Transcript 02 - The Eighties: Mannino and Chmura

From the Podcasts: Eric Friesen Presents the NAC Orchestra

Eric Friesen: Hi, I'm Eric Friesen. Welcome to chapter 2, Eric Friesen presents the National Arts Center Orchestra. This is the Eighties: Mannino and Chmura.

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Eric Friesen: You're listening to Mario Bernardi conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra, music of Handel, from one of the orchestra's celebrated baroque series. From the founding year 1969, and for 13 seasons, Mario gave everything he had to create this classical size orchestra and to make it one of the best of its kind in the world. It was an orchestra that despite difficult times ahead, never lost its discipline, its precision, its clarity, even when less gifted guest conductors came along. It was just a monumental achievement, and recognized as such in many ways, including Mario's appointment as Conductor Laureate of the orchestra in 1997.

But in the early 1980's Mario Bernardi decided the time had come to move on. 13 years is a long time in a relationship between a Music Director and his players and the audience, and Mario knew it was time to leave while his reputation was still at its height.

For his successor, the NAC chose another Italian, Franco Mannino. Mannino wasn't only a conductor, he was a pianist and a composer, and most famously a composer for the movies. Mannino was the brother-in-law of the Italian film director, Lucio Visconti, and he had created scores for a number of Visconti movies including Death-in-Venice.

But while Bernardi & Mannino were both Italian, they couldn't have been more different. The Director-General of the NAC at the time, Donald McSween, described the difference between the two men in this way: “Bernardi - northern Italy - cold blue light. Mannino - southern Italy - red hot light.”

The noted Ottawa music critic and Carleton University Professor, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer, describes the orchestra's new leader... listen to the growl of delight come into Jean-Jacques' voice as he remembers Mannino.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Totally different personality. When Mannino took over I wrote an article on northern and southern Italy, and it's the difference between Milan and Naples (laughs). He came from southern Italy, he was gregarious, well… an easy going fellow. Very musical, very musical. Natural gifts. Not that precise in his conducting, but then some of the great German conductors of the 1940s were not very precise in their conducting either. He knew what he wanted in music and there was a kind of enthusiasm that he had that made the first difference. And I'm saying the first difference.

Eric Friesen: Sarah Jennings, author of “Art and Politics: the history of the NAC” talks about how ready the orchestra was for this difference between Bernardi and Mannino.

Sarah Jennings: The orchestra was sort of chomping at the bit, they were a well honed instrument now, they they played very well, they wanted to go far, and I've likened it in my book to sort of a beautiful aircraft that's been designed, built, and it's on the runway and the propellers are going, and they're ready to fly. Mannino's arrival took them flying, basically. They soared with him. He was a very romantic, broad character, very Italian in his style. Very forgiving. Whereas Bernardi was strict. If you made a mistake while you were playing, you knew about it. Mannino made many mistakes. He was a composer in origin, and while he could write music he often couldn't remember it. So he'd be, as it's been described to me, there would be plenty of train wrecks during his concerts. But the orchestra never knew where they were going to go next with him, so it was very exciting. He took them to the peaks, and sometimes they'd have crash landings, and of course the audience was very engaged in this too because they didn't know what was going to happen next either.

Eric Friesen: Give me a picture of him onstage.

Sarah Jennings: He was a very attractive man, but a very flamboyant sort of conductor. If you were the first trumpet and you'd done well, he'd blow you a kiss. You know Mannino was very engaged in the whole thing. From this rather disciplined cold-blue approach, this was now a much more Italianate, what can I say, quality.

Eric Friesen: Sarah Jennings. The orchestra's longtime concertmaster, Walter Prystawski, agrees. And like everyone I talked to about Mannino, the moment you mention his name, my guests' eyes light up. Walter Prystawski, as you'll hear, almost giggles in delight at the memory of Mannino.

Walter Prystawski: Franco was (laughs) he was marvelous. I loved him. I didn't always see eye to eye with him, but I mean there was never anybody in the world I think that he always saw eye to eye with. We had, at least for part of his time here, we had a really wonderful relationship. With Bernardi, the orchestra was a highly disciplined organization. And there can be pros and cons to that. You can have discipline of the Captain Queeg variety, or a discipline where everyone agrees on it. We had gotten to where it wasn't all that much fun anymore. It was a marvelous machine, you could tap the button and the music would roll out. You know, you could tape it the first time and forget about it. But Franco brought, well Italian Mediterranean warmth to everything. It was much less disciplined. But we had the discipline. We made up for that part of it. He brought sort of very open-hearted kind of musical perception.

