The members of Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra must be excited about the start of their 2013-14 season, announced this morning in the nation's capital. In October, the orchestra will be touring China, an increasingly rare occurrence in these days of tight budgets and all-around hunkering down in the arts. And before they leave, they get to present their season opening Gala in Southam Hall with Paul Anka and his band – a crowd-pleaser (for a certain crowd), if ever there was one. And a very safe choice. Maybe too safe.
It's not easy programming an orchestra these days, and especially a regional orchestra like the NAC, always close to the edge financially. However, the NAC for several years, under the music direction of famed violinist Pinchas Zukerman, has reacted to these constraints with a very conservative approach. Next season is no exception. Case in point – the season opens with a "Romantic Festival," which reads like a CD-sampler of the Classics' Greatest Hits – Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a visit from Renee Fleming, the Bruch Violin Concerto (with Zukerman as soloist). Tried and true choices, every one, as safe as it gets in the classical music biz.
And that safety is only broken occasionally in the NAC's '13-14 season, but those breaks look interesting. Amanda Forsyth, the orchestra's star cellist, is returning from a year's sabbatical to play a concerto by her late father, Malcolm, along with the NAC's principal violist, Jethro Marks. Amanda is also featured in another Canadian composition, Alexina Louie's "Bringing the Tiger Down from the Mountain." However, other than those two pieces, and one other small concert opener by Murray Schafer, that's it for Canadian music – in a 30-concert season.
However, there is an interesting take on the contemporary music in the orchestra's season, whether intended or not – and that's a mini-festival of twentieth-century violin concertos. In November, Giora Schmidt will play Samuel Barber's Concerto; in April, it will be Valeriy Sokolov and the Bartok Concerto; in June, Leila Josefowicz and the Stravinsky. None of these pieces is obscure, but none are regularly heard, either – exactly the kind of creative programming that pays dividends, even for an institution as conservative as a symphony orchestra, and even in these difficult economic times.
And several of the non-symphonic concerts in the NAC's season also look fascinating. To honour the bicentennial of Richard Wagner, the man who regularly wrote for a 100-piece orchestra, the NAC is presenting – a piano recital. Canadian pianist Louis Lortie is presenting an entire concert of Wagner arranged for the piano – what a great idea – with transcriptions by Liszt, Hugo Wolf, Anton Rubinstein, and Lortie himself – his version of the famous Prelude to Tristan and Isolde. As is usual, Pinchas Zukerman will present himself as a performer as well as a conductor during the NAC season, and a concert of him playing violin sonatas by Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms with pianist Yefim Bronfman, is probably worth a trip to the nation's capital just by itself. (And it's in March, so maybe they'll be an early tulip or two to see while you're there.) And if December in Ottawa is more to your taste (heaven help you), soprano Measha Bruggergosman is headlining the NAC's Christmas Concert, which just seems a perfect combination to life spirits at the holiday season.
It's a careful season the NAC Orchestra has unveiled for 2013-14, but playing it safe in programming always carries more dangers than are immediately apparent. Classical music will survive in this internet-saturated, ultra-democratic, leveled-playing field world of entertainment by highlighting its unique vitality – its ability, unlike just about every other form of music out there, to actively engage an audience on a multitude of levels simultaneously in the here and now. The classical tradition has an honoured history, to be sure, but selling the past too heavily, and the present not heavily enough, is a chancy proposition in these very challenging times.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Giora Schmidt. That has been corrected.