The NAC Orchestra:

Alexander Shelley

Alexander Shelley
by Kalya Ramu

"I feel very distinctly the privilege, the responsibility of working at a national organization... How how can we do the things that other organizations can't do? Because that, for me, is the essence of a federal entity. I've always felt that public entities need to be taking the risks that commercial entities can't."

Music Director Alexander Shelley was transforming Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) into a bold and audacious force long before COVID-19 hit, not knowing how crucial this adaptability would soon become.


Born in London, Shelley studied cello and conducting before making a name for himself at the Leeds Conductors’ Competition in 2005, where he unanimously won first prize. While still acting as Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker (he concluded his tenure there in 2017), Shelley became Music Director at the NACO and took on the additional role of Principal Associate Conductor of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He continues to hold both positions while regularly working with other leading orchestras worldwide. 

Yet nothing could have prepared Shelley for the giant curveball he faced at the beginning of this year when COVID-19 shuttered performing arts venues across Canada. With live performances being no longer tenable, Shelley and his team  worked quickly to adapt, developing innovative strategies to share performances through digital platforms and reworking programming to fit the contemporary moment. 

Recently, Shelley sat down with smART Magazine editor Michael Zarathus-Cook to discuss the events that have transpired this year, his efforts to diversify programming and the NACO’s newest project, Undisrupted.  

On the COVID-19 pandemic,
safe practices and the return of the orchestra:

As with pretty much everything and everyone in the world, we were silenced in March. The performing arts and, very specifically, symphony orchestras, were faced with what initially seemed like an insurmountable problem: the sheer number of people on stage who need to be in close proximity to one another. There are few, if any, organisms that work in a way that an orchestra does. You have on stage, in our case, around 65-70 musicians, all of whom are absolute experts. They bring individual brilliance to the stage but then they have to interact as a group of people in real time – breathe, communicate and move like a flock of birds together in absolute synchronicity. The proximity is almost fundamental to the experience, so we were faced with that challenge. How do we get the true orchestra back together? Rather than simply a group of chamber musicians, a duo or a trio or a quartet, which seemed initially to be far more viable.


In early discussions, we were looking towards potentially the fall saying, maybe we can get a couple of people on one of our small stages and come back incrementally. What we did though, at the very beginning, was pivot to presenting online from our musician’s homes. It was cheap and cheerful. It was very personal. It was an insight into their everyday lives, which I think in those early weeks and months people really celebrated. It was this idea that you're seeing a side of peoples’ lives that you've never experienced before. That was exciting – it gave a more personal relationship to our musicians for audience members because they rarely heard our musicians playing as individuals. We produced a lot of content which was engaging, fun, beautiful and different. We then started to reach into our archives of recordings of the orchestra and started to present those for free to our audiences. That continued for several months and, in the background, we were ticking over this question, when are we able to perform live?


We really had two models. One, this idea that the restrictions are incredibly tight, it is simply from a health and safety perspective not possible to get the orchestra back together, and we are going to be presenting chamber music. We were going to look at ways to stream that live. But it was always important to me personally that we create a clear plan for getting the orchestra back. That’s not just because we are an orchestra at core, but it was also because of the statement it would make if we were able to do it. Because of what I referred to before: this idea that an orchestra embodies the very essence of closeness and collaboration, the very essence of what it is to interact with another human by virtue of the nonverbal nature of music. It is very fundamental and true. I thought it would be a beautifully important and profound moment when the orchestra came back together. I wanted us to have plans for that.


We started working on that and one of the main and most obvious challenges was doing the research. Collecting the information that had been gradually made available in places where they were starting to get bigger groups back together. Studies on movements of aerosols, the use of masks, how to cover the woodwind and brass instruments. As you can imagine, blowing through an instrument is creating a lot of aerosol. There was a committee formed at the National Arts Centre (NAC) to rigorously study the knowledge that was building in the world and to try to create better practices. I am very grateful to my colleagues who spearheaded that. As a national organization, we felt it was also a great opportunity for us to try to create better practices for other organizations who may be coming back as well.


We were very thorough about that, very careful, and it put us in good stead. When the regulations somewhat relaxed, we were able to get the orchestra back together and we were able to look anybody in the eye and say, we are creating a safe environment. Our home, Southam Hall, at the NAC, is a very big auditorium. We measured the air exchange on the air conditioning system, which was a very good number. We then did measurements of aerosol movements onstage. We were really scientific and rigorous about it. We have members who have been in the orchestra for 40 years, members who would be considered in that vulnerable demographic, and we have a duty to ensure their safety. We knew the orchestra could come back.


There was a hurdle that we had to jump in October when Ontario moved back into a more austere stage. Initially, we thought we had to shut down. The province then looked at the regulations of the performing arts and somewhat modified them, in recognition of the measures that have been put in place to ensure safety. That was good news. We are now in a position where we have musicians on stage and we feel safe. 

On diversity and representation in the performing arts:

We're also building a project which I am really excited about. Alongside those regular live, free broadcasts, we’re building a project called Undisrupted. This seeks to face head-on a very particular challenge. When you listen to the movements afoot in our societies, whether it’s Black Lives Matter, whether it's listening to Indigenous communities, or questions around equity between men and women – all of these social issues that we care about deeply – we're trying to find ways to figure out how to move forward with optimism and in a constructive nature. When I look at the orchestral world, what I see is an open space that includes composers from South America, North America, Africa, Europe, the Far East, Asia, Australia. I can think of composers from all of those continents. For me it stands for openness and internationalism, and also community, but for many it doesn't. I've been thinking, how do we solve this problem?