Eric Friesen: Walter Prystawski.

Now violinist Karoly Sziladi is another National Arts Center Orchestra veteran - a violinist who joined them in the fall of 1969 and is still playing. This is how Karoly remembers Franco Mannino.

Karoly Sziladi: I find that when we played with Franco, it was excitement from note one to the very last note.

Eric Friesen: You're looking for an LP again?

Karoly Sziladi: Is that it? So there you are. You hear this on the CBC quite often.

Eric Friesen: Right, Italian opera overtures, Rossini, Wolf Ferrari, Bellini…

Karoly Sziladi: So there is a man that we did all of this stuff, and it was hair-raising for us. It was fast often, so we really had to be on top of our things ourselves, note wise and bowing wise every which way. But he had all the charm, the charisma; he carried the orchestra you know. He was dynamite when he got up. There was not a dull moment ever. When there was slow movement in anything in an overture. Of course, we used to, not really criticize him, but we made a little bit of fun of him when he's up there on stage, we're playing a few notes and a few lines, and he's looking on the left side at who the pretty one in the first box on the left or the right. Or he forgot his gold watch. So he pulls out his gold watch, which sounds like his time is up or something and we just started, you know (laughs). We were all just joking. You couldn't have anything but a smile on every orchestra member's face. We miss the man dearly.

Eric Friesen: Violinist Karoly Sziladi. And when he says “we miss the man dearly” it's not just that Mannino is no longer leading the National Arts Center Orchestra. Sadly he passed away just a few months after his 81st birthday, February 1st, 2005, in Rome. I never met Mannino myself. He's the only one of the music directors I haven't met. I was living in Minnesota during his time at the NAC, and after all I've heard about him from those who knew him, I really regret not having had the chance to talk to him for this project.

Now, Karoly Sziladi mentioned Mannino's fondness for looking at a beautiful woman in the audience while he was conducting. Well, let's ask one of those beautiful women who was right there through Mannino's tenure. Pianist and founder of the National Arts Center Orchestra Association, Evelyn Greenberg. What was it like from the audience's point of view?

Evelyn Greenberg: Oh my goodness, it was like a hurricane blowing in. He was very outgoing, it was almost like Vittorio De Sica or Frederico Fellini having a movie done right in front of us. He was just great. He held nothing back. Certainly for the Italian repertoire, it was fabulous.

Eric Friesen: Do you remember any specific concerts, performances?

Evelyn Greenberg: I remember the first one that he gave here. There was an Italian overture, I wish I could recall exactly what it was.

Eric Friesen: It may have been Rossini. His Rossini was very good.

Evelyn Greenberg: Of course. I think I turned to Chris Deacon right afterwards and I just said “I'm speechless!” And I'm usually not speechless. I said “wow!” It was, you know, having tones of whipped cream, whipped cream, whipped cream all the time.

Eric Friesen: Evelyn Greenberg. What a lovely way she has with a vivid image doesn't she?

Well another of the orchestra's originals - violinist Elaine Klimasko - was in her early 30's when Mannino came to lead the orchestra. I asked her to paint a picture of Mannino on the podium.

Elaine Klimasko: Very good looking, very good looking. Just beautiful skin, million dollar smile that just made everyone take a second look. He conducted with no stick, he just used his hands.

Eric Friesen: Were they beautiful hands?

Elaine Klimasko: They were beautiful hands. They weren't graceful hands, I mean they didn't look like the hands of a bricklayer, I don't mean that. It's just that there was so much rhythm in those hands. There was so much energy in those hands.

Eric Friesen: Principal trumpeter Pace Sturdevant was another National Arts Center Orchestra player of the time - he also remembers Franco. Pace, if you know him you know that he is a very thoughtful, precise talker, but with Pace also, there's a change in tone when I mention Franco Mannino.

