Most orchestras are downsizing in times like these, but the National Arts Centre Orchestra is upsizing. The Ottawa orchestra is sometimes classified as a chamber group, and specializes in smaller-scale pieces like the works of Mozart. But now the NACO is programming a lot of music that will require it to pay a bunch of extra musicians. To celebrate the NACO’s 40th anniversary, music director Pinchas Zukerman will lead Gustav Mahler’s first symphony (Titan), a piece the orchestra has never performed before—most likely because it’s usually done with 100 musicians, and the NACO has about 50. Another concert will feature the equally big Don Juan by Mahler’s contemporary Richard Strauss. Most ambitiously, the NACO has scheduled Mahler’s eighth symphony, called Symphony of a Thousand because it needs a huge orchestra and three choruses; it will literally require a second orchestra (Quebec’s Orchestre Métropolitain). Unlike most of his predecessors, Zukerman has been trying to move the orchestra’s repertoire into grandiose 19th-century music. Daphne Burt, manager of artistic planning for the orchestra, says that its future “is linked to careful and systematic programming of larger works.” It’s an interesting strategy for a small-scale era: think big.
Burt says that each piece will require a different number of extra musicians, depending on the music and what the conductors want. For the early Mahler symphony, Zukerman will beef up the string section with 10 new string players, selecting them from a pool of musicians they use “for replacing anyone who is ill, injured, or on family leave.” But they’ll still have a smaller orchestra than these pieces demand, and not all observers feel that such music is right for the orchestra or its conductors. Critic Vivek H. Dehejia wrote an article for the NAC website in which he was positive about some of the NACO’s past attempts at Mahler, but told Maclean’s that when Zukerman led a big-orchestra symphony by Anton Bruckner a couple of seasons ago, it was “an unmitigated disaster.”
Why would an orchestra go outside its comfort zone? Obviously, there’s the publicity factor: when a group plays its usual stuff, that’s not news. And the big Romantic works are popular with concertgoers; by offering them, the NACO can attract people who are bored with Mozart. “Audiences and the orchestra get tired of only 18th- and some 20th-century repertoire,” Dehejia says, and Burt agrees that an orchestra can’t “offer a rich and broad musical experience for our audiences” without “repertoire from the turn of the 19th century/early 20th century.”
Besides, in an era when fewer cities can pay to create a full-size symphony orchestra, it may make musical and economic sense to add people to a smaller-sized group when needed. In a video interview, Zuckerman explained that by increasing or decreasing the size of the orchestra as a piece requires, he hopes to demonstrate that “an orchestra does not necessarily need 100 people on full employment all the time.” Burt adds that Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will conduct the performances of Mahler’s eighth, couldn’t do it with his own Orchestre Métropolitain “due to budget constraints.” By pooling the resources of two bands, they can afford it.
But can these pieces actually work with a too-small group of musicians? Dehejia says they can, if the conductor is able to make the string section sound bigger, creating that illusion “by drawing more intense playing without making it too loud or coarse.” And sometimes, the small forces can find new dimensions in a piece. Burt says conductor Alexander Shelley, who will lead Don Juan, picked it because he’d found it sounded better “with smallish string forces.” With Titan, Burt says Zukerman feels “there is much that lends itself to great soloistic playing,” and he can try to emphasize the parts that often get drowned out by the strings.
That might be another reason why conductors want to do this kind of music with smaller orchestras: it’s a showcase for a conductor’s skill. When Mahler or Strauss are performed with a 120-piece orchestra, that’s not unusual. But when Zukerman takes on an augmented version of the NACO in Mahler, or Nézet-Séguin has to get two orchestras to blend together, it’s an irresistible challenge. Dehejia says that the success of these performances will depend on the musical director: “Can he persuade an orchestra of 50 or 60 to play like they are 100?” Conductors like to think the answer is yes.