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First Play: NAC Orchestra, Life Reflected

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Robert Rowat

In May 2016, the National Arts Centre presented Life Reflected, multimedia portraits of four exceptional Canadians: writer Alice Munro, anti-bullying advocate Amanda Todd, astronaut and researcher Roberta Bondar and Mi'kmaw elder and poet Rita Joe.

“What inspired me was looking at these four women who have found their voices, through different sacrifices and challenges,” said Alexander Shelley, artistic director of the NAC Orchestra. Shelley invited four Canadian composers — Zosha Di Castri, John Estacio, Nicole Lizée and Jocelyn Morlock — to collaborate with him and creative director Donna Feore on the project. Along with Montreal-based visual design group Normal, the group created an immersive symphonic experience hailed by the Ottawa Citizen as "a quartet of multimedia works that transcend biography to embrace universal themes of pain, forgiveness, beauty and hope."

The musical component of Life Reflected has been captured on a new album, due out April 21 on Analekta Records. It features four striking works:

Dear Life

The first of the four portraits is Dear Life, based on Munro's semi-autobiographical story of the same name. Composer Di Castri, herself a new mother when she received the commission from the NAC, was drawn to the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Munro's story. "I admired Munro’s flow, her flashes of memories half-recalled, perhaps fictional, perhaps autobiographical — ambiguous and at times startlingly straightforward," she writes in the notes. Di Castri employs a narrator (Martha Henry) and soprano (Erin Wall) to "bridge the divide between the abstractness of the music and the concreteness of the spoken word."

My Name is Amanda Todd

Fifteen-year-old Todd took her own life following years of cyber-bullying, but not before speaking out on YouTube against her aggressors. At first, composer Morlock was nearly overwhelmed by Todd's story. However, she "became aware of how transformational and empowering it would be for this young girl, Amanda, to take control and to tell her own story on this very same platform that people were using against her," writes Morlock in the program notes. Correspondingly, her composition, My Name is Amanda Todd, begins in darkness, sorrow and "negative energy" that transforms into "increasingly powerful, positive music."


Composer Lizée uses audio from TV coverage of astronaut Bondar's exploits — "the otherworldy sound of 'speaking from space,' the poetry expressed in her acceptance speech at Canada's Walk of Fame, the nostalgia [...] of iconic Canadian news anchors" — as building blocks for Bondarsphere. Her piece's eight movements reference each of Bondar's eight days in space, aiming "to sonically and visually express the impact that [her] accomplishments have had on the world."

I Lost my Talk

"In 15 lines of poetry, Rita Joe’s I Lost My Talk captures the discombobulating fear of being forced to leave one’s culture," says composer Estacio on the inspiration behind his contribution to Life Reflected. His piece's four uninterrupted movements mirror the four stanzas of Joe's poetic meditation on the devastating effects of residential schools. From innocence (solo flute), to relentless oppression (brass and percussion), to reconciliation (a soaring anthem), the poem's arc unfolds not only through Estacio's score but also through Joe's very words, narrated by Monique Mojica.

The NAC Orchestra's Life Reflected will be released on April 21. You can pre-order it here.

Catch the NAC Orchestra's performance of Life Reflected at Toronto's Luminato Festival on June 18 at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

More to explore:

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Charles Richard-Hamelin: 5 pieces that changed my life

9 amazing covers of Franz Schubert songs