Pace Sturdevant: Oh Franco… a composer, a conductor, a performer. It's interesting I always felt his approach to music was sort of a composite. I remember Schubert 9, first time we did that, the Scherzo trio, he stretched the tempo incredibly. I think it was Eric MacLaine in the Gazette who said, I don't think that's how Schubert is supposed to go, but by god, it was wonderful! Or something like that. He looked at music a little bit differently than most conductors. Certainly we learned an awful lot from him. I know I did personally about music.

Eric Friesen: How was he different from Mario?

Pace Sterdevant: The press categorized both of them as two opposites. That Mario brought precision and that very clean sound to the orchestra. Franco added Technicolor. That's probably a gross exaggeration but maybe not so far from the truth. Franco was surprising. It was a journey quite often. What I used to describe it is we would train, train, train, train, and then we would go to the competition. You didn't know that you could jump 7 foot and 8 inches but you would try, and you were prepared. And sometimes in the concerts we would jump 7 feet, 10 inches. We were so well prepared that the concert was a chance to break the bonds and find things that we couldn't do. Certainly he had a reputation for conducting fast tempos, but that wasn't always the case. I remember a conducting class that he did, and the Rossini overture was in the class, and for him, Rossini was very elastic. We never ever kept the same tempo. Each little section had a different tempo and it was quite exciting. It kept Rossini really interesting for us to play. So the conductors were up, trying to lead the orchestra, and at the end of the session Franco got up and he said: “I want to show you possibilities”. He got on the podium and we did our thing, we knew he was going to do it. We took the music upside down, we did loop de loops everywhere, forward, backwards. It was a virtuoso performance. With the last note he gave the cutoff and the momentum carried him off the podium and he walked out of the room.

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Eric Friesen: The audience in Ottawa going wild for Franco Mannino's Rossini. Such playfullness, such delight, fun, and drama in that performance. Mannino leading the National Arts Center Orchestra as a guest conductor back in February 1976. Rossini's overture, “La Cenerentola”.

Now many who attended the National Arts Center Orchestra during the Mannino years also remember his Beethoven. Fast tempos, and high drama. Pace Sturdevant has this memory of rehearsing Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

Pace Sturdevant: He got up on the podium and looked at us angry. He slapped his thighs and we were off. The excitement! We got to the concert and we were exhausted, but it was like that the intensity.

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Eric Friesen: Franco Mannino leading National Arts Center Orchestra in Beethoven's 5th Symphony during the 1983 Festival Ottawa.

One more perspective of Franco Mannino, this time from the guest artist point of view. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been a frequent guest of this orchestra over its history, and when I mentioned the name “Franco Mannino” - I could hear the smile come into Yo-Yo's voice over the phone.

Yo-Yo Ma: Franco is the wild man. Really quite an amazing… I mean I don't know if he ever slept, but each time I saw him he had just written several more great symphonies. What an amazing musical force he was. I think he had a great imagination. He had that glint in his eye that was always potent, something was afoot. I just had a wonderful time with him, both playing as well as talking with him. He was so full of ideas, stories, and I thought that that was a great and fun era.

Eric Friesen: Franco the wild man - remembered by Yo-Yo Ma. Pianist Anton Kuerti also played with Franco Mannino conducting and he has an interesting perspective on a conductor like Mannino.

Anton Kuerti: I remember Mannino very well and I remember we did a little tour out in western Canada. I did Beethoven's 4th concerto, and so I was summoned to Ottawa to rehearse. And we played straight through the concerto including… I almost never played cadenza (22:20) at the rehearsal but he said “No, no, play, play play!” He didn't say one thing, and that was the rehearsal. He was an interesting musician. He had a lot of flair, of spirit, and somehow he had a magical way of communicating with him. I remember the overture from the program, and here he'd make these sort of free motions to get it started. Somehow the orchestra figured out which one it was that they should really react to and they were perfectly together. You know sometimes it may actually be that a conductor with a less clear technique can get the orchestra to play together better because they have to concentrate harder. They have to second guess him and really be at the end of their chairs, and react in a millisecond. They played very well under him although he – cause orchestras love it when conductors don't talk. Orchestras hate talking conductors (laughs).

Eric Friesen: At rehearsal you mean?

Anton Kuerti: Yeah. He didn't say much and his indications were not easy to follow but somehow he still got very good results. Maybe the conductor doesn't matter so much (laughs).

Eric Friesen: Well I've interviewed a number of them, and they loved him. There was something about his personality, his musicality, they loved him.

