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THE SCOOP | The National Arts Centre Orchestra Announces Recording Project Commissioning Four Canadian Composers

By Anya Wassenberg on November 17, 2023

Alexander Shelley conducts the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Johnson)
Alexander Shelley conducts the National Arts Centre Orchestra (Photo: Dwayne Johnson)

Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) has announced a new project that will involve commissions from four Canadian composers, each inspired by a work by Richard Strauss. The recording cycle will be led by Maestro Alexander Shelley, and two of the four new pieces will be performed live on November 22 and 23, with a free livestream on the 23rd.

The project will span multiple seasons, planned for completion during NACO’s 2025-26 season. Each composer will create a new piece as a contemporary response to Strauss’ music. Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) is best known for his operas and tone poems, works which bridged the time between the late Romantic and early modern periods of Western music.

The composers and works include:

  • Kevin Lau will respond to Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration);
  • Kelly-Marie Murphy will respond to Don Juan;
  • Ian Cusson will respond to Also Sprach Zarathustra;
  • Alexina Louie will respond to Der Rosenkavalier.

The First Two Unveiled

Kevin Lau‘s composition, The Infinite Reaches, and Kelly-Marie Murphy‘s opus, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe will be premiered on November 22 and 23 in Southam Hall in Ottawa. Each will be performed alongside the original work by Strauss that inspired it.

The newly commissioned works will each be about 10 minutes long, and use the same size orchestra as the corresponding Strauss tone poem. The tone poem itself was one of Strauss’ innovations.

Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe (a response to Strauss’ Don Juan) draws inspiration from Strauss’ contemporaries, including Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night painting, and Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming

Kevin Lau talks about his work The Infinite Reaches, inspired by Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration, in a statement.

“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.

“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.”

The livestream broadcast will be available free worldwide, and will be subsequently available online via the National Arts Centre website.

After the project’s completion during the 2025-26 season, it will be commercially released on the Canadian independent label Analekta.

Richard Strauss, 1920 (From the George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress/Public domain)
Richard Strauss, 1920 (From the George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress/Public domain)

Shelley & Strauss

Alexander Shelley is known to be a Strauss aficionado. 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, commented on 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.”

Tickets and more information about the concert [HERE], and about the livestream [HERE].

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