Orchestra at the Edges of Canada

“Come as you are, bring a friend or a parent or a daughter or a nephew, and be prepared to be blown away by NYO Canada’s talented and passionate young musicians,” says Blanche Israël, external relations manager at the National Youth Orchestra (NYO) of Canada.

The August 10th concert at the Yukon Arts Centre will mean the largest orchestra of its kind in history to play in the Yukon, as well as the NYO’s first time north of the 60th parallel in the 57 years since it was founded.

The National Youth Orchestra is Canada’s leading orchestral summer program. It’s the most extensive training program available to Canadian classical musicians ages 16 to 28.

NYO Canada’s Edges of Canada 2017 Tour is a Canada 150 Signature Project.

“It is artistically, geographically, and logistically the most extensive, important, and exciting tour in our history,” says Israël. “Nearly 100 musicians, 50 choristers, five Indigenous artists and 50 faculty and staff will participate.”

The 92-person orchestra will offer Yukoners the chance to see the kind of concert that is usually only available in larger cities in the provinces. Organizers see the tour as a way of broadening accessibility. The last professional orchestra tour that reached the Yukon was the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2008 and they brought a contingent of 22 musicians at the time.

Touring receives far less support than it used to – the Edmonton Symphony toured the Yukon a handful of times between 1957 and 1973, and the Victoria Symphony Orchestra has visited the Yukon, for instance. “That’s why NYO Canada’s opportunity this year is so unique,” says Israël.

For many musicians this tour represents the first and possibly the only time that they’ll get to see Canada’s North.

“The sheer cost and scope of moving an entourage of over 100 musicians and crew members, and their often bulky, fragile and expensive instruments to the North is usually prohibitive for any symphony orchestra. But NYO Canada is special – we are structured differently as an organization, and we are fortunate to have generous support from across the country,” says NYO Executive Director Barbara Smith.

“Since day one, our musicians have been buzzing about Whitehorse. This stop is the highlight of the tour for so many of our musicians. All NYO Canada musicians attend the program tuition-free and receive a scholarship, so we have students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to travel like this. They really see this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to Whitehorse. Some of them have mentioned that they are hoping to see the Northern Lights.”

Smith points out that the Youth Orchestra’s mission is to serve all Canadians and the orchestra closely mirrors Canadian demographics. “The Yukon represents just 0.1 per cent of the Canadian population, but the North carries far more weight than that in the minds and identities of Canadians, so our hope is that this tour will forge connections and inspire young Northerners to learn more about the community and connection inherent in the symphony orchestra format,” she says.

The orchestra will be playing works by Wagner, Shostakovich (with a solo cellist), Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

“Like our tour, the Shostakovich cello concerto is all about identity,” says Blanche Israël.

The concerto is one of a few works in which the composer uses his self-identifying four-note theme.

“The story of Prokofiev writing his first symphony closely mirrors the format of activities at NYO Canada,” Israël says. “He wrote it at the age of 25 (our students are between the ages of 16 and 28) and he spent a period of time by himself at a country residence outside St. Petersburg to complete it, just like our musicians attending the intensive Summer Training Institute to train for the tour.”

According to organizers, the opportunity to perform in the North was a big draw for many musicians who applied at NYO this year and has been an inspiration in their work.

Bryan Cheng is just 19 years old and is the 2017 winner of NYO Canada’s most prestigious prize, the Michael Measures Prize, which is awarded annually to a promising young musician.

“Performing in the North and across this beautiful country will inspire me greatly, especially in times like these where empathy is needed more than ever, and the unifying power of music is so evident,” says Cheng.

Northern themes are already manifesting themselves in Cheng’s work and he’s looking forward to visiting the Yukon. “It’s going to be an experience I’ll remember for years to come,” Cheng says. “I recently commissioned a piece by a composer from the North titled ‘Frost Under Fire,’ which was inspired by the relationship between forest fires and permafrost, both naturally-occurring phenomena in the North.”

Hailing from the other edge of Canada (St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador) is French horn player Mark Constantine. “This tour will complete my cycle of visiting all 10 provinces, and will allow me to check off the first of the three territories from my list. I’m super stoked about that,” Constantine says. “It is my first time north of 60, and I’m super excited to finally be making the trip. I’ve read lots about the North and it’s thrilling to finally get to experience it for myself.”

The Canada 150 tour is particularly relevant to Constantine because he says it raises questions about our collective history and our relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada. “The arts, particularly storytelling and the performing arts, are a universal medium through which to communicate the history and state of our country,” he says.

For cellist Marianna Grigg, the Canada 150 tour is about building a broader music community across Canada. “I believe when doing a cross-Canada tour, like Edges of Canada, travelling to as many provinces and territories as possible is important for audiences, as well as the performers. Playing in a variety of venues and making connections with Canadians from all parts of the country really enhances our music-making experience,” says Grigg.

She’s looking forward to the experience of being with her musical peers, as well. “Making music together is all about community, and travelling to cities like Whitehorse helps the orchestra expand the community we’ve built during our training,” she says.

Being a part of the Canada 150 tour is helping Grigg connect personally to the celebrations happening around the country. “Our orchestra has many excited, energetic individuals who have worked hard to put together an amazing program for audiences around the country!”

The National Youth Orchestra has included Yukoners in the past and is hoping for more northern involvement. Roland Gjernes, a recent alum of NYO Canada, helped found the Yukon Cello Project, which aims to make classical music more accessible in the Yukon’s communities.

Blanche Israël thinks it’s important for more young Canadian musicians to visit the North. She says that more visibility for the arts means more participation in the arts. Pointing out that the Whitehorse Community Orchestra has vacancies, Israël says that the Whitehorse orchestra is a great place to start.

“This art form can feel distant to those who haven’t been exposed to a lot of it, but it is truly a doorway to the world and a universal language. My advice would be to connect with local music lovers and advocates, practice hard, make use of the amazing online learning tools you have at your fingertips and audition for NYO Canada as soon as you’re ready. Since our auditions are done entirely online, it’s as accessible to a Yukoner as to any other musician in the country.”

The Edges of Canada concert in Whitehorse happens toward the end of NYO Canada’s 12-city coast-to-coast-to-coast tour. The tour will be the subject of a full-length documentary film in partnership with the National Film Board. The orchestra trained for five weeks in Waterloo, Ontario before heading on tour.

The concert takes place on Thursday, August 10th at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Arts Centre. For more information visit the National Youth Orchestra of Canada’s website at NYOC.org. Admission is free of charge and tickets can be booked through YukonTickets.com. All are welcome.

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