Before the maestro took the stage at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Laureen Harper pulled up a grainy black-and-white image on her cellphone.
It was a picture of her great uncle’s tombstone, a white cross among rows of white crosses, his bearing the words “In Memory of Pte. J. Teskey.” Private James Edward Teskey died in 1917 fighting in the Battle of Arras, a First World War offensive in which Canadian troops helped capture Vimy Ridge.
The maestro was not at the NAC for a performance Tuesday, but rather to speak about his orchestra’s United Kingdom tour – one that will deploy music to commemorate the First World War centenary.
The fall tour, maestro Pinchas Zukerman’s last as NAC music director, is ambitious. According to details released Tuesday, it features Prince Charles as its royal patron, a masterclass with Mr. Zukerman at Royal College in London, an education program for school-aged children in both countries, and pop-up concerts in parks, schools and hospitals.
More than 60,000 Canadians died fighting a war that historians say marked Canada’s coming of age and, in the eyes of Mr. Zukerman, the Oct. 21-30 tour is a chance to express condolences through music.
“You have to remember how many didn’t come back,” Mrs. Harper, honorary co-chair of the NAC gala, said in a sit-down interview before Tuesday’s announcement. “It just brings up all these memories. … When you walk up and down those thousands of graves – I’ve done it in different countries – you just know how young they were.”
Mrs. Harper, who in 2006 knelt before her great uncle’s headstone in Barlin, France, alongside her husband, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been invited on the 10-day, five-concert tour, but will see whether her schedule permits.
The orchestra will honour the memory of those who trained on the Salisbury Plain with a performance at the 750-year-old Salisbury Cathedral, an English Gothic mother church boasting the tallest spire in Britain and one of four surviving manuscripts of Magna Carta. “It’s one of the great documents in human history,” Mrs. Harper said, noting she hopes to attend author Margaret MacMillan’s preconcert lecture on the relationship between Britain and Canada at wartime.
For Jayne Watson, the CEO of the NAC Foundation, the Salisbury performance will mark a personal moment: Her grandfather Lanceley Thomas Watson fought in the war after training with thousands of other young Canadians on the plain.
“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it,” Ms. Watson said. “It’ll be meaningful for me to think, ‘One hundred years later, here I am, his granddaughter, walking in his footsteps.’”
Aside from three other concerts in Nottingham and Bristol in England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, there will be a joint performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, culminating with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The concert will also feature the late Canadian composer Malcolm Forsyth’s final work, A Ballad of Canada, which is based on imagery from John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. It will undoubtedly be an emotional performance for Mr. Forysth’s daughter, principal NAC orchestra cellist Amanda Forsyth.
The tour also marks an opportunity for Mr. Zukerman to reconnect with Prince Charles. The maestro told Tuesday’s audience he first met the Prince in “1971-ish” at the home of the late Jacqueline du Pré, where the Prince listened to the celebrated cellist privately perform and played the instrument himself. (“He’s not so good,” Mr. Zukerman joked.) He also saw Prince Charles during a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra, where he spotted the Prince boisterously bouncing his leg to the music. Mr. Zukerman said he approached Prince Charles and remarked, “Sir, you were a little off,” to which the Prince replied, “You know, I noticed that.”
On a more serious note, Mr. Zukerman said he feels the tour will serve to express heartfelt condolences to the families and nations that fought in the war. “Having music play a major role, as it has for many, many, many centuries, I think is very symbolic and will bring good to the human soul.”
Editor's Note: Jayne Watson's grandfather Lanceley Thomas Watson did not die in the First World War as this article originally stated. The article has been corrected to say that he fought in the war. He died later.