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NAC Orchestra's music director and conductor Alexander Shelley.Curtis Perry/Handout

Earlier this month, the National Arts Centre Orchestra released Truth in Our Time, an album which includes the world premiere recording of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 13. That piece, commissioned by the orchestra as a tribute to Canadian journalist Peter Jennings, was first presented on a 2022 tour to Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall and New York’s Carnegie Hall before the live recording at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

The orchestra is back on tour this month and next, teaming up with the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and wunderkind Calgary pianist Kevin Chen for concerts in Quebec City (Feb. 28), Toronto (March 2) and Ottawa (March 7-8). The program’s centrepiece is Jacques Hétu’s Symphony No. 5, the Quebec composer’s final work, described by The Globe and Mail as a “hymn to liberty” upon its 2010 world premiere.

The orchestra’s music director and conductor Alexander Shelley spoke to The Globe about the new album and how Glass’s symphony came to be.

How did the program theme of Truth in Our Time come together?

Coming out of COVID, I wrote a little essay to the team, addressing issues such as climate change, identity, the polarization of politics – the list goes on. The question of where we get our information and how we judge its veracity and how we interact with that information and what is the truth, it seemed to underscore all of these issues. We have different perceptions of what is happening with climate and our environment, for example, and different ways of acquiring information and which prism is it perceived through.

Did the idea of the program as a tribute to Peter Jennings come from his sister, Sarah Jennings?

Yes. She lives in Ottawa, and she is a very engaged patron and supporter of the organization. She wrote a book, Art and Politics, on the history of the National Arts Centre. The Jennings family had been independently talking about finding an avenue to celebrate Peter and his love of music and the arts. It suddenly hit us that it would be a wonderful entry point to the question of truth.

Because he was a journalist?

More than that. I think there is an argument to be had that Peter Jennings represented a generation of news anchors when most people had a sense that news was objectively and carefully researched, and that what you heard from him was fact. There is an argument that he and his generation perhaps were the last generation where that was the case.

How did Glass come on board?

We wanted to go international, and we had a list of composers. After a conversation with the Jennings family, the first ask went to Phillip Glass. The great thing was that he immediately said yes. He was a fan of Peter, and he loved the idea.

Was he given any musical parameters?

We hadn’t commissioned a symphony. We said, “do with this what you will.” He came back with the symphony, with a rather opaque text where he said that you are on difficult ground as a composer when you try to represent something like truth in music. He sort of leaves it to us to see if there is a connection or not. So, that was the linchpin, if you will, of the program. Once we knew Phillip would do this, we thought, “Wonderful, we’re going to take a U.S. premiere to Carnegie Hall.”

What was the thinking there?

I felt like it was a golden opportunity for us to take the type of program we like to do in Ottawa. For lack of a better term, we like to take risks. We felt very strongly that there is no point in just going to Carnegie Hall. You need to be yourselves. You need to tell your stories. You need to be authentic.

You need to sell tickets.

It’s a very big hall to fill, as I’m sure you know. A lot of advice was to take a warhorse, a very popular piece, to put bums in seats. But I decided to put this theme, truth in our time, front and centre, We knew we wanted to take new music, because that’s been a big part of our lives in the last decade, commissioning.

Why not record the album at Carnegie, instead of Ottawa’s Southam Hall, and join Miles Davis, Judy Garland and so many others in the great pantheon of live albums from that venue?

[Laughs] It was purely a logistical question. We had a half-hour sound check. Setting up for a CD-quality recording just would not have been viable, even if it had been desirable.

You built a program around Glass’s Symphony No. 13 that included Nicole Lizée’s Zeiss After Dark, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9. How do you balance the contextual themes with musical compatibility?

I think there’s a real integrity knitting through the story behind the pieces. They’re not pieces that, if you had a piece of paper, you’d put together. People need to know the thinking behind it. I found that the different musical languages and perspectives fit together to create quite an entertaining evening.

A review in New York Classical Review, while quite favourable, said Glass’s music stood apart from the rest, like a friendly guest at a party who just doesn’t speak the same language.

Interesting. Well, fair enough. It’s perfectly valid if a critic or a listener feels like it doesn’t work. It’s got to be in the eye of the beholder and the ears of the listener, so to speak.

I should point out that the critic praised the conductor, you, as being cool and charismatic.

Well, those words are antithetical. But that’s very kind. Anything that’s not negative, I’ll take.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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