How do you create a symphony about Canada that reflects its history, the diversity of the people who call it home, and a vast territory that includes lush coastal regions, flat prairies, towering mountains, and landscapes of ice and snow? That was the question the Calgary Philharmonic was exploring when it embarked on an ambitious journey to commission a large-scale new work to premiere in 2017.
“It started with a conversation with Paul Dornian [President and CEO],” says Vincent Ho, an award-winning composer and the Orchestra’s New Music Advisor. “We had the idea of bringing together five composers from across Canada — from different cultural backgrounds and different regions — to write a movement about what Canada means to them.”
As far as Ho was aware, nothing like it had ever been attempted before. His goal was to create what he describes as a “symphonic mosaic” that would paint a portrait of Canada. “I needed to find composers who had unique individual voices that would complement one another, and would be able to work together for a year,” he says. “That was a challenge.”
Ultimately, Ho invited composers Dinuk Wijeratne, Maxime McKinley, Derek Charke, and Dorothy Chang to join him on the project. The year-long process was guided by choreographer Yukichi Hattori, who developed the narrative expressed through the music and dance. He created five scenes — Winter Forest, Organic Harmony, The Industrial Symphony, Northern Star, True North — and the composers had a meeting to choose the scene for their movement. Along the way, Ho brought in Hal Eagletail of the Northern Dene Tsuu T’ina Nation, who added a prelude and postlude for the symphony and provides the vocals. “Each artist carves out their own voice,” Ho says.
After months of hard work and preparation, True North: Symphonic Ballet premiered to a full house in the Jack Singer Concert Hall as part of the True North Festival in 2017. The Orchestra was conducted by Gary Kulesha, an established Canadian composer who had been integral to putting it all together during two workshops and then for the actual performance.
“The night of the premiere was an enthralling experience,” says Ho. “It represented the culmination of an incredible year-long journey that we — the creators — all shared. It was a tremendous honour to collaborate with them and offer our own symphonic portraits of Canada with the rest of the world. The Calgary Phil musicians and dancers of the H/W School of Ballet delivered an exhilarating performance that truly captured our artistic vision.”
Every artist involved in creating the choreographed symphony has their own story to tell — from the personal experiences that influenced their work, to the inspiration they find in their natural surroundings, to the way they turn their ideas into a line of music. In the award-winning documentary The True North Project, filmmaker Emil Agopian travels across the country get an insider’s view of the creation process behind this unique Canadian composition. Following its debut at the True North Festival in 2017, the documentary was selected for several international film festivals, winning Best Documentary and Best Soundtrack at the Monaco International Film Festival.
Now audiences have a rare chance to experience the story and the symphony in a special online presentation on Saturday 6 March at 7:30PM, beginning with a screening of the documentary that includes new footage and material, and immediately followed by a recording of the True North: Symphonic Ballet premiere from 2017.
When challenged with how to create a symphony about Canada, Ho found the answer in a collaboration involving different voices from across the country. He says learning how this celebration of cultural diversity came together will enhance the audience’s experience. “Hopefully the film offers an even deeper understanding of what the symphony’s all about.”
You can register for True North: Story + Symphony here. The event will go live on Saturday 6 March 2021 at 7:30PM MT and will remain available for viewing until Monday 5 April 2021.
True North: Symphonic Ballet was commissioned by the Calgary Philharmonic with support from the DeBoni New Works Program.
By Maureen McNamee