We’ve approached four curators: Measha Brueggergosman who is already a great friend of the orchestra. She’s a Black soprano from New Brunswick who has a big international career. She's a brilliant thinker, a powerful woman. We’ve approached Ana Sokolović, an immigrant from Serbia who came to Quebec and has become a Quebecois icon, beloved in the scene as a composer. We have Nicole Lizée from Saskatchewan. She is a brilliant musical thinker who kind of draws on everything from rave culture and electronic music through to classical music and opera and film. She comes up with these mashups that have urban sounds. And then we’ve approached Shawnee who is this two-spirit powerhouse Indigenous singer-songwriter – she is Mohawk, originally from the Six Nations.

The four of these curators are each going to create half an hour of television with the symphony orchestra. We have said to them, we are at your service. The orchestra is yours. I, as a conductor, am yours. We’ve brought a producer along who will realize anything you want to realize. We have a studio, an incredible graphic design and augmented reality studio. You have all these resources at your fingertips, tell your story. Tell us your story, be it about our times now, about anything you want, and tell us in whatever musical language you so wish. The only common denominator is that there's an orchestra there at your service. We called it Undisrupted because, on the one hand, we think of the idea of disruption in progressive politics as something positive: disrupting the norm, asking difficult questions, remolding the future. At the same time, you hear from many of these communities that for too long their voices have been disrupted. Their voices have been interfered with. They haven’t actually had an opportunity to tell the story from their perspective. Every Indigenous person has a different story to tell. The idea of disruption can also be problematic, so we play with it in the title Undisrupted.


I said to our team, when we approach curators, we can't take it as a given that they feel comfortable doing it. From the get-go, it was, if you feel like the orchestra is an exciting tool and an exciting vehicle, we are yours and we will serve your voice. If not, we understand. Each of these curators is all-in, and we’re going to have, at the end, four unique half-hours of television where they have completely free rein. We’re excited because the nature of it is handing the mic to these individuals who are brilliant, who represent aspects of their community and from whom we want to hear, from whom we want to learn. My hope is that this is a model we can carry into the future because what an exciting idea: getting brilliant creators, brilliant thinkers, brilliant people to take over our world for awhile and show us where we could go.

On programming at the NACO: 

Like most arts organizations, we are in a large part dependent on ticket revenues, people eating in our restaurants, on people parking in our carpark. These are the ways that we supplement the federal funding that the NAC so generously receives in order to put on ambitious programming, commission exciting works and be a centre for Canadian creative artists that allows them to explore and create. That was a big issue, and a lot of thought went into creating a vision that could be presented to the federal government for emergency funding.


A new three- year strategic plan was created. At its heart were several issues which, this year, have come to the fore. How can we be supportive of the wider industry? So many performing artists have had a hurdle placed in their way, a hurdle that may seem insurmountable. How can we help to invigorate the industry and the sector as we find a way through this and as we come out the other side? That was at the core of the new strategic plan. Another core of the strategic plan was listening to the conversations that have been going on and the conversations that have been augmented through COVID-19. Conversations about the representation of traditionally underrepresented voices, about hearing clearly the perspectives of communities that feel that for too long their perspective has not been given the forum that it deserves. That was the other point that was at the core. It was about BIPOC voices. It was about Indigenous voices. We have a new Indigenous Theatre. How can we really elevate and showcase them?


The values that were put front and center in that three-year plan were values that I was very proud to share. When it was presented, the federal government was convinced and gave the NAC emergency funding. I have to say, as a music director, as one of the artistic directors of the NAC, I feel very distinctly the privilege, the responsibility of working at a national organization. Saying to oneself, what should be expected of a national organization? If a federal government gives funding, what should we do? How can we do the things that other organizations can't do? Because that, for me, is the essence of a federal entity. I've always felt that public entities need to be taking the risks that commercial entities can't, and that sometimes means failing. If it was a sure thing, it wouldn’t be a risk. You need to be going down avenues with artists where you don't know where it's going to lead. Sometimes you have to invest in something that might lead nowhere. I feel very strongly that responsibility. What I'm excited about in the work that we're undertaking now is that I feel we’re very much responding to the moment.


We sensed more distinctly than ever this idea that we need to be accessible to the entire country. If you're in Nunavut and you’re a kid, you need to be able to hear us and access what your NACO is doing. From coast to coast to coast, we want people to be able to listen in and watch. That's why our concerts are free and hosted on various platforms. We knew that we wouldn't have a big audience in the hall but we could reach a big audience nationally. Not catering to a local audience actually means that certain choices in repertoire are more open to us. If you need to fill a 2000- seat auditorium on a fairly regular basis, of course we need to normally look at ticket revenue. If you're not saying that, then there are certain risks or adventures you can take in programming that you wouldn't normally be able to take. That's a huge change.


Aligned with our strategic objectives and aligned with what I believe a national orchestra should be doing, we have chosen to do a couple of things. Firstly, each of our programs features two next generation Canadian artists. We’ve partnered with CBC, their 30 under 30 list of hot next generation artists and, in each program, we're presenting two of them. Some of these musicians are 16, some of them 29. They’re in different stages of their career but we want to showcase what's coming for audiences, who's out there. We also want to support these young musicians. Like I said, a hurdle has been placed in their way. We want to be there for them, showcasing them. We’re also saying to ourselves, there is a wealth of music – both present and past – that has been written by BIPOC composers and women. There is no reason that each program shouldn't have a real palette of different voices on it. We’re celebrating that.


We’ve performed now three live broadcasts, each on a Saturday night. You see and hear music by composers from many different continents, from many different backgrounds. It's enriching and it's invigorating. We're also featuring what we've been calling the Canadian songbook: Canadian composers present and past, who absolutely can stand up on the international stage as great creative artists. We want to feature them. We’re a national orchestra, we should be standing up particularly at this moment for Canadian creative ideas. That’s the essence of what we’re putting on stage. With those formidable ingredients, you can tell great stories.