The National Arts Centre Orchestra is back! Granted, it’s via a new avenue—the NACO is set to perform their first livestream of the season this Saturday, October 31, at 8pm. This is a free livestream with a rich, wonderful program for the evening, featuring guest musicians Jonelle Sills and Christ Habib, who appear on CBC’s “Top 30 Classical Musicians Under 30” list this year. I had the chance to speak with Jonelle Sills ahead of her performance.
Jonelle is a soprano who currently resides in Markham, Ontario. She attended York University for her undergraduate degree, and then the Glen Gould School for Graduate Studies, from which she graduated two years ago. We spoke about her reaction to being chosen for the CBC’s list this year: “It still doesn’t feel very real that that’s a thing! I’ve always seen the list and I’ve always thought it would be cool to be on that list. I’m really grateful to CBC for their recognition, because I think as artists we want to be recognized for our commitment to our [craft]. It’s really exciting and also really humbling to have that as an accomplishment.”
The program for the evening is quite an impressive one. It includes George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, Jacques Hétu’s Concerto for Guitar And Strings, Samuel Barber ’s Knoxville: Summer Of 1915, Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen, and Jocelyn Morlock’s Solace. Sills will be singing Barber’s Knoxville: Summer Of 1915 and narrating Carlos Simon’s Portrait of a Queen. She said of the Barber work: “It is so rich on every single level—musically, contextually… Even the text is so rich, you almost need a glass of milk to balance it out—it’s like a nice piece of chocolate cake.” The semi-autobiographical work is “light and fun and through the lens of a six-year-old boy,” said Sills.
Knoxville: Summer Of 1915 details the changing life of the boy: “In the summer of 1915, he was six, and he speaks of Knoxville in this idealistic lens of a six-year-old boy who has his mom, dad, aunt, and the sun is setting, they’re eating ice cream. In 1916, his father unfortunately dies in a car crash. That perfect life that he knew was taken from him. The middle to the end of the piece is this very beautiful and dramatic kind of depiction of a child who has everything he needs and is very mature and philosophical—which I think children can absolutely be,” explained Sills.
Carlos Simon’s Portrait Of A Queen will be narrated by Sills. It is a piece that traces the journey of a Queen. Sills said, “Portrait of a Queen is the journey of a queen from Africa who is then taken away from her empire into slavery; the piece then moves to Jim Crow [and its impact], and then into present day with a matriarch in a church. I think it’s a portrait of a queen and this ancestor that’s with each of these women. It talks about so many things about the experience of this queen.”
In preparation for this performance, Sills said,“I watched a lot of videos of Breonna Taylor’s mom, George Floyd’s mom, Philando Castile’s mom—all these moms whose children have been killed by police brutality. Black parents teach their kids that they live in a society in which people will be racist to them. This work is really important and I’m really grateful that the NAC has introduced me to Carlos Simon. It’s really exciting and important to be doing something that is so relevant to the time.” This piece is something so important to be discussed, especially through art. Sills said, “It’s nice to have works like this that give voice and power to educate audiences that come see these shows.”
I always like to chat about the hesitance people still have towards going to orchestras, and how to combat that. Sills had this advice to give: “As cheesy as it sounds, it’ll offer you something new. In an experience like a livestream, you’ll see different angles of the orchestra. The livestream will allow us to bring things to life. It’s definitely different from a live concert hall, but it brings you a new perspective to hear and understand the world. The overall program is great—it’s very different. Our theme and desire is to change people—I think people should try it and I don’t think people will be the same when they leave!” With a performance that’s virtual, Sills said, “You get new perspectives and you can decide ‘hey, I loved that, or hated that,’ in the comfort of your own home.”
We ended our chat on a note about Sills’ gratitude to the arts. She said, “I am really grateful to CBC and the NAC for the opportunity to narrate. I’ve never narrated something, so it’s really exciting!” She also explained her respect for those in the arts right now: “I think it’s about gratitude to arts administrators grinding to find space and be acknowledged by the government.” She closed by saying, “It would be no fun to sing Knoxville a cappella or with no lights on, so I have so much respect for all the administrators or teams that don’t always get a shout out!”
The NAC Orchestra performs their first livestream program on the Southam Hall stage at the National Arts Centre on October 31 at 8pm. The performance runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. The show is free and can be accessed here.