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Alexander Shelley conducts the NAC Orchestra in an empty Southam Hall on October 31, 2020. Photo: NAC.

Concert Review: The NAC Orchestra returns with triumphant Solace concert

By Madeline Paiva on November 3, 2020





The National Arts Centre Orchestra returned with their glorious first livestream performance, Solace, on Saturday, October 31. This is the first in a series, with the next one on November 7. The NACO has adopted a brilliant way to continue enjoying live performance. This concert was such a wonderful and thoughtful return to the stage from the NACO, and I truly encourage everyone to tune in to the next livestream or rewatch this one!

With necessary safety precautions in place like social distancing on stage, matching black face masks, and extra plexiglass shields for the brass and woodwind players, the NACO delivered a phenomenal concert with content incredibly relevant to the times in the first of this series.

Members of the NAC Orchestra play, masked and physically distanced, in Southam Hall on October 31, 2020. Photo: NAC.

The program began with George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, a solemn lament played beautifully by the NACO. Walker was the first Black American composer awarded the Pulitzer. The program moved to Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, a piece that explores the various textures you can get with string instruments, all the while illuminating its moving parts.

Christ Habib is an immensely talented performer, well-deserving of his spot on CBC’s 30 classical musicians under 30 list. His performance of Hétu’s Concerto for Guitar and Strings made classical guitar look easy, and even though the moving parts felt almost at odds, he handled them with absolute ease. The accompanying orchestral strings were complementary, such that both Habib and the orchestra were perfectly in tune with the sounds and rhythm. The performance was nothing short of skillful—Habib played with such vigour, passion, and accuracy, and it was really wonderful to see his performance from different angles. The audio quality was flawless—the sound was crisp and notes never sounded muddled.

Jonelle Sills was an incredible talent to hear as well, also well-deserving of her spot on the CBC’s list. Her diction and enunciation were perfect, and made Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 a clean and stunning performance. Often it’s difficult to hear the words with English opera, but Sills handles it with ease, singing from memory. She is such an expressive singer and it makes her a joy to watch. The piece itself had a great trumpet with a straight mute, which you don’t always get in orchestra.

Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen is a narrated piece—an incredibly interesting one—that was narrated by an expressive Sills. The NACO sounded very magical and regal at the beginning of this piece, the Queen Section. As it moves to the second, the music changes, sounding almost at odds, rough and tense, as she descends into slavery. The piece moves into Jim Crow—with a notable narration: “Jim Crow is a hypocrite and separate ain’t equal. So I’ll tell my children to hold their hands up high. I tell them to comply.”

In my interview with Sills, she spoke at length about watching videos of Breonna Taylor’s mother, George Floyd’s mother, and Philando Castile’s mother—all mothers who have experienced the incalculable loss of their children at the hands of police brutality—to prepare. Her performance is informed and powerful. It isn’t often that you get to see these issues embodied in orchestral pieces, let alone the opportunity to hear them performed. It is incredibly important that the NACO performed this piece because the subject matter is difficult and relevant. The sound is rage and fear embodied, and the orchestra performs it perfectly. It ends with the matriarch of a church: the strings are plucky, and the sound becomes more regal again. There are beautiful chimes and melodic piano.

The concert closed with Jocelyn Morlock’s Solace, a brilliant work of much movement with solos by Yosuke Kawasaki on violin and Julia MacLaine on cello. It was such a wonderful solo appearance for the two of them—they are so deeply talented and the complexity of Morlock’s solos and the clarity of both performers shone through. If you have ever had the opportunity to hear Morlock’s work—notably recently at the NAC performances of My Name is Amanda Todd and Cobalt—you’ll know that her pieces are chillingly beautiful and complex. This piece was no exception: It was a delight, a deeply contemplative and emotionally jarring work that provided the audience with exactly a moment of solace. The light, high notes of the violin harmonics are such a lovely companion to the trills of Kawasaki’s solo. It’s nice to hear a piece like Solace at a time like this, where you can really feel trapped in a loop of contemplative thought or even doom, and this piece, perfectly executed by the NACO, offers us a space—maybe away from reality—that is calm and coherent.

Members of the NAC Orchestra perform on October 31, 2020. Photo: NAC.

I found myself in tears as we reached the end of the performance to see the dedication to Erin Wall, the remarkably talented Canadian soprano who died of cancer at the age of 44 in early October.

While it’s hard to think about not having in-person performances for the foreseeable future, this new venue really isn’t cause for complaint—the picture and audio quality were phenomenal. I was nothing short of pleased with this concert. And while it was incredibly strange to be watching from my couch at home, it was such a wonderful way to welcome the NACO back into my life and even share the performance with family. These livestream concerts are going to be a magnificent way to connect audiences, new and old. It’s quite easy to attend a concert from your couch and you should absolutely do it! The NAC has done an incredible job of adopting this new form—it’s one that so many people can enjoy, whether you are new or old to the NACO.

The Solace performance is still available to view for free here.