The National Arts Centre Orchestra's Commitment to Three Canadian Composers

There is a little too much of the one-night stand in Canadian orchestral music. An orchestra bats its eyes at a self-respecting composer, one thing leads to another, and soon enough the composer and orchestra are parting company after a quickie.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra's Commitment to Three Canadian Composers

There is a little too much of the one-night stand in Canadian orchestral music. An orchestra bats its eyes at a self-respecting composer, one thing leads to another, and soon enough the composer and orchestra are parting company after a quickie. What the NATIONAL ARTS CENTRE ORCHESTRA is seeking to do is settle down for an honest long-term commitment. Sure, it's with three composers at once, but what can we say, artists are weird.

This week in Ottawa, the NAC announced its second round of commission awards for Canadian composers. The name's a bit prosaic - the NAC Award - but the ambition makes up for it: three composers have been awarded $75,000 each to write three compositions, work with the orchestra for five years, and teach younger composers at the centre's Summer Music Institute. That kind of money for that kind of commitment is rare. The three recipients are Peter Paul KOPROWSKI, 62, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario in London; Ana Sokolovic, 41, of Montreal; and John Estacio, 43, of Edmonton.

"We're hoping they'll be able to create really significant work," said Christopher Deacon, the NACO's managing director. He noted the awards are aimed at mid-career composers who have already built a reputation but should, in theory, have their best work ahead. "We're not interested in creating more 12-minute Canadian pieces."

That's an inside joke. Canadian composers actually get their music performed fairly often, but rarely more than once or twice for a given piece, and almost never are they invited to write something more elaborate than a brief overture before the Chopin concerto and the Beethoven symphony.

But the NAC has already shown that these commissions can bear fruit. Its first round of NAC Award recipients included the Toronto composer Gary KULESHA. He wrote his opulent, surging Third Symphony for the NACO, and it has since been embraced, deservedly, by orchestras in Halifax, Calgary, Kitchener, Edmonton and elsewhere.

Deacon is disarmingly frank in admitting that the NAC, which is generously taxpayer-funded to serve as a headquarters for the performing arts, hadn't been doing enough to promote Canadian music before it introduced the composer awards in 2002. "We've righted the ship a little bit," he said. "Our record in the last few years is more defensible."

Still, even among Canadians who subscribe to orchestra performances, few could name a Canadian composer or hum one of her pieces. For many years, Canadian composers wrote very little that could reasonably be hummed. It's perhaps significant that Deacon mentions Estacio as the guy whose work the NACO's own musicians were asking to play. The Edmontonian's music is bright and tuneful, almost populist. He is already the most frequently performed Canadian composer now writing.

"It's true, no one in Canada has written Gorecki's Third Symphony," Deacon said, naming a mournful piece by a Polish minimalist that has achieved a weird pop-culture status since it was used in the soundtrack for Peter Weir's 1993 film Fearless. "But I think it's like [Canadian literature]. Fifty years ago, people were saying, 'CanLit, so what?' "

To its credit, while hoping for whatever the musical equivalent of Mordecai Richler's novels might be, the NAC isn't hiring a bunch of schmaltzy studio composers. Koprowski, whose long CV stretches the NAC's mid-career definition, favours a dark, spiky academic language, but his music has the force of conviction. Sokolovic hasn't yet really established what she can do with her evident talent, despite fruitful collaboration with Kent Nagano and the ORCHESTRE SYMPHONIQUE DE MONTRÉAL.

Both Koprowski and Sokolovic moved to Canada in their 20s, Koprowski from Communist Poland, Sokolovic from the shattered remains of Yugoslavia. "This is now our reality," Sokolovic said in an interview. "It shows how Canada is helping people to start a new life."

There was no formal jury for choosing the composers, but the highest hurdle they will face is the approval of Pinchas Zukerman, the NACO's music director, a Mozart and Brahms man if ever there was one. People who think the conductor is hidebound "need to expand their perceptions of what he's doing," Deacon insists, while admitting that "Pinchas has been a very fussy collaborator, or a picky collaborator. His attitude has been, 'Fine, but let's deal with people who are doing really important, significant stuff. I'm not gonna look at their passport.' "

Maclean's December 14, 2009