It’s good to be loved, and there’s no doubt that the CBC Radio Orchestra—a broadcast fixture that started in 1938—was one of the country’s most adored musical institutions. This became especially clear when the CBC axed the ensemble in 2008: thousands of outraged listeners petitioned network brass to keep the orchestra afloat, but to no avail.
Now, though, the orchestra is back, but with a new name and without the full financial support of the Mother Corp. The Vancouver-based National Broadcast Orchestra features most of the musicians who made the original such a success, with a familiar face leading from the podium: conductor Alain Trudel, who headed the CBC unit during its final years, and who’s also the driving force behind its phoenix-like return.
“You know, we played quite a few concerts after knowing that the orchestra was going to be cut,” Trudel says, reached at home in Montreal. “And a lot of people were very concerned that we were losing this important voice for composers and soloists. I kept getting messages saying, ”˜Let’s try to do something about this.’ So the initial push for this came from the citizens.”
It’s early days yet for the NBO, which is gearing up for its first major concert, a fundraising gala at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday (January 8). So far, says Trudel, the group is sticking to the same mandate that served the CBC Radio Orchestra so well. The NBO is going to devote at least half of its repertoire to contemporary music by Canadian composers, plans on recruiting the best young players in the country, and will feature a mix of emerging and established Canadian soloists.
But there’s a twist: the “broadcast” part of the new ensemble’s name refers not to radio, but to the Internet.
“In the past,” Trudel explains, “the orchestra was running with the emerging technology. Seventy years ago, it was the radio; now it’s the Internet—and it hasn’t been done before, to have an orchestra that almost strictly works on the Net.”
The conductor hopes the NBO Web site will eventually feature composer and artist interviews along with the ensemble’s performances. He also intends to use his on-line pulpit to campaign on behalf of this country’s musical culture.
“One of the big things that I’ve noticed that we’re lacking in Canada,” he says, “is the confidence that we have something special—that we are something special. And this orchestra is there for that.”
The program Trudel has assembled for the Chan Centre event illustrates his ambition. On the bill will be Sergei Prokofiev’s revered Classical Symphony and pianist Anton Kuerti’s orchestral arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 0, an early work of which only the piano part survives. The program will also feature three new pieces: Allan Gilliland’s Kalla and the conductor’s own Preach, both featuring trumpet soloist Jens Lindemann, plus Quebec composer Michael Oesterle’s CBC-commissioned The Sparrow’s Ledger.
Oesterle has drawn his inspiration from his wife’s Mennonite heritage, and from the hard-working bird the piece is named after. But in a telephone interview from his home, he stresses that he was also motivated by the resilience of the NBO’s musicians.
“I tried very hard to think about the people in the orchestra,” Oesterle reports. “I really wanted to put a smile on their face for this first occasion. I know that it’s hard work and all that, but I didn’t want to forget about the fact that this is also a wonderful occasion. There’s just something very positive about it all.”
Much of that, he adds, has to do with Trudel’s leadership. “He’s a wonderful man to work with,” says Oesterle, although he admits that the conductor didn’t give him much advance notice when it came time to write The Sparrow’s Ledger.
“It was one of those situations where I knew that it was something special, so I kind of dropped everything,” he explains. “I dropped certain attitudes as well. I mean, I didn’t really put my thinking cap on so much as I just went with my gut.”
A similarly visceral approach permeates the NBO as a whole. In the present recessionary climate, starting a new symphony orchestra—or even reviving an old one—might seem an act of folly, but according to Trudel, it’s work that simply must be done.
“Not everybody cares about supporting Canadian artists and culture,” he allows. “But this is one way of saying that, as the people, we do care.”