On the YouTube video, the young, attractive commencement speaker is exhorting his student audience to follow their heart as they choose their life’s path. “Passion for me was the key,” he tells them. “To find one’s passion is not a luxury, but an utter necessity.”
The occasion was the graduation ceremonies at Jacobs University, in Bremen, Germany, last June. The speaker was Alexander Shelley, the highly acclaimed young British conductor. And in a couple of years, Shelley’s passion will take him to our nation’s capital, as it was announced this week that he will take over from Pinchas Zukerman as the music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra starting in 2015.
At 34, Shelley is one of a growing generation of younger conductors worldwide (which includes Canada’s own Yannick Nézet-Séguin) who are infusing the traditional world of classical music with new energy, optimism and power. Who understand the modern world with its unique opportunities for communication and engagement naturally and effortlessly. And who are convinced that, by being true to itself, the centuries-old world of classical music can take on modern relevance.
Alexander Shelley comes by his musical pedigree naturally. He is “from musical royalty,” says Paul Wells, a member of the NAC search committee (and political editor for Maclean’s magazine). Shelley’s father is Howard Shelley, famed British conductor and pianist. His mother, Hilary Macnamara, is also a concert pianist. He grew up, as he told the students in Bremen, “in a house with five grand pianos.” But it took Shelley a few years to realize that his true calling was as a conductor, not as the cellist he had started to become. He switched disciplines, won the Leeds Conductors Competition in 2005, and launched a career which has taken him to many orchestras around the world, including the Nuremberg Symphony in Bavaria, where he is the current principal conductor.
His travels as a guest conductor also led him to Ottawa, where he caught the eye of the NAC brass several years before they knew they were going to have to replace the acclaimed Pinchas Zukerman, who will have led the orchestra for 16 years when he hands over the reins to Shelley. “We routinely ask the orchestra members to formally evaluate guest conductors when they appear,” Wells said. “The responses to Shelley were through the roof.” When the search for Zukerman’s replacement became official 18 months ago, Shelley’s name was placed on a relatively long list. Eventually, Wells says, “We had a number of candidates who were willing to take over the orchestra. But Alexander was so enthusiastic about it. We finally decided to hire the guy who had his hand up.”
Speaking to Shelley, you can understand and feel his enthusiasm. It begins with his response to his new colleagues – if they felt a chemistry with him, he felt the same thing. And he’s excited that the National Arts Centre Orchestra is a national institution. “The NAC should be a forum for Canadian talent, a safe place where artists and composers can feel secure in creating new works and exploring new ideas,” he says.
He’d like to include a new commission on his first concert in 2015 and continue to support Canadian music, both new and old, throughout his tenure. In this respect, he matches with one of the criteria the NAC had set itself for its new music director, as Christopher Deacon, the orchestra’s general manager, notes. “We felt we needed to do more to engage a curiosity for the new, not just with the orchestra, but throughout the National Arts Centre as a whole. We were impressed with Alexander’s effortless engagement with new music.”
That engagement evidenced itself in Germany in several projects that Shelley introduced – a organization called 440Hz that presents music, new and old, with German stage and musical personalities in a move to attract more young people to classical music. He also leads the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and is the artistic director of its outreach program which uses music as a tool for community engagement.
On paper, Shelley seems to present an ideal mix for the NAC. But there are always the harsh exigencies of the real world of classical music, 21st-century-style. Funding problems, aging audiences, a certain complacency in a world that has changed little in the last 80 years.
For Shelley, the solution to these problems lies in one path: recovering for classical music the excitement and power he feels it has as its natural birthright. “It’s a vital part of human civilization,” he tells me, “but it’s not part of everyday life. It’s there to engage us and to remind us of truths that we don’t normally encounter on a day-to-day basis. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stuck with performance practices that come out of the Victorian era. We literally have to think outside the box.”
Whether Shelley will be successful in his quest remains for the future to divulge. But it is certain he will be important for Ottawa. “Alexander’s going to make us develop new muscles,” Deacon says. “It will be good for all of us.”