Anton Kuerti: Yeah there was an honesty, a decency…

Eric Friesen: And fire too.

Anton Kuerti: Yes. And he was a composer, so he did know the music, he knew the scores, and the communication somehow worked.

Eric Friesen: Anton Kuerti. Yes, Mannino was also a composer. I mentioned that he was the brother-in-law of Lucio Visconti and had written the music for a number of his movies, including Death in Venice. Mannino also wrote a lot of concert music, and to my ears, it reflects both his Italian modernist language, and his interest in film music. I'm going to play part of the second movement of his Symphony No. 5, Rideau Lake. It's a lyrical atmospheric symphony, obviously inspired by Mannino's time in Ottawa, maybe visiting Big Rideau Lake on the Rideau Canal system south-west of Ottawa. The music is contemporary, sophisticated Italian composer meets the beautiful cottage country of eastern Ontario. Imagine Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren trysting in Ontario cottage country.

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Eric Friesen: Some beautiful atmospheric music from Franco Mannino's Symphony No. 5, Rideau Lake. That was the opening of the 2nd movement, “The Trees of Rideau Lake” - music for trumpet, horn and orchestra - from the world premiere performance February, 1986, played by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, conducted by the composer.

One more Mannino story, and this involves pianist Jon Kimura Parker, who always seems to have an eventful experience onstage and off. Jackie had just finished a lengthy cross-Canada tour with NACO, a story I will tell in program 5 of this series. But then suddenly he had the possibility of a re-engagement with the orchestra in Ottawa. Jackie picks up the story, and it's quite a story.

Jon Kimura Parker: I got a phone call shortly after that tour from a very close friend of mine and a dear colleague, the pianist, and now conductor Jeffery Kahane. Jeff called and said, “Do you play the Beethoven Triple Concerto?” You know that is a quirky work, being a concerto for piano, violin, and cello. And I said no, actually I don't. He said well it doesn't really matter, he said look it's not a difficult work and you would learn it quickly. Traditionally it's performed with the music, so there wouldn't be any issue of having to memorize it. And I said, Jeff why are you asking me this? Jeff was scheduled to perform that work with Joseph Swenson on violin and Antonio Meneses on cello and Franco Mannino who was returning as a guest conductor Emeritus with NACO in March of 1988. I said terrific, and he said “but my wife and I are expecting our second child that week”. So he felt that there was a pretty good chance that he would cancel and he really wanted to cover himself and make sure that somebody was available. And of course NACO said well we've just done a big tour with Jackie so that would be fine. So I was officially put on standby. I unofficially forgot all about it. I got a phone call one day from my manager who said the National Arts Center just called and said you should go to the airport and fly to Ottawa (laughs). And I said, “Oh really? What was it again?” And they said it was the Beethoven Triple you agreed to be on standby for. So I stopped at the Pedelson's Music store in New York on the way to the airport and bought the score.

Eric Friesen: You hadn't looked at it at this point?

Jon Kimura Parker: No, I didn't own it. I just, I hadn't thought about it. I was reading it on the plane and I got to Ottawa, and the first thing that happened was I was immediately sort of whooshed into a rehearsal without the orchestra, where the three soloists and maestro Mannino would sit down and go through the piece. I was kind of expected to fill in the orchestra parts as we were going. I was completely sight reading and so I felt very awkward. I spent that night learning the part and I also went to the photocopy machine at the Arts Center and created my own special score. And my special scores are accordion folded, and I can put four pages in front of me at a time. And any time I have a break and the orchestras playing tutti, I can sort of rearrange the pages so that I always have four pages in front of me. It works beautifully, it's a great system. And when they said, do you need a page turner? I said no thank you I have it all sorted out. A triple concerto is logistically complicated on stage with all the players, so I said, really I think it would be better to not try and fit a page turner on stage. So that was that. Everything went just fine in the dress rehearsal; I pretty much had the piece together, and we got to the concert and we walked out and I put my music up there and we started playing the first movement. A couple of minutes into the first movement I noticed something I hadn't noticed before, which was that the music on my music rack was starting to sort of flutter. It was fluttering because when you fill the National Arts Center with people, you turn up the air. So I had now a dangerous arrangement of sheet music up on the piano. You know, I would every once in awhile have to push it back with my hand, and you know how awkward that is for the audience when you see that a performer's having an issue with their sheet music (laughs). So I'm pushing it back and trying to keep it in place, and we get near the end of the first movement, at which point all of my pages are bunched up on one side and they're kind of a little bit… it's thinned out on the right side and it's all connected in this accordion fold. I got to a passage and I was playing with both hands and I really couldn't use either hand to do anything with the music, and a huge air conditioning gust of some kind came through the stage and literally swept the music up from the piano.

