Montreal Symphony’s Northern Exposure

The world-renowned Orchestre symphonique de Montreal opens its Canada-wide tour at a Yellowknife high school

IF YOU IGNORED THE BASKETBALL NETS folded into the rafters and the championship flags peeking out from the velvet drapes, a Yellowknife gymnasium effectively became a concert hall Monday night. The world-renowned Orchestre symphonique de Montreal opened its Canada-wide tour at St. Patrick High School to a crowd of 850 symphony-starved locals. Yellowknife, population about 19,000, had never hosted musicians so prestigious, and the orchestra had never travelled so far north in its own country.

The one-night-only concert took more than a year to co-ordinate, months to schedule and three long days to set up. “My job was to make it look like we weren’t in a gym in Yellowknife,” said Scott Baier of Red Lightning Productions, hired to coordinate the logistical puzzle of crafting a concert hall north of 60.

Just about everything had to be trucked to Yellowknife on two 16-metre-long trailers: reams of custom-made black drapes from Calgary; metres of red carpet fresh from the Junos in Saskatoon; stage chairs from Montreal; and lighting and trusses from Edmonton, Yellowknife’s closest city roughly 1,500 kilometres due south.

The trucks made it across the soggy Mackenzie River ice-road mere hours before it closed for the season and weeks before the ferry could get in the water.

Along with volunteer local arts patrons, the school’s soccer team showed up to unload crates, while the technically inclined students got to skip class and help with drape hanging and stage set-up. “It was a true community effort,” said Ben Nind, artistic director of the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, Yellowknife’s only performing arts theatre whose stage is big enough to hold barely half the 100-plus Montreal musicians.

Last year, when Nind heard news of the symphony’s coast-to-coast tour plans, he seized the opportunity to issue a bold invitation. “They said we couldn’t afford them,” he said. “But, they also said they could make it work.”

Taking only a $10,000 performance fee – a fraction of the usual $150,000 – and fronting much of its own travel costs, the Montreal orchestra seemed determined to come north.

“If we are a Canadian orchestra, we should play for all of Canada, belong to Canada,” said the ensemble’s new conductor and world-revered music director Kent Nagano. “Small towns need the stimulation and cultural inspiration too.”

Nagano is a tiny bird of a man with a cool, breezy manner and shoulder-length, grey-touched hair that flits and flies while he conducts. The 55-year-old Californian has led the Berkeley and Berlin orchestras, won Grammys and is one of the world’s most sought-after maestros.

Wearing his signature tailcoat and exuding star-quality magnetism, Nagano led the orchestra through a range of pieces, classic and contemporary, exploring the changing world, technology, social upheaval and disillusionment. Along with operatic classics of Gioachino Rossini (including the classic William Tell overture of Lone Ranger fame) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the orchestra debuted a commissioned piece by Belgrade-born composer Ana Sokolovic that had the audience enraptured.

After a stunning first number, the maestro grabbed a mike and chatted up the crowd with light banter, a European history lesson and a philosophical message about the symphonic experience. “It’s a difficult world, and in times like these, we turn to the masterpieces as a period of perspective and solemnity,” he said, referring to Virginia Tech shootings that happened the same day.

Growing up on an artichoke farm in Morro Bay, a small seaside fishing town in southern California with a population of 10,000 that “makes Yellowknife look like a metropolis,” Nagano attended his own gymnasium concert. When he was eight years old, the San Francisco Symphony performed at his elementary school, an experience that inspired him to aim for a music career. “After that, I knew I wanted to be a musician,” he said.

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail.