Music at the National Arts Centre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music at the National Arts Centre

Theatre and auditorium complex situated on the west bank of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and inaugurated in 1969. It is the outcome of a 1963 proposal to the government of Canada by the National Capital Arts Alliance, a citizens' group.

National Arts Centre/Centre national des arts. Theatre and auditorium complex situated on the west bank of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa and inaugurated in 1969. It is the outcome of a 1963 proposal to the government of Canada by the National Capital Arts Alliance, a citizens' group. In 1964 the government adopted the proposal and turned it into a project to commemorate Canada's centenary (1967), appointing G. Hamilton Southam (b Ottawa 19 Dec 1916, d Ottawa 1 July 2008) as co-ordinator in the Secretary of State Dept. The NAC Act, passed by Parliament in 1966, established an independent corporation under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State to 'operate and maintain the centre, to develop the performing arts in the National Capital Region and to assist the Canada Council in the development of the performing arts elsewhere in Canada.' The corporation's national board of trustees appointed Southam director-general of the centre beginning 1 Apr 1967 for a five-year term (renewed in 1972).

Two advisory committees, one for theatre and one for music, were set up to plan the facilities. The music committee, chaired by Louis Applebaum, recommended a dual-purpose opera and concert hall; the theatre committee, a 900-seat theatre and a 300-seat studio. The approved design was by the architect Fred Lebensold of Montreal in collaboration with the acousticians Russell Johnson Associates. It encompassed the Theatre, the Studio, and the smaller, hexagonal Salon, all suitable for theatrical presentations, chamber concerts, and recitals; and the Opera for opera and concerts, with 2300 seats, none further than 33 m from a stage 33.6 m wide. The orchestra pit of the Opera can accommodate 110 musicians, and the acoustics may be altered to suit the sound of opera, orchestra, or choir by means of hydraulically controlled sounding boards and curtains in the ceiling and walls. For symphony concerts an acoustic shell can be lowered onto the stage.

The four theatre-auditoria, along with their vast shared lobby and performers' dressing rooms, restaurants, administrative offices, and subterranean parking facilities, are integrated in one large structure occupying 2.6 hectares on the canal bank. The sprawl of the centre draws integrity from the structural recurrence of the hexagon. The decors are more various; indeed many (the Opera curtain; the Salon doors; the chandeliers, tapestries, and hangings; the outdoor sculptures, etc) are individual works of art.

The centre was completed in 1969 at a cost of $46 million, and opened 2 June, in the Opera, with the National Ballet of Canada's performances of two commissioned ballets - The Queen by Grant Strate to music of Louis Applebaum, and Kraanerg by Roland Petit to music of Iannis Xenakis. Among other groups and solo performers who appeared in the two-week inaugural festival were the MSO under Franz-Paul Decker, with Jon Vickers as soloist; the TS in its last concert under the directorship of Seiji Ozawa, in a program which included Harry Freedman'sTangents; the NYO; the Cassenti Players; the Duo Pach; the Manitoba University Consort; the Orford String Quartet; the contralto Maureen Forrester; the soprano Sylvia Saurette; the chanteuse Monique Leyrac; and the singer Gordon Lightfoot. Gabriel Charpentier's one-act opera Orphée I was commissioned to open the Studio during the second week of the festival.

In the course of the next four years two organs were presented to the NAC by the Dutch-Canadian community 'in appreciation of the role played by Canadian troops in liberating the Netherlands in 1945.' Both organs were built by Flentrop Orgelbouw of Zaandam, Holland. The small, six-stop positiv organ was delivered in 1970. The large (8.2 m high, 2.7 tonne in weight) two-manual 21-stop tracker concert organ was delivered in 1973. Both can be stored and moved. They were inaugurated 7 Oct 1973 in a recital by Albert de Klerk, municipal organist of the City of Haarlem, Holland.

To fulfil the mandate set out in the NAC Act, the centre is required to mount productions of opera, ballet, and theatre; to present concerts and recitals; to send its resident orchestra and theatre companies on tour throughout Canada; and to invite other Canadian and foreign companies and performing artists to appear on its platforms. It also, initially, was to provide touring management services for Canadian performing artists and groups, but this function was assumed by a touring office created for the purpose in the Canada Council administration in 1973.