Eric Friesen: You're kidding!

Jon Kimura Parker: No, it was incredible. In fact, I heard later that the CBC recording crew, who were way up in the back balcony sitting on chairs where they have windows but they have to kind of stand up to see what's happening, they heard all this commotion, and apparently, you know there were two of them sitting there, and they both stood up to look down to see what was happening and they were looking at each other like, oh, what's going to happen with this broadcast. The music sheets ended up tumbling over the first violin section; it was like throwing a roll of toilet paper in the air (laughs). It landed on Walter Prystawski and all of his colleagues in the first violin section and just made an absolute mess. What I remember so clearly is Franco Mannino turning his head around, you know sort of twisting his head around to the left from the podium to try and see what the commotion was. He got an expression on his face that… it was right out of a silent movie or something. He just looked like it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen. He was so thrilled that it had happened because it almost suited the piece which has a slightly comical aspect to it – it's a bit overly pompous in some places. So here we are trying to finish the first movement of Beethoven Triple Concerto and Walter has already put his violin down and is trying to reassemble the music. Franco has this kind of grin on his face. Joseph Swensen and Antonio Meneses are kind of gamely carrying on with the parts, and I'm trying to remember how to finish the first movement from memory, which I only learned the night before. Franco turns to me and starts giving me these very pompous cues to remind me how to finish the movement. We finished the movement, I turned to the audience and I said, “You know there are always unanticipated moments in concerts and this has to be one of the highlights”, I mean they really couldn't take it anymore. They were just laughing, I mean it was so funny. And poor Walter was still on the floor, I mean he was trying to get my music put together, and… everything at that point I thought was over. You know, I pulled the music rack out of the piano I laid it down on the stage, and I put the music flat on the metal inside the piano so it would be impervious to air current, which is what I do now ever since I played this piece. And Franco started the second movement, and the second movement starts with the most beautiful cello solo, and it was really gorgeous. And I was sitting there, reflecting on what had happened. And I got the giggles. I have never on my stage before, or since had the giggles but I could not stop laughing. My cheeks were raw for weeks afterwards from biting them to stop myself from actually laughing out loud. And there was this heavenly cello music happening, you know behind me where I couldn't actually see Antonio playing. Then I had an accompaniment entry which was the shakiest thing you've ever heard because my hands were shaking. The rest of the performance was a complete disaster for me, but it was the most memorable concert I've ever given. To this day, when I go and perform with the National Arts Center Orchestra and I pull out one of my concerto scores for rehearsal, and they're all accordion folded it's how I always do my music, you know any old timer in the orchestra starts groaning. “Oh, Parker's back! Oh, there's one of those scores”. It was an accidental legend.

Eric Friesen: A pianist and a great storyteller, Jon Kimura Parker. There would be just 4 of those exciting, unpredictable Mannino years with the NAC. As marquee as Mannino was, he was also expensive, and the NAC was entering a period of forced austerity that just couldn't afford the glitter of a Mannino. 1986/87 would be his last season. But he would come back occasionally to guest conduct, and so let's remember him musically with one more highlight of him on the podium. This is from April, 1989. Veteran NAC music lovers and members of the orchestra have long told me of this, they all remember a famous concert version of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This was certainly one of Mannino's greatest moments here in Ottawa leading the National Arts Center Orchestra. He also had a magnificent cast, including soprano Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San and tenor Richard Margison as Pinkerton.

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Eric Friesen: The finale of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Franco Mannino back to guest conduct the National Arts Center Orchestra. You heard Leona Mitchell as Cio-Cio San, and Richard Margison as Pinkerton.

