Hard to hear: Canadian composers are scarce at the NACO

Arts Beat by Andi Argast

Canadians seem to have a really pessimistic attitude towards their own art and culture. This stems from the fact that as a people, Canadians tend to define themselves by what they are not; generally, this means Americans.

While it is true that we do not have the vast philanthropic organizations that support museums like the Guggenheim, or opera houses like the Metropolitan, Canadians are nonetheless extremely talented. There is simply less opportunity for work in the creative arts.

This is why Pinchas Zuckerman’s blatant exclusion of Canadian music from the National Arts Center’s Orchestra (NACO) 2001-2002 program is like lemon juice on a paper cut. What chance do Canadian composers have if even the few institutions available to foster art shun Canadian music? By definition, the National Arts Centre should be a venerable wellspring of Canadiana. This should be a Canadian composer’s time and place to shine, regardless of how well known they are internationally.

Out of the 57 pieces being performed during the 10 months of the NACO’s 2001-2002 season, only two are Canadian, and neither is being conducted by Zuckerman. I think it is time we demand some answers for snubbing Canadian composers.

Zuckerman’s lack of interest in Canadian music is made all the more pronounced when one looks at the sorry state of Canadian orchestras in general.

From Vancouver to St. John, the federal government is bailing out failing orchestras that cannot keep out of the red. Not so with the NACO. Here in Ottawa, attendance has increased from previous years, and the orchestra is alive and flourishing.

The secret of the NACO’s success is apparently Pinchas Zuckerman, the Canadian- music-hating composer himself.When seen in this light, it makes sense that the NAC hasn’t challenged Zuckerman on his exclusion of Canadian music. Zuckerman is the star, and what stars want, they usually get. Too bad it often comes at a cost— in this case, at the expense of our nation’s composers. Zuckerman has decided to not have a composer in residence, as is common in many of our nation’s orchestras. Even Zuckerman’s predecessor had a composer in residence. But why would he, since he doesn’t like Canadian music?

However, all is not lost for those creative souls pouring their hearts into notes and scores. Other music societies are filling the gap left by the NACO.

The Espace Musique Concert Society in Ottawa is hosting a nationwide composing competition for new works for Brass Quintet. There are two age categories, one for 20-32, and the other for under 20. The prizes for the contest are quite lucrative; not only will the winning piece be performed as part of Esapce Musique’s 23rd Concert Season, but it will also be awarded $2,500 for the first age category, and $1,000 for the second.

It is shameful that composers must rely on private organizations to step in where government-funded institutions have failed.

Here in the nation’s capital, the NAC should be wholeheartedly encouraging new compositions. Instead, there seems to be total indifference to Canadian music.

So should composers just pack it in and move to the U.S? I bet they would have a better chance of being performed at the NAC if they did.