The NACO just toured in Europe to ‘amazed’ audiences, elevating the orchestra to one of the best around

STOCKHOLM — In the hallowed opulence of the gilt-edged, marble-clad Royal Chapel in Stockholm’s Royal Palace, James Ehnes carried out a devilishly tough solo piece on his violin, the music hovering to the peak of the centuries-old sanctuary.

As regular, he carried out the piece — Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. three — with out sheet music and his expression revealed nothing. He was intent, completely centered on the music.

From my vantage level a couple of toes away in a front-row pew, I spotted I used to be holding my breath as the musical suspense constructed. When he completed, there was an amazing sense of launch. Was I going to cry?

I managed to maintain it in. Instead, I recalled the phrases of one of my new orchestra buddies at a bar in Paris a couple of days earlier. “When you hear James play, you’re going to want to throw your bra at him,” she declared.

In the second of revelry, everybody laughed, however now I understood. The man is a musical genius, a uncommon expertise whose taking part in connects with the deepest corners of one’s soul.


I used to be not the solely particular person to come to this conclusion throughout the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s latest tour of Europe. Although Ehnes data and excursions extensively and has gained two Grammys, together with this yr’s honour for the best classical instrumental solo, it appears many individuals in Europe had by no means heard of him, judging by the awestruck response of audiences after listening to him carry out Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra. Whenever he performed, jaws dropped and other people rose to their toes shouting, “Bravo.”

“We were very amazed,” stated one Danish concertgoer, 28-year-old Mika Dahl, throughout the intermission in Copenhagen’s Danish Radio Konserthuset. “He put all of it in his head so he could just play? That’s crazy.”

Stockholm followers agreed. “It was really a joy, this violinist,” stated Kerstin Nilsson, a season subscriber to the metropolis’s Konserthuset classical music sequence. “That was amazing. It was marvellous.”

James Ehnes acting at Stockholm’s Royal Chapel.



Ehnes was one of a number of featured soloists throughout the orchestra’s two-week journey, their visitor appearances divided over seven concert events in 5 nations. It was the most bold tour of Alexander Shelley’s four-year tenure as maestro of the Ottawa-based orchestra, and never one thing to be taken evenly. An orchestra has to be good to maintain its personal in the birthplace of classical music.

After main NACO to each area in Canada throughout the 2017 sesquicentennial celebrations, the thought of exhibiting the musicians off in Europe for the NAC’s 50th anniversary turned a private aim for Shelley, a 39-year-old Englishman who has carried out orchestras on 5 continents.

“The interesting part of the title ‘national’ for any institution is that on the one hand, it implies the local responsibility, the responsibility to the country,” he stated between forkfuls of salad and sips of espresso throughout a pre-concert interview in his dressing room in Utrecht’s TivoliVredenburg live performance corridor. “But interestingly, it immediately also implies the representative, ambassadorial role of representing the country out in the world. We also take that role very seriously.”


The Manitoba-born Ehnes was the crowd favorite on a tour expertly programmed to spotlight world-class Canadian expertise in efficiency and composition. For Ehnes, the expertise by no means will get outdated.

“You always hope to cultivate new audiences,” he stated in an interview in the Royal Chapel. “I’ve played in all these places but every concert is an opportunity. One of the great joys of doing what we do is there’s always somebody there who’s there for the first time, or somebody who will be left thinking about the music in a new way.”

Other musicians joke that “Jimmy” should have offered his soul or been implanted with some type of pc chip to have the option to play so fluidly, with out breaking a sweat or cracking a smile. But no: it takes self-discipline and onerous work to make it look really easy. He stated his major aim is to get out of the approach of the music.

“In the rock world, there are people who perform in different ways to draw attention to different aspects of what they do,” Ehnes stated. “But I think what we do with our music is to try to draw attention away from ourselves and draw more attention to the music being played. The performer plays a role of conduit more than a role of star.”

No matter what he says, Ehnes is undoubtedly a star, thought of by many to be amongst the best violinists in the world, maybe even a rival to the nice Pinchas Zukerman, NACO’s earlier music director and a famous person in the classical world.

I’m blissful to report Ehnes can be a humble, down-to-earth fellow — a husband and father of two younger kids — with a shocking penchant for curler coasters, of all issues. On his downtime in Copenhagen, he headed straight to Tivoli Gardens.

“It’s the most wonderful place,” he stated of the amusement park. “I’ve played in Copenhagen a bunch over the years, and whenever possible, I try to amuse myself there.”


Alexander Shelley (R) and Canadian violinist James Ehnes. The NAC orchestra on tour in Europe.



An worldwide orchestra tour doesn’t come collectively in a single day. In addition to the logistics of reserving concert events and making journey preparations, it’s vital to current a well-balanced night. Shelley assembled 5 totally different applications, deciding on each up to date and traditional materials, and highlighting Canadian content material.