So we come to the late 80's and the beginning of what would be a short stay in Ottawa for the Polish conductor Gabriel Chmura as Music Director. Chmura was born in Warsaw, but emigrated to Israel with his family in 1957. In 1971 he won the Herbert von Karajan competition in Berlin and began his conducting career. He was 41 when he became Music Director of the National Arts Center Orchestra, that was in the fall of 1987. I asked Sarah Jennings what the NAC was looking for in a successor to Mannino.

Sarah Jennings: Well first of all I think that, coming out of the Mannino period, things were flying high, wide, and handsome, but it was time for a little bit of stability and recurred discipline in the orchestra again. People were looking for was a well trained, European conductor. Gabriel Chmura was a polish born Israeli conductor but he'd had his formation and his solid training mainly in Germany. He was a winner of the Herbert Von Karajan competition in 1971 and so on, and so he had played here in Ottawa. There were other favorites for the job by the way, the post was offered to Eduardo Mata, the Mexican conductor, whose career was flourishing and going up at the time, and while he was agreeable to be principal conductor he didn't want all the extra duties of being a Music Director. So little by little, the spotlight came to Gabriel Chmura, partly because of his formation, and also because he was willing to come and live in the community. Bernardi had spent more than a dozen years living in the city, which was an enormous asset to the development of music and the orchestra, and the life of the orchestra, and its connection to the city. Mannino had always refused to live here, he flew in and he flew out. Gabrielle agreed that he would move his young family, his wife and family to Ottawa. That was considered an important facet quite apart from his musicality and his solid credentials as a well trained German-based conductor. He was seen as the right man at the right time. And I think that was the correct decision. He moved here and off they started again.

Eric Friesen: So that's why the NAC was interested in Chmura. Why was he interested in coming to Ottawa and conducting the National Arts Center Orchestra?

Chmura: The main thing was that I conducted this orchestra and I was very impressed. I thought that this was a first class orchestra. The idea of conducting a first class orchestra was very appealing to me.

Eric Friesen: When you say first class, can you say more. What was the quality of the orchestra, was it just the playing…?

Chmura: The quality of the orchestra was, like I think it was one of the best I ever conducted. I think really, in terms of quality, like really… I think about the English Chamber Orchestra or about what now we call the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, you know really a top quality orchestra. I thought also that I was not against going to North America because then I was not conducting very much.

Eric Friesen: So this was a chance to come to North America?

Chmura: This was also a chance, but first though it was the quality of the orchestra.

Eric Friesen: What were your goals in coming to the orchestra here? What did you want to do? Did you have changes in mind? Did you have a particular stamp that you wanted to put on the orchestra?

Chmura: When I came to this orchestra, actually as I told you I was very impressed by the quality, but it was not the kind of orchestra I was used to conducting. I was used to conducting bigger orchestras, but, you know, not the kind of pieces that the other orchestra was playing and was good in. And I thought of course, this is an orchestra, I cannot do Bruckner but it is not necessary to do Bruckner. We could do things which are written for this kind of orchestra. And I thought that maybe I can bring the orchestra something, we can both profit from our connections.

Eric Friesen: Gabriel Chmura, talking to me from his home in Brussels. So it seemed to be a win-win for both the NAC and for Chmura. Pace Sturdevant, principal trumpet of the time, remembers looking forward to Chmura's arrival and describes him as...

Pace Sturdevant: A wonderful musician. He had beautiful hands, in fact I remember that's what attracted us to him in the beginning, was how wonderful his hands were when he conducted.

Eric Friesen: Did the sound change at all during those years?

Pace Sterdevant: No, I don't think so. I don't think he tried to change the sound. It certainly wasn't here long enough to do that, and the sound had changed so much with Franco. There's a big change of personnel as well. Quite a few positions changed. So no, I don't think so. It was a difficult time but he certainly was very popular amongst the public. The audience liked him a lot. He moved here with his family.

Eric Friesen: Right, he was really invested.

Pace Sturdevant: Yeah, he was committed to being here.

Eric Friesen: Certainly Chmura conducted the repertoire for a classical size orchestra. He conducted lots of Haydn and Mozart. But he also brought some of his favorite Mahler into the orchestra's programs. This is from his first season, October 1987, Gabriel Chmura leading National Arts Center Orchestra in the Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler. Here's just a taste of the 1st movement.

