Newswire | NACO Announces Groundbreaking Strauss Recording Project


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Ottawa, November 17, 2023 – Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) is thrilled to unveil a pioneering music project that promises to redefine the boundaries of orchestral music canon. Under the visionary leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, NACO is embarking on a multi-season journey that marries the timeless compositions of Richard Strauss with the creative brilliance of leading Canadian composers. The project is set to debut two of four new commissions in Southam Hall on November 22-23, 2023—with a free livestream on November 23, 2023, at 8PM Eastern Time—and will crescendo with its final notes in the Orchestra’s 2025-26 season.

Four Canadian composers have been commissioned to create new works that serve as modern counterparts to the music of Richard Strauss (1864-1949), the German composer and conductor best known for his tone poems and operas. They have been tasked with crafting compositions that resonate with the spirit, narratives, soundscapes, or moods found in the original works of Richard Strauss. Drawing from their 21st-century sensibilities, these composers will create a dynamic juxtaposition between tradition and innovation, creating new works to live alongside Strauss’s masterpieces. The selected Canadian composers for this significant endeavour and their respective Strauss compositions are as follows:

  • Kevin Lau (responding to “Death and Transfiguration”)
  • Kelly-Marie Murphy (responding to “Don Juan”)
  • Ian Cusson (responding to “Also Sprach Zarathustra”)
  • Alexina Louie (responding to “Der Rosenkavalier”)

A highlight of this grand undertaking is the eagerly anticipated world premiere of Kevin Lau’s composition, The Infinite Reaches, and Kelly-Marie Murphy’s opus, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe, which will take place at Southam Hall on November 22-23, 2023, conducted by Alexander Shelley. Lau’s composition will be performed alongside Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), while Murphy’s work will resonate with Strauss’s Don Juan.

The project extends its reach beyond the concert hall. The Orchestra’s November 23, 2023, performance will be broadcast live online, accessible worldwide, and available on-demand on the National Arts Centre website. A commercial release of all four works and their Strauss counterparts will be released in partnership with the independent Canadian music label Analekta at the culmination of this project.

It is no secret around the National Arts Centre that Strauss is one of Alexander Shelley’s favourite composers. Daphne Burt, Artistic Planning Manager, recalls his first-ever concert with the NAC Orchestra: Since his debut concert at Southam Hall in 2009, featuring a program that included the tone poem Don Juan, Alexander Shelley and the National Arts Centre Orchestra have forged a powerful and enduring bond through the captivating music of Richard Strauss. Shelley’s deep connection to Strauss’s compositions has served as the foundation for this groundbreaking project, where he, alongside the Orchestra and visionary Canadian composers, seeks to expand the horizons of orchestral music and bring Strauss’s legacy into the 21st century. Their shared passion for Strauss’s works and their commitment to pushing artistic boundaries have set the stage for a remarkable journey that promises to leave an indelible mark on the world of classical music.”

Alexander Shelley, Music Director of the NAC Orchestra, shared his enthusiasm for the project: “Commissioning new music by Canadian composers and taking it out into our communities and around the world through live broadcasts, recordings and tours—and shouting loudly from the rooftops that this is an extraordinary orchestra, an extraordinary organization—is my personal ambition as Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. And as a Brit, I think I’m allowed to do that even more than Canadians, because I’ve come from away, and I can say this is an extraordinary place because it really is. I have nothing but admiration for these composers, their work, and how the diversity of programming at the National Arts Centre speaks to the diversity in the conversations that are part of Canadian and world culture.”

Each newly commissioned work is approximately 10 minutes in duration, matching the orchestra size of its companion Strauss tone poem. “In 1888, Richard Strauss became convinced that his artistic direction as a composer was to ‘create new forms for every new subject’,” writes musicologist Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley in her program notes for the upcoming concert. “[Strauss] embarked on writing orchestral ‘tone poems’… a one-movement work that illustrates or evokes the content of an extra-musical source, be it a story, poem, or painting. It was a novel way to structure the experience of orchestral music compared to the traditional abstract forms of the four-movement symphony.” Strauss wrote his first tone poems in quick succession, beginning with Macbeth, followed by Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1889.

Commissioned by the NAC Orchestra and composed in 2023, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe, is a striking new composition by Kelly-Marie Murphy. In her response to Richard Strauss, she explores other events taking place while Strauss wrote Don Juan, drawing inspiration from Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and the extraordinary life of Scottish astronomer, Williamina Fleming, one of the founding members of the “Harvard Computers”.

As Murphy’s work responds to Don Juan, Kevin Lau’s commission is inspired by Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration. “I gravitated immediately toward it,” he says, “its gripping, transcendent musical narrative resonated powerfully with my own creative sensibilities. At the same time, its central, existential question—what lies beyond death—had begun to occupy my own thoughts with increasing regularity.”