To anchor the conventional finish, there have been two crowd-pleasers, Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, a.ok.a. From The New World, each of which sound superb in NACO’s palms (and which Shelley conducts with no rating).

As for the visitor soloists, one other budding famous person, the dazzling Calgary-born pianist Jan Lisiecki, was featured in the two United Kingdom concert events in London and Saffron Walden. Like Ehnes, he’s a stupendously proficient common on the worldwide circuit. Lesser identified are the Korean-Canadian countertenor David D.Q. Lee and soprano Erin Wall, who each gained precious publicity on the journey.

Of explicit significance was the inclusion of up to date music by homegrown composers, a daring transfer for any ensemble, however one Shelley additionally considers an important half of a nationwide orchestra’s function.

“The amount of new music we’re travelling with is unprecedented,” he stated. “I can think of very few orchestras in the world that would do that.”

A glowing evaluate of the Cadogan Hall live performance in Chelsea known as it “one of the major highlights of the current London orchestral season,” with particular reward for the piece “Golden slumbers kiss your eyes…” by Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolović, in which Lee is the featured soloist. A reviewer described her as a “completely assured composer … never losing sight of what this compelling work is intended to convey to its listeners.”

In all, works by six Canadian composers have been featured on the tour, together with the four-part, multimedia flagship piece, Life Reflected, an NAC fee, which had its European premiere in Paris and was additionally carried out in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Life Reflected on tour in Europe.



With the textual content translated into French surtitles, the difficult Life Reflected went over effectively at La Seine Musicale, a spacious new facility just exterior the core of Paris, and even higher at the Konserthuset in Gothenburg. There, with Swedish surtitles, it was carried out on the last night time of the Point Music Festival, a celebration of new music, and obtained a standing ovation.

“It’s so special when a piece does jump the border and leaves Canada, whether it’s elsewhere in North America or to Europe,” stated composer John Estacio, who wrote the music to I Lost My Talk, one of the 4 elements of Life Reflected.

“Usually a piece is performed in, and lives in, the country that commissioned it, and doesn’t necessarily go beyond that so it’s a lovely moment when another country gets to hear your music,” he added.

His majestic rating augments an association of the poem by the late Mi’kmaw poet laureate Rita Joe that was sparked by her time in residential college, the place college students have been forbidden from talking their languages. The poem is accompanied by a movie depicting an organization of Indigenous dancers acting on the rocky shores of Georgian Bay, and an Indigenous actor, Monique Mojica, whose movie look is mirrored by an look on stage. Her real-life presence underscores the resilience of Indigenous Peoples who survived Canada’s residential-school system.

Life Reflected is produced and directed by Stratford hitmaker Donna Feore, who labored intently with Shelley as creative director, and introduced collectively artists from totally different generations, cultures and backgrounds. The piece additionally options segments on Nobel prize-winning creator Alice Munro, astronaut Roberta Bondar and a very poignant part on B.C. teenager Amanda Todd, who took her personal life after being bullied on-line. Amanda’s mom, Carol Todd, was in the viewers in Gothenburg.


The NACO on tour in Europe.



As somebody born exterior Canada, Shelley lacks the typical Canuck reluctance to toot one’s personal horn. He tells everybody that NACO is one of the best orchestras in the world.

“If it was a hockey league or any other sports league, they’d be one of the top teams in the world, no question about that,” he stated. “The problem on this tour is to take it out of the native league and go into the worldwide league.

“Stockholm, London, Paris, Copenhagen, they’ve their very own groups. And they’re nice, however what I need is for our Canadian nationwide group to be on the market in these centres showcasing the high quality and the craftsmanship of the orchestra.”

His enthusiasm is convincing, and the orchestra lived up to the billing. Their taking part in was constantly wonderful all through the tour, and the group spirit grew with every single day on the highway as the group hustled to catch trains, buses and flights. Fortunately there was solely one day when it was needed to journey and carry out a live performance the identical night.

“It helps us to bond in a very different way,” stated Elaine Klimasko, a violinist who’s been with the orchestra since its first yr in 1969.

“We’re really a team. I find that people really become so much more friendly. Most are out without their spouses and you find you just sit down with a colleague you might have only shared a couple of stages with,” she stated.

Now 69, she’s been on virtually each tour, beginning with the 1973 tour to Russia and Eastern Europe with then-conductor Mario Bernardi.

These days, she travels together with her husband, Ed Blais, who considers it a trip. He helps with baggage and scouts out fascinating websites to see and eating places to strive.

Although her well being is sweet and she or he feels she has extra power than many her age, Klimasko is starting to contemplate retirement. She and Blais personal a condominium in Florida, and she or he’s the creative director of Ottawa Suzuki Strings, a music college co-founded by her sister. Teaching senior violin college students has lengthy been a ardour.

In truth, one night time in Utrecht, Klimasko returned to the lodge after a post-concert outing to an area bar in order to FaceTime a pupil in Ottawa who needed assist getting ready some music.