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Eric Friesen: Just a lovely moment from the opening movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 4, with Gabriel Chmura conducting. Critic Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer talks about Chmura opening up the sound of the orchestra and achieving something significant in the process.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: Suddenly we have almost the sounds of a symphony orchestra. We got out of the classical orchestra which tried to get into the 19th century repertoire. But it was always a classical orchestra playing it, with some exceptions.

Eric Friesen: You could hear it?

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: You could hear it. With Chmura you could hear a symphony orchestra, or the birth of the symphony orchestra.

Eric Friesen: So Chmura answered the call, he moved to Ottawa, became a Canadian citizen, and seemed to be the right man for the job. Well, perhaps he would have been, in a better time. But these were not good times. The world and the economy was changing. That cultural growth spurt of the 1960's and early 70's had come to an end. The Canadian economy was under severe stress in the late 70's and early 80's. The orchestra was the only remaining resident company at the National Arts Center, and it was expensive. NAC management was asked to do the same with less money all the time. Also, the whole idea of funding large central institutions in Canada, cultural or otherwise, was coming under attack, in favor of more support to the regions of Canada, and more support to all forms of culture, popular as well as high culture. It was a tough time to be running a Federally supported high arts centre in the nation's capital, however good it was.

The orchestra members felt themselves in danger of being diminished as the international-class band that they were. There was talk of privatizing the orchestra or the whole National Arts Center. There was some suggestion for maybe conservatory students, who would be cheaper than some of the existing players. All of that came to a head on October 4th, 1989 - the orchestra went on strike for two painful months. The musicians always felt they were fighting for the integrity of what had been created - not about their personal salaries. They'll all say to a person that that was what they were fighting for and that that was a very dark time in the life of the NAC. And it was for them, and for the audience, for everyone. It was into this atmosphere that Gabriel Chmura took the job as Music Director. I asked him if he had any idea of what he was getting into?

Chmura: I absolutely did not.

Eric Friesen: It was a surprise?

Chmura: (laughs) Look you know what, if I might have known I might have taken this orchestra as a Music Director, but I would never have moved from Europe. I would come and do my job and go back.

Eric Friesen: Yeah, you came here with your family didn't you?

Chmura: I came here to stay. To stay not forever, but to stay let's say six or seven years. I would never commit myself if I had known about all the politics.

Eric Friesen: Gabriel Chmura would stay only three years as Music Director. His contract was not renewed. It would have been difficult for any Music Director to succeed in that dark and divisive time. Chmura found himself caught in the crossfire between an orchestra fighting for its life and an NAC management trying to salvage the Centre's future. Ultimately, the players with their unified stand saved the orchestra as we know it, but Chmura would not be around to benefit.

There is one remarkable story from the day that strike started, October 4, 1989. It was to have been the opening of the season. Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer wasn't there but he knows the story.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer: By the way, the day before the orchestra went on strike, they went to play concerts outside the National Arts Center. He did a rehearsal of that concert before they walked out of a Beethoven symphony, and musicians have told me they've never heard a Beethoven symphony like that. It was remarkable the intensity of it.

Eric Friesen: Gabriel Chmura remembers that incredible informal performance too.

Chmura: And this morning we knew that the rehearsal had no sense because we are not going to open the season. Therefore, just the people who were there, what to do, go home? They asked me if I could conduct the Beethoven 7th Symphony. We just played it for our own pleasure but maybe this was the best performance I ever conducted in my life (laughs).

Eric Friesen: The strike ended two months later and Chmura would finish the season, but it was his last. What is remarkable to me as I look back on that period, and listen to the music of the period, is that despite that prolonged period of darkness and desperation, the orchestra always played superbly. If you only went to the concerts and never read the newspapers or talked to the musicians, you wouldn't have known anything about the high drama that was going on behind the scenes, because the orchestra was still the great orchestra on stage. That's the real legacy of this time, how professional musicians rose above it all, to make music, and to make great music.

You're listening to Gabriel Chmura and the National Arts Center Orchestra play some magical Mendelssohn. This is the opening to his overture the Fair Melusina.

Music clip

Eric Friesen: And remember that the music you're listening to on these programs is available to listen to completely, all the works in their entirety, some 150 live recorded performances over the history of the National Arts Center's 40 years, and you can hear them by going to the artsalive.ca website. That's artsalilve.ca. That's where you'll find the music. Listen for it, artsalive.ca, on the NACmusicbox.