The music program of the centre was singularly successful during its first decade, particularly through the extraordinary distinction and tireless activity of the resident National Arts Centre Orchestra (which made its debut 7 Oct 1969 under its conductor Mario Bernardi) and through its summer opera and concert program Festival Ottawa, begun in 1971 as Festival Canada (Ottawa), with Bernardi as artistic director and conductor and, beginning in 1974, Andrée Gingras as festival administrator. The festival was discontinued in 1983.

Performances by the residents, however, were only a part of the centre's larger music program which offered, for example, during the 1969-70 season, 65 orchestral, chamber, and choral concerts; 13 recitals; and 12 performances of opera, 39 of ballet and other dance, and 142 of different kinds of musical show. In the 1977-8 season the number of concerts had increased to 100; of opera performances, to 19. During the 1990-1 season comparable figures show 80 orchestral, chamber and choral concerts, 7 operatic performances, 9 recitals, and 15 performances by dance companies. Figures for popular music concerts were not available.

Many performing organizations and individual artists, Canadian and foreign, have appeared at the centre including chamber ensembles, choirs, orchestras, bands, instrumental and vocal soloists, rock, jazz, country and pop artists, groups, opera and dance companies. The centre has been host, also, to productions of Canadian operas (Louis Riel, Seabird Island) and Canadian musicals and revues (Dominion Chautauqua '85, Duddy, Kronborg: 1582, Les hauts et les bas d'la vie d'une diva: Sarah Ménard par eux-mêmes, and The Legend of the Dumbells).

According to the 1977-8 annual report, more than 800 performances were attended that season by audiences totalling more than 800,000 (nearly double the first year's attendance) and 94.4 per cent of that number were accounted for by subscribers. Production, promotion, and general operation cost the centre $13.65 million during that performing year, $4.6 million of which was recovered in box-office receipts, touring revenues, and CBC broadcast fees, and $8.7 million through an appropriation voted by Parliament. The deficit of more than $700,000 was reduced by about two-fifths the following season. These figures show that though federal government subsidy of the NAC's far-reaching program has been substantial, it has not been unlimited. In the 1989-90 annual report comparable figures included a total budget for promotion, production, and general operation of $35.6 million with an income from performances of $10.18 million, an appropriation from Parliament of $16.34 million, and a deficit of $116,550.

Three levels of administration affect or control the centre's musical activities. Hamilton Southam was the first general director, succeeded in 1977 by Donald MacSween, who resigned in 1987. MacSween's successor, Yvon DesRochers, was appointed in 1988. In addition to his duties as conductor and artistic director of the NACO and Festival Ottawa, Mario Bernardi succeeded Jean-Marie Beaudet as music director for the centre in 1969. Costa Pilavachi assumed the post of music director in 1982, succeeded by Gabriel Chmura 1986-90, and by Trevor Pinnock in 1991. The music director is assisted by the music administrator - Hugh Davidson 1971-3, Guy Huot 1973-5, Kenneth Murphy (previously manager of the NACO) 1975-8, Michael Aze 1978-81, and Joanne Morrow 1981-6. In 1986 the title was changed to music producer and Morrow continued in the position 1986-9, succeeded by Jack Mills. Lawrence Freiman, first chairman of the NAC board, was succeeded by François Mercier in 1969. Arthur Gelber became chairman in 1978, the Hon Pauline McGibbon in 1980, J. Pierre Boutin in 1985, and Robert Landry in 1988.

The conductors of the NACO have had varying degrees of control over the music program at the NAC, reflected by their titles. Mario Bernardi held the positions of director of music and conductor of the NACO 1969-82. In 1982 Franco Mannino became artistic advisor and principal conductor - a temporary appointment. In 1986 Gabriel Chmura was named music director and principal conductor, followed in 1991 by Trevor Pinnock as artistic advisor and principal conductor.