She was additionally one of a number of orchestra musicians who lent their experience throughout masterclasses with native college students alongside the journey. Others visited faculties to carry out for, or with, children. No fewer than 60 neighborhood engagement actions have been on the schedule, together with the noon-hour live performance in the Stockholm’s Royal Chapel that additionally featured Ehnes’ above-mentioned efficiency.


Alexander Shelley (L), his spouse Zoe, and child Sasha at the practice station with NAC staffer Fletcher Gailey-Snell in between.



Klimasko wasn’t the solely musician to deliver a partner. Some even introduced kids, together with Shelley and his spouse, Zoe, who travelled with their nine-month-old Ottawa-born son, Sasha, an inquisitive, good-natured child who cherished bouncing with Dad and didn’t thoughts his mum passing him around for others to snuggle. The solely drawback was the virus he transmitted to each mother and father, main to Shelley’s first chilly in two years.

Another couple with children in tow was violist Paul Casey and cellist Karen Casey, with Karen’s mom alongside to assist care for nearly two-year-old Oak and her busy massive brother, Fitz, who’s virtually 4, when the mother and father have been in rehearsal or on stage. Just a few dozen orchestra buddies additionally helped entertain the pre-schoolers.

For some of the musical travellers, the tour supplied an opportunity to pattern advantageous eating places in every metropolis. In their time without work, they visited museums, went on strolling excursions and checked out the nightlife. Their self-discipline was evident, too, as many sequestered themselves in their lodge rooms to apply, the sounds of viola or trumpet or flute filling the hallways.

NAC Orchestra viola participant Paul Casey and his spouse, cellist Karen Casey, travelled with each of their kids on the orchestra’s 50th anniversary tour of Europe.



The difficulties have been rare. In London, two musicians have been pickpocketed in separate incidents, an early-tour warning for everybody to safe their valuables. One musician suffered bruises after taking a tumble on the uneven cobblestone streets, whereas one other misplaced a shoe in the scramble to get from live performance to reception in Paris. An irreplaceable instrument was inadvertently left behind in Saffron Waldon, an oversight that required crew members to discover a automobile and drive again to the venue to retrieve it.

Bonding alternatives, on the different hand, have been plentiful. One of the most memorable moments occurred throughout a whirlwind cease in Copenhagen, the place the island lodge was conveniently situated subsequent to an outside ocean-water pool, the backside secured with netting to separate swimmers from Baltic Sea life.

That night’s enjoyable began with a plentiful provide of post-concert beer on faucet backstage, compliments of the Danish Symphony. It continued at a hipster cocktail bar, and culminated with an invigorating 2 a.m. dip in the Baltic Sea. Among the handful of musicians who plunged into the frigid ocean was cellist Julia MacLaine, who was celebrating her 37th birthday. “Best. Birthday. Ever,” she declared with a smile.

Cellist Julia MacLaine (left, in blue) celebrated her 37th birthday in Copenhagen on May 21. After a 2 a.m. dip in the Baltic Sea, she declared it the ‘best birthday ever.’




Airfare, lodging and floor transportation for greater than 100 folks doesn’t come cheaply, and there was no further funding from the federal authorities to pay for the tour.

Instead, the bulk of the journey was funded by donors, about 25 of whom adopted the orchestra on their very own NAC staff-organized tour, which concerned first-class journey, five-star lodges and formal receptions with Canada’s dignitaries in every of the 5 nations.

The group included the tour’s important benefactors, Janice and Earl O’Borne, in addition to NAC Foundation patrons Dasha Shenkman and Elinor Gill Ratcliffe, who described herself as an “orchestra groupie.”

“The reason why people donate to orchestras is we like the music,” stated the 77-year-old philanthropist from Newfoundland and Labrador throughout a pre-concert interview in the foyer of Copenhagen’s elegant Angleterre Hotel. “If you don’t have the cash to pay for the conductor, in this case a powerful conductor, and to hold good musicians, you don’t get any music.

“So you do it for the music, you do it to your nation. We are placing Canada, together with Indigenous items, on the world stage. Personally I discover that very thrilling as a Canadian and as a human being, and I feel it is a fantastic approach to join with folks. For me, the arts is that little further that offers us humanity, provides us the pleasure of life.”

NAC CEO Christopher Deacon, who was additionally on the tour, thought of it one of the most profitable NACO excursions in its 50-year historical past.

“What was especially meaningful to me was the fact that we were able to bring the music of six Canadian composers, and present them in major European capitals,” he stated in Stockholm, additionally pointing to the excessive degree of artistry displayed by the soloists.

“This really aligns with one of our strategic priorities, to help put Canada’s artistic expression on the world stage. I think the European public, which is quite discerning, was suitably impressed with the very high standard of excellence.”

As have been all of us. Come to suppose of it, I could possibly be an orchestra groupie now, too — though I doubt I’ll be tossing my undergarments at Jimmy.

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