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The Globe and Mail

A surprise gift of a symphony for former PM Joe Clark’s 75th birthday

Maureen McTeer and Joe Clark with their grandchildren Charles and Alexandra Schella.

Photo by Michelle Valberg

What milestone birthday gift do you get for the former prime minister who has everything? If you're Joe Clark's family, you commission a Canadian composer to write a symphony for the National Arts Centre Orchestra and surprise him by announcing it during an NAC concert on his 75th birthday.

"He always says, 'Oh, I could use a sports car,' and I think, 'Oh my God, the city streets would never be the same,'" Maureen McTeer told The Globe and Mail before pulling off the surprise on Thursday night. Beyond vetoing the sports car over concerns for the safety of the people of Ottawa, McTeer also figured her husband did not need another pen or an exotic trip to add to his long list of checked-off travel destinations.

The light bulb went on for McTeer (whose previous birthday gifts for Clark included commissioned works of art) when she met a young composer while attending a concert at the NAC a few months ago. She said she thought about "for about two seconds" before approaching NAC Orchestra managing director Christopher Deacon with the idea.

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Deacon recommended a few composers – one of whom was John Estacio. McTeer was familiar with Estacio's work Brio: Toccata and Fantasy for Orchestra, which she heard during the NACO tour of China. Deacon gave her a recording of the work, and she was reminded how much she loved it. She was thrilled to learn that Estacio lives in Alberta, Clark's native province.

"I think she felt that an Albertan would understand the feeling of being an Albertan and the landscape of Alberta and the sense of being an Albertan, even if you don't live there any more," said the couple's daughter, Catherine Clark.

(Anumber of fluky coincidences surrounding this story. One is that Estacio, in his car, stopped at a crosswalk on an icy day in downtown Edmonton earlier this year and received a wave of thanks from the bundled-up pedestrian – Joe Clark.)

Estacio, whose compositions include the operas Frobisher and Lillian Alling, said the work will not be biographical, or a Canadiana piece "with a sprinkling of your favourite Canadian folk songs." Once he gets down to writing the piece, he'll consider McTeer's description of her husband in commissioning the work – she used words such as pride, optimism, honesty, strength. "These are wonderful starting off points for a new piece, just to have these words and thoughts in my mind," Estacio said.

"Because it's John Estacio, I think it'll be a piece that will be just as wonderful as the country is," McTeer said on Wednesday, noting that that day marked the 35th anniversary of Clark's swearing in – a day before his 40th birthday, making him Canada's youngest prime minister (if short-lived; he was PM for less than a year).

The work will be premiered by the NACO in the 2015-2016 season. Keeping it a secret from Clark was challenging, especially because the family car is set up with a system that reads the couple's e-mails aloud. But wife and daughter were determined to do so.

"It's a great idea and it's exactly what she and Dad are about. And it's a perfect celebration of Dad because it gives back to the country, and he has literally dedicated his entire life to this country. And why not use a birthday as an opportunity to celebrate that?" Cathryn Clark said, before surprising her father with the announcement on the NAC stage. "That will make him so much happier than the tie that I bought for him."

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