It's been a tumultuous time for members of Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra since they last arrived at Roy Thomson Hall for their annual musical visit to this city. Fresh from a successful tour of China in October, the orchestra announced in November that English conductor Alexander Shelley will be its new music director when Pinchas Zukerman leaves the post in 2015. And based on the concert the orchestra provided us on Saturday night, Zukerman will be leaving Shelley a finely tuned, virtuoso ensemble to work with.
The main work on Saturday's program was the 10th Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, for which the normally scaled-down NAC Orchestra was buttressed by several additional players. Shostakovich was one of the great suffering spirits of the 20th century, a composer caught wriggling on the hook of Stalinist Russia all his life, even beyond Stalin's death. The 10th was written just after that event, in 1953, and has been interpreted as Shostakovich's depiction of the horrors of that decades-long black hole in Russian life. It is a massive, four-movement, passionate affair, with almost too many moods, too many moments, too much emotion. Whether a portrait or not of Stalin, it is certainly a portrait of its teeming composer. It can tip into overdrive very easily.
But my, did the NAC Orchestra play its heart out for this work. String sound was powerful and disciplined; brass was sharp but never overwhelming, and the NACO's wind section played like an all-star team of soloists brought together into a single orchestra. Wind parts are very prominent in the Shostakovich 10th – there are times when it virtually sounds like a concerto for wind instruments and orchestra – and to a person, the NACO's winds – principal oboe, English horn, flutes, bassoon, piccolo, clarinets – were superb. And although it's always easy to pick holes in a conductor's interpretation of the 10th (I thought the famous second movement, supposedly a portrait of Stalin himself, was taken at much too jaunty a pace), Zukerman kept the intensity of this sprawling work alive, and provided his players with a powerfully focused leadership.
And although the Shostakovich was clearly the main course of the evening's affair, the highlight, for me, was the orchestra's reading of the Third Violin Concerto by Mozart, with Zukerman as leader and soloist. Unlike the Shostakovich, which was given its premiere performances by the 44-year-old NAC Orchestra only this week, the Mozart was one of the pieces the group took to China, and the polish showed. Pinchas Zukerman, let us remember, is still one of the great violinists of his, or any other, generation. His Mozart captures perfectly what we guess to be the essence of the spirit of the famed youngster from Salzburg (just 19 when he wrote this piece) – melodious when needed, playful when needed, with breathtaking dynamic contrasts, under perfect control always. And while sometimes I've thought that the subtlety of Zukerman's playing didn't always translate to his work as a conductor, that was definitely not the case on Saturday night. His orchestra was as charming, precise and elegant as he. It was a supremely lovely performance of a work often not performed with such obvious care.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra will have enjoyed 17 years under Zukerman's direction when he leaves at the end of the 2014-15 season. Any ensemble takes on the shape of its leader after so long a time. So it will be interesting to see what Alexander Shelley does with this group when Zukerman flips him the keys in a couple of years. But wherever he chooses to go with it, he'll have a vehicle that is clearly ready to take him there in style.