He continues, “I felt free to explore the emotional and psychological terrain of Death and Transfiguration without explicitly following in Strauss’s footsteps. Having said that, I did include a reference to Strauss’s iconic Transfiguration theme. It is quoted once in its original form before being inverted, so that its opening three notes are followed by a vertiginous plunge and octave below—a despairing mirror image of transcendence.”

With this bold project, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra continues to push the boundaries of creativity and collaboration, delivering unforgettable musical experiences that unite the classics with the contemporary. This unique commissioning project is made possible by the collaborative spirit of NACO, its creative collaborators, and the support of the National Arts Centre.

As NACO embarks on this journey, audiences worldwide can anticipate an extraordinary new concert series and album release, a symphonic dialogue that transcends time and tradition. For further information and updates on the NAC Orchestra’s performances and free live broadcasts, please visit

Thank you to our partners

The National Arts Centre Foundation wishes to acknowledge the leadership support of Mark Motors Group, Official Car of the NAC Orchestra. The NAC Orchestra Music Director role is supported by Elinor Ratcliffe, C.M., O.N.L., LLD (hc). Special thanks to the Janice & Earle O’Born Fund for Artistic Excellence.

About Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra

Since its debut in 1969, the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) has been praised for the passion and clarity of its performances, its visionary educational programs, and its prominent role in nurturing Canadian creativity. Under the leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra reflects the fabric and values of Canada, reaching and representing the diverse communities we live in with daring programming, powerful storytelling, inspiring artistry, and innovative partnerships.

Since its inception, the NAC Orchestra has recorded for radio and more than 40 commercial recordings many of the 80+ new works it has commissioned, primarily from Canadian composers. These include:

  • Angela Hewitt’s 2015 JUNO Award-winning album of Mozart piano concertos;
  • The ground-breaking Life Reflected, which includes My Name is Amanda Todd by the late Jocelyn Morlock (winner of the 2018 JUNO for Classical Composition of the Year);
  • Ana Sokolović’s Golden Slumbers Kiss Your Eyes, 2019 JUNO Winner for Classical Composition of the Year (from the 2019 JUNO-nominated New Worlds);
  • The 2020 JUNO-nominated The Bounds of Our Dreams, featuring pianist Alain Lefèvre;
  • Clara, Robert, Johannes, a multi-album series including Lyrical Echoes, nominated for Classical Album of the Year at the 2023 JUNO Awards.

About Kevin Lau

One of Canada’s most versatile and sought-after young composers, Kevin Lau (b. 1982) has been commissioned by some of Canada’s most prominent artists and ensembles, and his work has been performed internationally in the USA, France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. A prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, ballet, opera, and film music, he served as Affiliate Composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 2012 to 2015; to date, he has produced seven works for the TSO. Shortly after, he was commissioned to write two ballets with choreographer Guillaume Côté: a full-length ballet (Le Petit Prince) for the National Ballet of Canada and a half hour ballet (Dark Angels) for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. He served as composer in residence for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra from 2021 to 2023.

Kevin’s creative output, often inspired by the fantastical and the surreal, includes two JUNO Award-winning albums, Detach (Redshift, harpist Angela Schwarzkopf) and Mosaique (Ensemble Made in Canada), and the JUNO-nominated Spin Cycle (Centrediscs, Afiara Quartet and DJ Skratch Bastid) and Encount3rs (Analekta, NAC Orchestra). His music to The Spirit Horse Returns, an orchestral family concert featuring Indigenous artists and storytellers, has been performed in Canada six times since its premiere and will be performed at Southam Hall in February 2024.

About Kelly-Marie Murphy

With music described as “breathtaking” (Kitchener-Waterloo Record), “imaginative and expressive” (The National Post), “a pulse-pounding barrage on the senses” (The Globe and Mail), and “Bartok on steroids” (Birmingham News), Kelly-Marie Murphy’s voice is well known on the Canadian music scene. She has created a number of memorable works for some of Canada’s leading performers and ensembles, including the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras, The Gryphon Trio, James Campbell, Shauna Rolston, the Cecilia and Afiara String Quartets, and Judy Loman.

Kelly-Marie Murphy was born (in 1964) on a NATO base in Sardegna, Italy, and grew up on Canadian Armed Forces bases all across Canada. She began her studies in composition at the University of Calgary with William Jordan and Allan Bell, and later received a PhD in composition from the University of Leeds, England, where she studied with Philip Wilby. After living and working for many years in the Washington, D.C. area where she was designated “an alien of extraordinary ability” by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, she is now based in Ottawa, quietly pursuing a career as a freelance composer. Winner of the Azrieli Music Prize (2018) and the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music (2020).

About the NAC

The National Arts Centre (NAC) is Canada’s bilingual, multi-disciplinary home for the performing arts. The NAC presents, creates, produces, and co-produces performing arts programming in various streams—the NAC Orchestra, Dance, English Theatre, French Theatre, Indigenous Theatre, and Popular Music and Variety—and nurtures the next generation of audiences and artists from across Canada. The NAC is located in the National Capital Region on the unceded territory of the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation.

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