National Arts Centre – Canada is our stage

by Peggy Geddes

The orchestra of The National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa, Canada is conducted by Pinchas Zukerman, considered one of the finest violinists in the world.


Conductor Pinchas Zukerman is one of the finest violinists in the world, photo Kenn Taylor

“The orchestra is very active heading their concert series and performing whenever the NAC hosts Broadway musicals or visiting dance companies,” said Rosemary Thompson, of NAC Public Affairs. “The music department also operates an elite education academy open each summer to 100 selected young musicians from around the world and mentored by the NAC musicians. We spot great talent and invite them to the summer boot camp. We’ve become a hub for young musicians.”


Summer Music Institute participants in performance

More recently the NAC has sent its orchestra abroad to China and next year it will go to the United Kingdom. Thompson said, “When we go we don’t just play Beethoven. We play John Estacio, Malcolm Forsyth, Alexina Louieall Canadian so International audiences are hearing really great Canadian music. When we go we don’t just perform – we teach – all through the music schools and conservatories and universities.”


Pinchas Zukerman conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra, photo  Dwayne Brown

Every year The National Arts Centre hosts 1,200 shows with 60 musicians and a budget of $70 million. It is the largest Performing Arts Centre and Education Institute in Canada. zeebigbang  interviewed Thompson, to learn more about this vibrant Canadian treasure.

The NAC has dedicated funds to invest in artistic creation across Canada and is open to partner with artists. Here’s how it works according to Thompson. “For instance a small theatre company may have an idea for a new play or even a play that has started that has had some success. NAC might invest in that play so that it has a longer life. Using another example she explained, “If you are a composer you might be selected as one of the NAC commissioned composers. Right now we have three of them. They are writing music not just for our orchestra but what gets written gets shared with everybody [orchestra]. We do the same thing in theatre – both English and French theatre – and the same thing in dance for say a choreographer to set up on tour at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre, or Montreal or whatever you are working on. We are seen as kind of a catalyst to help propel Canadian artists. “


Scene from “Les Justes,” presented by NAC French Theatre, photo by Brigitte Enguérand

Every two years NAC shines a spotlight on artists across the country through Scene Festivals. A different region is selected each time. “The last one was the North and we had in excess of 300 artists that came from the three territories.” Thompson explains that the festivals embrace all art forms and emerging and established artists.


Aboriginal singer-songwriter and Northern Scene performer Leela Gilday

“It is music, dance, theatre, food, fashion, film and more. It becomes this fabulous two-week festival where we bring in a lot of national media which helps propel their careers from a public standpoint because they get a lot of press coverage,” said Thompson. For artists this is also an opportunity attract the attention of talent agents, known as Presenters at the festival.   “We fund 50 Presenters from around the world and they go to the festival and they watch artists XY and Z and they may book them.”

Scene Festivals are a big success for NAC, the artists and the talent agents. The next one will be held in Ontario in 2015 with about 500 artists.


Northern Scene fashion show, April 2013, photo by Trevor Lush

Thompson said, “Artists need to know that we are here to support them. Our tagline is Canada is our stage – it is not just our stage but every stage in Canada. If we can help them succeed where they are, and have a capacity to share their work not only here but elsewhere, then we are succeeding. We are here to invest in their work and to support them and not just in the GTA and Montreal. We are very conscious that we have to support artists all over the country – so we do it. We view it as our responsibility to take a leadership role.”

The NAC has a resident English theatre that draws actors from across Canada to perform each season. There is also French theatre, dance, and variety stream that showcases comedy, broadway and classical music.  NAC Presents is a new program of contemporary Canadian music it has a broader appeal to a younger audience and is both artistically and commercially successful.


 Tartuffe the play starring the 2013-14 NAC English Theatre Ensemble and directed by NAC English Theatre Artistic Director Jillian Keiley (Credit: NAC)

NAC’s Dance Executive Producer Cathy Levy is renowned Internationally as one of the great dance producers. She is strong at developing talent such as Louise Lecavalier, one of the great contemporary artists in Canada. Explains Thompson, “It is the same model throughout the building. We try to support some of the great innovative artists of our time mostly Canadian but we do support some Internationally.”


Personae with longtime NAC Dance collaborator José Navas, photo by Valerie Simmons

For over 20 years NAC raise 1.2 million to host the annual Governor General Awards (GG) comprising seven awards for lifetime achievement in the arts the highest award you can win for the Performing Arts in Canada. The 2014 NAC award was given to Albert Schultz, actor, director and artistic director of the acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre.


Albert Schultz at the 10th Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards gala, 2013 at the NAC.

Government subsidy is half of the NAC’s funding base. The other half is earned revenue through ticket sales and activities around the events and productions. “We are very much an entrepreneurial organization. We raise $8 million a year from private sector and philanthropists and we invest that money in NAC,” explained Thompson.

The next five years will see NAC focus more on creation. “Creation being that play, that script, a piece of music or choreography that is brand new. We need to spend more attention on the beginning. So for those who are creators out there keep watching; we going to support the people who are writing music and scripts all that good stuff,” said Thompson.

For more information check out the National Art Centre website. 

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