their marriage so that his career could take
precedence over hers. The exceptional quality of her music begs questions about neglected works by other female composers from the past and what we might be missing.”
McDougall notes how the demanding conditions of making music during the pandemic and the concurrent recognition of deep-seated structural flaws within society prompted the NAC Orchestra to embrace the goals of equity, diversity and inclusion and apply them to its work. The forthcoming season’s breadth of artists and repertoire, he adds, reflects the sincerity of that commitment. “Our audiences are asking for this variety of music. I think the days when orchestras could bury short pieces of new music in their otherwise conventional programmes are over. New works and rediscoveries are being celebrated and its right that due attention should be paid to them from a programming perspective. Although we have yet to gather all the data, we’re seeing younger and more diverse audiences at the NAC Orchestra’s concerts. We’re making our programming more inclusive not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it’s making a positive contribution to audience growth. And I must say, our Orchestra is totally embracing this diversity.”
American conductor Roderick Cox sharpens the focus on diversity when he makes his NAC Orchestra debut (25 & 26 October). He opens with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s rousing Ballade for orchestra before French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, on his return to the National Arts Centre, joins the party as soloist in the 17-year-old Mozart’s Rondo in D major for piano and orchestra K.382 and Fauré’s rhapsodic Ballade for piano and orchestra. Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’ occupies the programme’s second half. Alexander Shelley’s concerts on 8 & 9 May deliver the equally wide-ranging mix of Peruvian composer Jimmy López Bellido’s recent Aino, Gabriela Montero’s Piano Concerto No.1, ‘Latin’, performed by its composer, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.
Shelley and the NAC Orchestra join forces with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec on tour to Québec City and Toronto (28 February & 2 March), and at home in Ottawa (7 & 8 March). They will explore the compelling coupling of Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.2, performed by 18-year-old Canadian pianist Kevin Chen, winner of the 2022 Concours de Genève and the 2023 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and Symphony No.5 by French-Canadian composer and music educator Jacques Hétu (1938-2010).
Sámi poet, novelist, scriptwriter and yoik singer Niillas Holmberg joins the Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor, John Storgårds, for the Canadian premiere of Luovus, a symphony for joikaaja and chamber orchestra by the Finnish composer Roope Mäenpää (b.1990). Storgårds, who gave the work’s first performance with Holmberg in Finland in 2022, presents Sibelius’ lean and powerful Symphony No.3 in the programme’s second half (1 & 2 November).
Alexander Shelley is set to conduct the Canadian premieres of two NACO co-commissions and the first performances of two works solely commissioned by the Orchestra. The co-commissions include a new work for orchestra by Iranian-American composer Gity Razaz, offered together with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (with Blake Pouliot as soloist) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (7 & 8 February), and Anna Clyne’s Glasslands, which takes its place in the season’s final pair of concerts alongside ᓂᔭ niya (I Am) by Cree composer Andrew Balfour and Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 ‘Choral’ (19 & 20 June). Jess Gillam, who gave the world premiere of Glasslands with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in February, will take the solo part again in Ottawa.
The initial pair of three NACO commissions, programmed together by Alexander Shelley with Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4 and Richard Strauss’s tone poems Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung, comprises a yet-to-be-titled score by Ottawa-based composer Kelly-Marie Murphy and The Infinite Reaches by Canadian composer-pianist Kevin Lau (22 & 23 November). The season’s other NACO commission, Barbara Assiginaak’s OKWIINOWAK: Concerto grosso opens Joana Carneiro’s programme (12 & 13 June). It stands together with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2, with Yeol Eum Son making her NACO debut as soloist, and the 1945 version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.
Jeannette Sorrell, director of period instrument ensemble Apollo’s Fire, and NACO Creative Partner Bernard Labadie are sure to cast light on the historically informed performance of Baroque music with programmes devoted to landmark works by George Frideric Handel. The composer’s majestic oratorio Messiah is on the bill for Sorrell’s NACO debut (20 & 21 December), when the Orchestra will be joined by the combined voices of the Cantata Singers of Ottawa and Capital Chamber Choir. Labadie and the singers of his La Chapelle de Québec open their all-Handel programme with the four Coronation Anthems, first heard at Westminster Abbey in 1727, and are joined by soprano Joelle Harvey in the composer’s youthful setting of Psalm 113, Laudate pueri Dominum. Their concert also includes excerpts from the Music for the Royal Fireworks and Water Music (20 & 21 March).
Johann Sebastian Bach’s violin concertos hold centre stage when James Ehnes returns to work with the NAC Orchestra on 10 & 11 January. He is joined by the Orchestra’s Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki in the Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043 and by Kawasaki and Associate Concertmaster Jessica Linnebach in the original version of the Concerto for three violins in C major, BWV 1064. Ehnes will also perform Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor BWV 1041 and Violin Concerto in G Minor, BWV 1056.
Other season highlights include the intriguing pairing of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with Ray Chen as soloist, and Mahler’s Symphony No.5, conducted by Alexander Shelley (15 & 16 May); Stephanie Childress conducting the NAC Orchestra in Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte, the American Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s reimagining of the classical minuet and trio, Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G major K.313 with the Orchestra’s principal flute Joanna G’froerer as soloist, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 ‘Scottish’ (17 & 18 January); and John Storgårds’ carefully curated combination of Mozart’s Symphony No.40 ‘Jupiter’, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, with Jessica Linnebach as soloist, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 (3 & 4 April).
“This is a fantastic season for us,” comments Nelson McDougall. “We’re also thrilled to have Seong-Jin Cho and Angela Hewitt giving recitals in our Great Performers series and to welcome Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a true icon of music in Canada, coming to the National Arts Centre on tour with his Philadelphia Orchestra and to have the Toronto Symphony Orchestra back in Ottawa. And our growing side-by-side Mentorship Program, which brings outstanding young musicians into the NAC Orchestra to deepen their experience, is set to continue following the success of its second season in 2022-23. It’s great for our musicians and for building the onstage and offstage skills of the early-career players who come to us. The next intake will take part in Gabriela Montero’s ‘Latin’ Concerto, Daphnis et Chloé and Mahler Five. That will be a terrific fortnight for us and for them!”
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