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First Play: National Arts Centre Orchestra, ENCOUNT3RS

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Robert Rowat

Historically, composers have written some of their best music for ballet productions. Stravinsky's The Firebird comes immediately to mind, as do Copland's Appalachian Spring, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

A new album from Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra, due out Sept. 29 on Analekta Records, continues the tradition with three new ballet scores, commissioned by the NAC and premiered last April.

ENCOUNT3RS was a collaboration between dance producer Cathy Levy and conductor Alexander Shelley, who paired three choreographers with three composers to each create a new one-act ballet. The project was conceived as part of the NAC's celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canada's confederation and the performance was recorded for this album.

The first is a three-movement suite by Andrew Staniland called Phi, Caelestis, written for a choreography by Jean Grand-Maître. "The unifying theme was that everything was related in some way to the golden ratio, or Phi," writes Staniland in the liner notes. "For me, Phi was a catalyst and inspiration ... in terms of both extra-musical beauty and literal usage in Phi-inspired melodies and harmonies."

Next is Nicole Lizée's Keep Driving, I'm Dreaming, created with choreograher Emily Molnar who calls it "a dream within a dream within a dream." Lizée's music invokes a road trip, "careening around corners in improbable locales or holding steady along unrelentingly rigid lanes at dusk. The rear-view mirror reflects a place you never were." If it sounds cinematic, it's owing to Lizée's invocation of neo-noir cinema of the '80s and '90s, abetted by electronics supplied by Paolo Kapunan (a.k.a. DJ P-Love.)

The third ballet score is Kevin Lau's Dark Angels. Lau had already worked with choreographer Guillaume Côté, so their synergy was a given. "We knew we wanted to develop a work that would reflect the resistance and struggle that one can experience living in new territory and the acclimatization to new places and people," explains Côté. Lau compares his work to a symphony: a stormy Allegro leads to an interlude and then a finale "steeped in ritualistic gestures and propelled by a battery of explosive percussion."

ENCOUNT3RS will be released on Sept. 29. Pre-order it here.

More to explore:

10 pieces by living Canadian composers that you will love

10 totally wacko classical works you didn't know existed

The showcase for Canada's contemporary composers. Incredible works ranging from romantic to modern; adventurous to minimalist. Hear: Marjan Mozetich, Alexina Louie, Ann Southam, Jean Coulthard, R. Murray Schafer, Colin McPhee and more!