It’s a chilly fall Friday in Ottawa, but at one particular party, things are heating up. About 600 people are working up a sweat, jumping up and down and throwing their hands in the air, while international A-list DJ Skratch Bastid spins beats. In the background, street artists are covering the walls with huge, technicolour panels, variations on an image of two men kissing. DJ Noah, a popular local radio host known for his orange jumpsuits and zany antics, tosses t-shirts and beanies into the crowd. Guests are scarfing poutine and sliders. The lineup at the bar is a mile long.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this scene took place at a downtown nightclub or a bar in the ByWard Market, but it didn’t. Welcome to the National Arts Centre Orchestra under the baton of Alexander Shelley.
Since he took over the music directorship of NACO in 2015 Shelley has established himself here not only as a lavishly gifted young conductor with tremendous authority and brilliant style, but as a keen innovator, an effusive, social-media savvy communicator, and a true cultural omnivore.
Take the shin-dig with Skratch Bastid. The evening, called “Classical Collisions,” was part of a week-long festival of Beethoven and Schumann that opened the 2016–17 season. The festival focused on standard, meaty, classical fare: Beethoven’s five piano concertos and Schumann’s four symphonies. But peripheral activities were eclectic and inclusive: late-night shows juxtaposing Schumann’s lieder with contemporary Canadian singer-songwriters; a commissioned painting by New Yorker cover artist Anita Kunz; and the dance party with Skratch Bastid, aka Paul Murphy, a virtuoso in his own his own right. (One set featured a trio of NACO musicians riffing on Schumann and Beethoven themes to Bastid’s turntable fireworks. “That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” double bassist Hilda Cowie said afterward, wide-eyed.)
The first step to winning new audiences, and especially younger ones, Shelley says, is often just getting them past their prejudices about what goes on at a concert hall.
“One thing I love about music is that not only is it beautiful in and of itself, but it opens so many doors,” he notes, explaining why projects like Classical Collisions matter beyond mere bar revenue. “It leads you to other walks of life. I know so many people who have very broad interests, but when it comes to classical music, their vocabulary runs out. That’s why it’s important to take time before each concert to explain a little bit about what’s involved in listening.”
Shelley, who turned 37 in October, epitomizes today’s Maestro 2.0: young, enthusiastic, approachable, rigorously trained, democratic and collaborative, prolific on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, brimming with ideas to reach new audiences, racking up frequent-flyer points as he flies between jobs on different continents (he is also Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony and Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic).
“When we were in the search for a new music director, of course we were looking for someone who was going to take the orchestra to the next level artistically,” says NACO Managing Director Christopher Deacon.
“However, we also wanted that person to embrace two or three other things. One was the national mandate of the orchestra. We met a lot of very talented conductors, but it was not obvious that they had a wide enough vision for NACO. So we were looking for a conductor who would have that level of curiosity.”
Deacon says they also wanted someone who would find what he calls the NAC’s “internal ecology” exciting: a conductor who would be inspired by the Centre’s dance department, English and French theatres, and technical production expertise.
“Finally, we wanted someone who would embrace the creation of new works,” Deacon says. With Shelley, you have someone who is ticking off all those boxes.”
Shelley’s conducting technique is commanding and crystal clear, but also presents an elegant picture. He carries himself like a premier danseur: sternum lifted, shoulders rolled back, chin up, and neck long. He conducts nearly everything from memory. Conscious of visual impact, he is always immaculately turned out, sometimes switching from formal tails to a sharply-tailored black suit in the same concert.
The difference with his predecessor, Pinchas Zukerman, is striking. One of the world’s undeniably great solo violinists, Zukerman’s virtuosity did not extend to NACO’s podium, which he occupied for 17 years. His repertoire was limited and unimaginative, stubbornly ensconced in his comfort zone of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. He never hid his disdain for contemporary music generally, and Canadian compositions in particular. His conducting style was vague and indifferent, his interpretations were old-fashioned and lackluster. And while it’s true that Zukerman vastly improved the string section, when it came to the other sections his attitude was laissez-faire at best, negligent at worst (NACO awarded Zukerman the title of Conductor Emeritus, and he continues to be Artistic Director of the Young Artists’ Program).
In contrast, Shelley has been adding new repertoire, including those fat, juicy, late 19th- and early 20th-century German and French works that had been off the orchestra’s menu for decades. He is also polishing NACO’s sound, or rather arming it with a broader array of palettes.
“Maestro Zukerman developed a wonderful string sound, very rich, with a lot of sostenuto,” says Shelley. “It’s a fantastic base to work with.” But, he adds tactfully, it’s not necessarily appropriate for everything.
“I believe in a sliding scale. This concept of ‘period performance’ is no longer completely niche. For example, in the Schumann symphonies, I’ve been getting the orchestra to think about transparency, with less sostenuto, less vibrato, lighter articulation.”
