101417 NACO featuring John Storgårds plays Sibelius and Saariaho, Ottawa, ON

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Since I began my tenure working (very part-time) with the National Arts Centre Orchestra oh-so-many years ago I have been fortunate to receive – at seemingly random intervals – emails offering free tickets to some NACO concert or another.  I don’t always take them up on the tickets but I do whenever I can.  One of those whenevers was on October 14th, 2017, and I’m really glad I went.

I’ll go further and say I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed the orchestra as much as I did that night, which is a bit surprising I suppose, given that the night was mostly given over to Sibelius, a composer I’ve never really had an opinion on either way.  On the other hand, I was attending the concert alongside my standard NAC-buddy JP and our tickets were in the second box, stage right.  So I was in great seats with great company, perched above the new-and-improved National Arts Centre and hearing the orchestra for the first time of the season.

I noticed a few new players, one on flute, a couple on violin and some on bass as well, but most importantly I was hearing the national orchestra’s new conductor, Alexander Shelley, for the first time.  He walked out all dapper and handsome in a tux and tails and kicked off the evening with the Finnish composer’s 7th Symphony, conducting it without a score.  

I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a conductor work without a score and I must say, it was quite incredible to watch.  The National Arts Centre Orchestra is just so, so good – really, they are quite exceptional – and this Shelley guy was really pulling the music out of them.  One moment they sounded like a monolithic iceberg looming in the sea, then swirling scale fragments conjured up an epic snowstorm until the whistling flutes brought out the moon and the northern lights.

And the whole time Alexander Shelley’s right arm beat out a solid, mechanical time while his left arm danced up the storm, with every written note doubtlessly flashing across his mind in real time.

The second piece was a violin concerto written by another Finnish composer (this was the Ideas Of North festival, after all) named Kaija Saariaho and performed quite astoundingly by a gentleman named John Storgårds.  Dude was good, even the orchestra members were giving him a genuine eye of respect.

After the break was another Sibelius piece, his 5th Symphony.  Though I didn’t like it quite as much as his 7th (he did, after all, have more experience when he wrote the 7th), I used the music as a backdrop to relive my brief visit to Finland, and to Helsinki’s Sibelius Park in particular.  I recalled lingering over the tubular statue that stands in the middle of the park as a memorial to the county’s most famous composer.  Like the man’s music, the statue favours strength and an arcing order over frills and angularity, and again like the man’s music the statue is solidly anchored to the land it represents.

The standing ovation at the end of the concert seemed enthusiastic and genuine; I think people were truly moved by the concert.  And there I stood, clapping away just as loud and impressed as everyone else.

I really must listen to more of this Sibelius fellow.

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