In the 1980s the centre was increasingly plagued with funding problems. Its subsidy from Parliament was increased only minimally, and the board and general director did not believe that the NAC should compete with other arts organizations for private funding. In 1983 the NAC cancelled future plans to produce opera until the financial situation improved. In the public outcry that ensued, the role of the NAC, including its relevance outside the national capital region, its programing policies, and its financing, was vigourously questioned.

The NAC had for some time been the subject of government studies. Louis Applebaum and Jacques Hébert's 1982 Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee recommended that the NAC should 'adopt a policy of showcasing... talent... in all the performing arts... [and] forego in-house productions of theatre and operatic works... [but that the NACO] should remain as a resident and touring organization'. Erik Nielsen's Task Force on Program Review in its report on Culture and Communications, released in August 1985, commented that the NAC 'should become more aggressive in seeking private sector funding' and recommended that the building be transferred to the National Capital Commission which would try 'to integrate the NAC activities in the cultural and tourism streams of the National Capital Region'. It also recommended that 'the programming activities of the NAC... be turned over to the private sector' with instructions that the Canada Council be used to 'pursue opportunities for co-production with other art centres on behalf of the NAC'. Further, it wanted to 'dismantle the National Arts Centre Corporation and repeal the National Arts Centre Act,' and also recommended that 'the NACO become an independent orchestra'. These recommendations would transform the NAC into a rental entertainment facility with no resident productions or companies.

The three members of the 1986 Task Force on the National Arts Centre, Toronto writer Tom Hendry (chairman), Montreal critic Gilles Potvin, and Vancouver arts administrator Nini Baird, produced a report entitled Accent on Access. This report stated that, while the NAC had been successful in fulfilling one part of its mandate - to develop the performing arts in the National Capital region - 'it has by no means succeeded elsewhere in the country... [where] the Centre is perceived to have dealt with [financial constraints] by progressively reducing activities related to its national mandate in order to maintain the integrity of activities related to its regional mandate'. The thrust of the report's recommendations was 'to rearrange its priorities so that a proper regional/national balance of activity may be restored'. The report recommended that the centre be renamed the Centre for the Arts in Canada and that funding be increased but that priorities change. In addition to non-musical recommendations, the task-force members emphasized the need to introduce some form of 'electronic touring,' increase physical touring, increase emphasis on Canadian creation, establish a performing arts program for young audiences, and reinstate opera production and the summer festival, the latter under private auspices.

General director Yvon DesRochers, who assumed his position in 1988, immediately placed a high priority on electronic touring, beginning discussions with Telesat Canada concerning national broadcasts of NAC productions. He advocated the use of high-definition TV to broadcast NAC programs, to be received on special equipment in public halls. Response from the arts community was generally unfavorable; there was general doubt that audiences would come out to see what amounted to a television broadcast. DesRochers also announced plans to introduce a youth program that would allow graduates of conservatories to play in the orchestra, and the extensive use of student conductors. DesRocher's 'student project' was perceived by critics to threaten the international standard that the NACO had enjoyed, thus questioning the priority of the NACO in NAC plans. Morale in the orchestra dropped even further when the musicians' contract offer was withdrawn and music director Gabriel Chmura's contract was not renewed. The orchestra went on strike 4 Oct-30 Nov 1989. Further conflict arose between champions of artistic and financial priorities, when a touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera was booked into the Opera for 10-weeks in mid-season 1992 and a tour arranged for the orchestra during that period. This was interpreted by the public and the musicians as further challenging the status of the NACO in the organization.

Throughout this period the NAC reduced the number of in-house productions; facilities were increasingly rented to other companies. Although Opera Lyra Ottawa had begun staging its productions in the Theatre in 1986, in-house opera returned in 1987 with a concert production of La Bohème, followed by a fully staged productions of The Marriage of Figaro in 1988, Don Giovanni in 1989, and Così fan Tutte in 1990. The NAC introduced a preschool music program for children between the ages of three and five in 1987. In 1985 Mannino held a young conductors' workshop and in 1990 Chmura directed the NAC's first conductors' symposium.

Further Reading