Bold music, big impact as the NAC Orchestra performs in front of an audience once again

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The sparse, in-person crowd of 350 were sold out by pandemic standards, and each couple had plenty of space around them.

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The National Arts Center Orchestra was in great shape on Friday in an emotional concert that not only marked the first performance with an audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of another event that shook the world: the terrorist attacks of September 11.

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With these two historic moments defining the evening, the music had to be bold to make an impact, and it was. Music Director and Conductor Alexander Shelley has put together a thoughtful program to open the 2021-2022 season, moving from heartbreak to jubilation and exploring new themes along the way with the inclusion of Canadian content and the work of various composers before culminating with the crowning of a classic crush, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.

Entitled NACO In a New Light, the concert began with the poignant call of a distant solo trumpet. Out of sight was solo trumpet Karen Donnelly, performing her own evocative composition from an upper balcony at the rear of the hall, a placement that prompted one to feel a renewed sense of awe at the resonance of sound in the majestic hall. .

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This moving starting point left me with a tear in my eye as it flowed through the a cappella singing from the Montreal Early Music Studio choir, whose members were also at the back of the room. Their polyphonic vocalization on Ashes, a work written shortly after 9/11 by African-American composer Trevor Weston, was incredible, a timely reminder of the uplifting power of human voices in song and especially welcome after the moratorium on song during the pandemic. (because it creates droplets that could spread the virus).

From there, eyes looked forward as Shelley focused her attention on the orchestra, the musicians set wide apart on the main stage, the masks in place if they weren’t actively blowing the wind instruments. They were in good shape and fighting – several limbs appeared to have lost weight or improved their posture during the break, and their collective attack resonated with confidence and clarity.

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The members of the NAC Orchestra, shown here during a rehearsal Thursday, were in great shape during Friday's concert.  Tony Caldwell / Postmedia.
The members of the NAC Orchestra, shown here during a rehearsal Thursday, were in great shape during Friday’s concert. Tony Caldwell / Postmedia.

Leading with her usual combination of elegance, intuition and precision, Shelley led the orchestra in demonstrating her ability to nail the ebb and flow of contemporary works such as Vivian Fung’s Prayer, an expression of hope at the complex texture composed during the pandemic, and Ninaivanjali, an entirely inventive piece by Montrealer Gabriel Dharmoo that pays homage to his teacher of Indian rhythm.

The second half was reserved for the emotional roller coaster of Tchaikovsky’s 4th, a symphony written during a fit of depression as a musical metaphor illustrating the role of fate on humanity. As it shifts from melancholy and anguish to hope and optimism, the strings are plucked, an oboe sounds a lonely call, and the horns build a fanfare, culminating in the triumphant joy of the finale. The audience responded with wild applause and a standing ovation, clearly sharing the sense of catharsis.

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Shelley also expressed her gratitude to those who ventured out for the evening, braving the fourth wave of the pandemic. The sparse, in-person crowd of 350 were sold out by pandemic standards, and each couple had plenty of room around them as the ventilation system kept the airflow smooth. Although there was no vaccine screening on entry, there was a screening for COVID-19 symptoms to enter the building.

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed so that in the weeks and months to come we can return to full capacity,” said Shelley.

In these early stages of reopening, the building’s total capacity is limited to 1,000, and there were other events to host on Friday. The Chef’s Table dinner show series, a partnership with the Bluesfest team, filled the canal-side patio with customers and thrilled restaurant staff, while the first show of the season of popular music and Varieties featured Ottawa-area singer-songwriter Marie -Clo on the fourth floor.

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In the intimate and dark space of the Fourth Stage, Marie-Clo looked resplendent in a silky 70s-style jumpsuit in bright red, performing her electro-pop songs with a drummer and keyboardist. Her melodic empowerment melodies, in French and English, were complemented by thrilling beats, and she radiated the energy of a star-in-the-making.

“I can’t tell you how nice it is to go on stage,” she said at one point, feeling the love of an audience in person that included her octogenarian grandparents.

The orchestra’s concert and Marie-Clo’s performance were sold out, and both were streamed online for free.

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