Life Reflected, the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s 2017 touring program, promises to be a multisensory spectacle, with film, dance, spoken word, electronic music, and a glittering, scrim-fronted stage all adding visual and sonic heft to the Ottawa ensemble’s symphonic prowess. It seems like a bold package, closely tailored to fit today’s media environment—but, according to music director Alexander Shelley, it might not be quite as new as all that.
“Some of the great music of the last century and the century before was written for ballet, and secondly for opera, which is a feast of audio, visual elements, and storytelling,” Shelley reminds the Straight from a Calgary hotel. “So, in fact, audiences are very, very comfortable with hearing music while absorbing visuals, while absorbing movement, absorbing changing lights, and so on and so forth. It’s something that we’re actually very trained in. So I wanted to use all the skills and the technology that we have in the 21st century to create that kind of environment where music and words and visuals all played off one another.”
The conductor had a few other things to consider. For one, Life Reflected is the opening-night concert for the International Society for Contemporary Music’s World New Music Days, the largest new-music festival ever held in this country, which takes place here over the next week. It’s also been made possible by Canada 150 funding, and so it was incumbent on Shelley to find four composers who reflect Canada’s cultural and sonic diversity and give them stories to illustrate that do the same, all while locating himself in his new country and in his new position, which he assumed in 2015.
“I was coming in as a Brit; I had all the clichés in mind of, you know, Mounties and moose and maple syrup,” he says. “But at the heart of it, in terms of what we wanted to create, was that we wanted a vehicle for new music that would appeal to connoisseurs.…But that would also take the hand of people who maybe found it more difficult, or who wouldn’t attend a concert normally, and guide them forward.”
No moose, so far as we know, will decorate the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts stage. But connoisseurs and neophytes alike will be treated to the music of Zosha di Castri, Nicole Lizée, John Estacio, and Vancouver’s own Jocelyn Morlock—and to aspects of the lives of, respectively, short-story maven Alice Munro, scientist and astronaut Roberta Bondar, the late First Nations poet and activist Rita Joe, and teenage bullying victim Amanda Todd.
These are important Canadian stories, but not necessarily the kind that prompt flag-waving and huzzahs. Estacio’s I Lost My Talk, for instance, is built on Joe’s experience of the residential-school system, while Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd functions as a eulogy for the Port Coquitlam teen, who committed suicide after speaking out on video about being sexually harassed and cyberbullied.
“There’s friction in these stories, and of course any mature society is kind of described by how it deals with friction,” Shelley says. “Coexistence is not an easy thing.…And these stories do talk about that. They engage with the friction, and they engage with elements that could and should be criticized.”
So the program is both a celebration of our country and an apology for its worst aspects. What could be more Canadian than that?
The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s Life Reflected is at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Thursday (November 2), as part of ISCM 2017.