Shelley’s mastery is a byproduct of his enviable musical pedigree. His father is the esteemed British pianist and conductor Howard Shelley; his mother is pianist Hillary Macnamara; his grandmother was an accomplished cellist. He grew up in a house with five pianos, and was playing before he could talk.
“My parents never pushed me, but I suppose at my core there was always an inevitability about it,” he says. “The first time I attempted to conduct an orchestra, I seemed to have at least some of the skills you need if you don’t want to fail immediately.”
Far more than sound and style, what has distinguished Shelley’s tenure to date has been his eagerness for working on ambitious, interdisciplinary, and uniquely Canadian projects. Last year, Life Reflected commissioned major new works by Zosha Di Castri, John Estacio, Nicole Lizée, and Jocelyn Morlock, inspired by the stories of four Canadian women: First Nations poet Rita Joe, author Alice Munro, astronaut Roberta Bondar, and cyberbullying victim Amanda Todd. The music was augmented by film, spoken word, theatre, and dance. This coming April, ENCOUNT3RS will pair three leading Canadian choreographers with three composers, in a collaboration with NAC Dance Producer Cathy Levy.
Christopher Deacon notes Shelley’s interest in Indigenous Peoples. “He’s inspired by their culture, but he’s also very sensitive about the social challenges,” he says. “When he brought us the Rita Joe poem I Lost My Talk for Life Reflected, I’m ashamed to say that most of us Canadians had never heard of it. We worked on a residential school project last season with students from Norway House [a First Nations community in Manitoba], and Shelley wants to go back there because he grew so attached to those kids.”
When you speak to Shelley about conducting, you get a sense of someone who loves what they do and wants nothing more than to share that love with as many people as possible.
“When I was studying cello, I never woke up in the morning feeling like, ‘I really want to practice, I can’t wait to get started.’ But that’s how I feel about learning scores and preparing for concerts. No matter how tired I am, I always look forward to it,” explains Shelley. “When I’m conducting there’s such a responsiveness there, a symbiosis, that it feels like an instrument. The best music-making happens when you think less and feel more. The aim is to transcend technique, so you become elevated to another place.”
Although it’s still the honeymoon period, the musicians seem pleased with their new boss, and have been playing with a reinvigorated sense of drive.
“His level of preparation is extraordinary,” says Principal Trumpet Karen Donnelly. “When he conducts without a score, it’s not just a gimmick. He really does know it inside out, and he hears every little detail. He’s completely faithful to the composer’s ink.”
She also praises his communications skills, kindness and humility. “He’s a very good listener and extremely respectful, it doesn’t matter whether he’s talking to a world-famous soloist or a group of school kids.”
One thing Shelley was not prepared for is having to work in the middle of a construction zone. The NAC is undergoing an extensive, $224.5 million renovation, just in time for Canada’s 150th birthday in July 2017. As part of this project, Southam Hall underwent a makeover over the summer, with a new layout, seating, and flooring that have significantly changed the acoustics. It’s a noticeable improvement – the overstuffed old hall was universally loathed for its muffled sound – but very much a work in progress. Shelley and the orchestra are still adapting to the new surroundings and will need to continuously adjust as renovations advance (the onstage shell is also slated for a redesign, to be complete in 2019).
Shelley laughs good-naturedly about the unexpected challenge. “When they hired me, I knew about certain big dates coming up: Canada’s 150th in 2017, the orchestra’s 50th in 2019. But at the time they didn’t have all the funding secured, so they couldn’t tell me, ‘oh, by the way, we’ll be tearing the building down.’ It has hamstrung us a little, but at the same time it’s very exciting to be a part of that.”
Shelley’s charm and affability have made him a hit with Ottawa audiences. Ticket sales when he is in town are generally robust; in the summer of 2017 he will be stepping down from the Nuremberg job, in part to focus more on his NACO duties. Until then his transatlantic schedule will remain grueling, something he counters through a committed exercise regime.
“Usually my routine is to work in the morning, then in the afternoon I go for a run. It’s partly meditative, to clear my head, and I find it helps me get over the jetlag more quickly. But I also like to have the earbuds in. I’ll listen to a recording of whatever I’m working on. I like multitasking.”
An understatement if ever there was one.
“He has a big appetite,” remarks Deacon. “Our main challenge is keeping up with him. He always wants to say ‘yes.’ We’ve had to hire someone whose job it is to say ‘no.’ They get to be the meanie so he doesn’t have to.”
Alexander Shelley conducts the NACO and the Ottawa Youth Orchestra in Close Encounters on November 7, 7PM.
He appears in concert with Cameron Carpenter on February 15 and 16, 8PM (pre-concert talk starts 7PM).
Catch the world premiere of Howard Shore’s Guitar Concerto with MILOŠ on February 23 at 8PM and the 24 from 5PM onwards as part of the Casual Friday series.