London-born conductor Alexander Shelley will be returning to the UK this May for the first leg of his European tour as music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. The Ottawa-based ensemble will kick off the tour – entitled "Crossings" – in Saffron Walden, before travelling to London, Paris, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Stockholm and finally Gothenburg, giving European audiences the opportunity to experience an orchestra described by newspaper Ottawa Citizen as "hungry, bold, and unleashed". We asked him about the tour and his experience with the NAC Orchestra.

Alexander Shelley © Rémi Thériault
Alexander Shelley
© Rémi Thériault
Why have you chosen the tour theme "Crossings"?

"Crossings" is emblematic of what is at the heart of this tour. As well as crossing multiple European borders, we will cross expectations: many people will be hearing the orchestra for the first time. We will also cross generations: we do a huge amount of community engagement and education work in every city. In London, for example, we will be resident at the Royal College of Music, where I will be joined by Alison Balsom and Esther Abrami to host ConneXXIons 2019, in partnership with the RCM and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Here we’ll use technology to link in real time youth ensembles in Canada and UK, playing newly created works inspired by our tour theme.

Since you’ve taken over as Music Director of the NAC Orchestra, it’s been described as "an orchestra transformed". What do you think has been the key to this transformation?

The NAC Orchestra has a rich history of growth and transformation, not least under the 15-year tenure of my predecessor Pinchas Zukerman. I inherited an orchestra of superlative qualities, made up of some of the finest musicians I know. Our home, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, recently received a $200 million dollar makeover, so we find ourselves in a position to craft an exciting message for a forward-looking 21st-century arts organisation. I want our programme to reflect excellence, inclusivity and diversity, and in the last few years we have dramatically re-emphasised our commitment to new music, acting as a national hub for composers and creative artists. It is an incredibly exciting time of opportunity, and, with all that is going on in the world, one in which it is important to communicate the enduring beauty and value of music and the wider arts.

<i>Life Reflected</i> © Fred Cattroll
Life Reflected
© Fred Cattroll
In Paris and Gothenburg you’ll be presenting Life Reflected. The programme brings together music by four Canadian composers with visuals to create an "immersive symphonic experience". Can you tell us about the collaborative process with producer Donna Feore and the other artists who contributed?

This was a huge undertaking. I wanted us to create an 80-minute immersive experience that combined new music, visual arts, dance, theatre and literature. It was produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, so I wanted it to tell stories that were rooted in Canada but which could speak to anyone, anywhere in the world. Life Reflected consists of four separate works performed back-to-back, telling the stories of four Canadian women Alice Munro, Amanda Todd, Roberta Bondar and Rita Joe. We brought together a veritable who’s who of Canadian creatives who worked alongside the brilliant Donna Feore to create four multi-disciplinary pieces that look, sound and feel quite extraordinary. The orchestra is embedded within and surrounded by 3D projections; an actress takes the stage in the last work; the voice of Martha Graham rings through the speakers; an indigenous troupe dances joyfully across the screens. These are just a few impressions of what awaits.

Each of the four works tells the story of a Canadian woman. How have the players responded to these stories? As a Canadian orchestra, does this connection come through in their playing?

An anecdote might help answer this. One of the works is based on a poem by an indigenous elder and poet from the Eskasoni First Nation, called Rita Joe, who passed away in 2007. It refers to her time in a Residential School – at the time designed to strip indigenous youth of their culture and assimilate them into Canadian culture. In 2017 we undertook a 150th Anniversary tour of Canada, during which we travelled to Eskasoni, where she grew up and lived, and performed the piece. It was the first time the NAC Orchestra had performed on a First Nations reserve, which was a special honour and privilege in itself. Her family and her entire community was in attendance. They cleared a hockey arena, built a stage and streamed the performance across the region. It was a dramatic, moving and meaningful event that helped to build bridges between communities and open dialogue. All of us who have been involved have been affected by it, have learnt from these powerful stories and have grown through them. The orchestra has been truly magnificent, bringing the same professionalism and integrity to this music as any other works that we tackle. But I sense there is an ownership – a pride – in sharing in this wonderful, important creation and that particular joy of a shared adventure: a shared achievement.

For four of your tour dates you’ll be performing Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 – generally considered the warmest of his mature works. Does the symphony’s pastoral quality come naturally to the NAC Orchestra, or is this something you’ve had to work on?

There are few composers who offer as much room for continual discovery as Brahms. He is formally strict and yet often rhapsodic and fluid. He marries intricate demands of voicing with a need for rich orchestral sound – clarity and rigour with passion of expression. These are all qualities which the NAC Orchestra brings to a performance. We are currently in the course of recording a cycle of the Brahms and Schumann symphonies knitted together by the music of Clara Schumann, so it is a language in which we have immersed ourselves!

The NAC Orchestra at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa © Doublespace Photography, courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects
The NAC Orchestra at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa
© Doublespace Photography, courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects
All of the soloists and contemporary composers featured in this tour are Canadian, or have a joint-Canadian nationality. Was this an important consideration when organising the tour?

Absolutely. We are the National Arts Centre Orchestra and want to celebrate Canadian soloists such as James Ehnes, Jan Lisiecki, Erin Wall and David DQ Lee, all of whom will be joining us on tour. As a Brit who has now been immersed in the artists and art of Canada for quite a few years, I have learned that the excellence and vibrancy of Canada’s cultural scene is perhaps its best kept secret. We want to help change that.

How will it be different for you conducting the NAC Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, where, as Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, you have lead so many performances?

I am absolutely thrilled to be performing at Cadogan Hall. Having had my own series with the Royal Philharmonic there for so many years now, the audience feel like dear friends and I am excited and proud to present my beloved other orchestra to them!

The "Crossings" tour starts on 12th May in Saffron Walden, UK. Click here to see all upcoming dates.


This interview was sponsored by Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.