The music, and the audience, return to 'transform' the NAC

The National Arts Centre Orchestra launched its new season Friday night welcoming audiences back to Southam Hall with a program of new music, Tchaikovsky and a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Musicians have missed audience members, says NAC Orchestra director

NACO Music Director Alexander Shelley says 'what we've missed most is the direct contact with the audience in the hall.' (Fred Catroll)

The joy of sharing music returned to the National Arts Centre Friday night in Ottawa.

The NAC Orchestra (NACO) kicked off its 2021-22 season in front of close to 300 physically distanced but delighted audience members who have waited 18 months to take their seats in Southam Hall.

Musicians have craved the communal live music experience throughout the pandemic, according to NACO music director Alexander Shelley.

"What we've missed most is the direct contact with the audience in the hall," said Shelley, who described the relationship as a circle.

"It transforms a performance. If we play something we feel the feedback of the audience, we sense their engagement ... we've missed it." 

Live performances do require orchestra members to wear masks and they are spaced across the stage.

The physical distance between the conductor and other musicians, who typically sit close to hear each other and share eye contact, has posed new challenges for the ensemble.

"A lot of the instincts and the intuition that musicians have spent tens of thousands of hours honing and developing, they can no longer rely on," said Shelley.

"They need to use different skills, looking more and guessing more."

Shelley and the orchestra wear masks for the performance and the musicians are spaced out on the stage in Southam Hall. (Fred Cattroll)

Singers heard, but not seen

The members of Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, a choral group directed by Andrew McAnerny, also stood two metres apart on the hall's highest balcony, peering down on the stage far below for direction.

"It's an interesting place to sing from," said McAnerny of the vertigo-inducing perch.

"You are very high up and you're looking straight down. Shelley looks right up and leads us but we are as far away as possible from the conductor. "

The choir performed an a cappella work "Ashes" to commemorate the events of 9/11, which was one of the themes of the night's music program.

NACO principal trumpet Karen Donnelly also welcomed back the audience by performing her own composition for solo trumpet, while the night's program also featured orchestral work by Juno award-winning composer Vivan Fung, and the finale Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.

Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal performed 'Ashes' to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11. (Katya Konioukhova)

Diverse voices introduced

The upcoming season should reflect the social, political and emotional issues that have emerged during the pandemic, Shelley says, with a message of hope embedded in the music.

To reflect on issues such as Black Lives Matter, the Me Too movement, and the discovery of bodies at former residential schools, he hopes to bring new voices and perspectives into the dialogue.

"We focused on diverse voices, bringing onto our stage composers, performers who have traditionally not been part of the canon," said Shelley.

The vast Southam Hall, which can hold 2,000, hosted only a portion of that on Friday night with each patron masked. Tickets were purchased in advance in pods of four with each group separated by two metres.

The NAC did not require proof of vaccination and the centre says it will wait until Ontario launches its vaccine passport program on Sept. 22.


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at


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