Shelley Conducts Strauss

& Felix Klieser Plays Mozart

2023-11-22 20:00 2023-11-23 22:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Shelley Conducts Strauss

In-person event

Richard Strauss’s tone poems (one-movement symphonic works that tell a story) depict epic tales and ask life’s big questions. Contemporary Canadian composers Kelly-Marie Murphy and Kevin Lau reply with fresh companion pieces to two of Strauss’s best-known tone poems. Concert-level mastery of a work like Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 takes patience, talent, and determination, and guest guest horn player Felix Klieser, a musical prodigy who was born with no arms, has worked...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
November 22 - 23, 2023

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Last updated: November 14, 2023

KELLY-MARIE MURPHY Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe* (9 min)

RICHARD STRAUSS Don Juan, Op. 20 (18 min)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, K. 495 (16 min)
I. Allegro moderato
II. Romanza: Andante
III. Rondo: Allegro vivace


KEVIN LAU The Infinite Reaches* (10 min)

RICHARD STRAUSS Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24 (24 min)

* World premiere, NACO commission


Kelly-Marie Murphy

Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe (NACO commission)

With music described as “breathtaking” (Kitchener-Waterloo Record), “imaginative and expressive” (The National Post), “a pulse-pounding barrage on the senses” (The Globe and Mail), and “Bartok on steroids” (Birmingham News), Kelly-Marie Murphy’s voice is well known on the Canadian music scene. She has created a number of memorable works for some of Canada’s leading performers and ensembles, including the Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver Symphony Orchestras, The Gryphon Trio, James Campbell, Shauna Rolston, the Cecilia and Afiara String Quartets, and Judy Loman. 

Kelly-Marie Murphy was born (in 1964) on a NATO base in Sardegna, Italy, and grew up on Canadian Armed Forces bases all across Canada. She began her studies in composition at the University of Calgary with William Jordan and Allan Bell, and later received a PhD in composition from the University of Leeds, England, where she studied with Philip Wilby. After living and working for many years in the Washington, D.C. area where she was designated “an alien of extraordinary ability” by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, she is now based in Ottawa, quietly pursuing a career as a freelance composer.

Commissioned by the NAC Orchestra and composed in 2023, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe is Murphy’s response to Richard Strauss’s orchestral work Don Juan. As she reveals in her note to her piece, “in considering how to respond to this iconic tone poem, I decided to look at what else was happening in the world while Strauss was composing. One significant event for me was Vincent van Gogh’s painting Starry Night in 1889. Another was the discovery of the Horsehead Nebula by Williamina Fleming in 1888. Mrs. Fleming was one of the “Harvard Computers”, a group of women who were taught to analyze stellar spectra and catalog stars for astronomers at the Harvard College Observatory. Her extraordinary life became the subject of my tone poem.”

Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe has a few main themes throughout,” she further describes: “questioning, searching, and curiosity; perseverance and determination; and the beauty of the starry sky. The piece begins with a questioning theme in the harp, answered by solo woodwinds. As the questioning and searching intensifies, it leads to the driving themes of perseverance and determination. This is fast and relentless and, at times, turbulent. Doubt creeps in for a moment with trumpet and oboe solos. Gradually, confidence and strength are regained, and a calm focus is revealed with a brass chorale. The main theme of perseverance returns, eventually leading to success and discovery. Throughout the piece, we are aware of the stars: shining, calling, guiding.”

Biography and program note provided by the composer


Don Juan, Op. 20

In 1888, Richard Strauss (1864–1949) became convinced that his artistic direction as a composer was to “create new forms for every new subject” and embarked on writing orchestral “tone poems.” A genre of instrumental music initially developed by Franz Liszt, the symphonic poem is a one-movement work that illustrates or evokes the content of an extra-musical source, be it a story, poem, or painting. It was a novel way to structure the experience of orchestral music compared to the traditional abstract forms of the four-movement symphony.

Strauss composed his first tone poems that year in quick succession, beginning with Macbeth, followed by Don Juan eight months later, and Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration) in 1889. He conducted the premiere of Don Juan in Weimar, where he was Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. The work was a triumph, and quickly established Strauss’s international reputation as a young, boldly modernist composer. Within a decade, both Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung were firmly a part of the German performance repertory. 

The striking appeal of Don Juan lies in Strauss’s ability to marshal orchestral forces into a remarkably effective medium for vivid musical storytelling—in this case, the romantic adventures of the legendary Spanish libertine. To convey the Don’s character through orchestral timbre, texture, and sonority, the score makes significant technical and artistic demands on the musicians.

Strauss based his Don Juan on the version portrayed in Nikolaus Lenau’s unfinished German verse play, published posthumously in 1851. Rather than a shameless seducer seeking romantic conquests (like in Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera Don Giovanni), Lenau’s Don is more of a dreamer, driven by an idealistic desire to find the perfect woman. But, as Lenau describes, “Because he does not find her, although he reels from one to another, at last Disgust seizes hold of him, and this Disgust is the Devil that fetches him.” Thus, there’s no divine retribution for Strauss’s/Lenau’s Don; rather, in realizing the pointlessness of his striving (“My deadly foe is in my power, and this, too, bores me, as does life itself”), he allows himself to be killed in a duel—a provocatively nihilistic end befitting a modernist approach. 

An upward string flourish opens the tone poem, immediately conveying various aspects of the Don’s character—his romantic desire, sexual vigor, and reckless optimism in finding his ideal woman. The flurry of energy soon leads into a striving tune in the violins: it’s Don Juan the hero, brashly confident. Someone soon catches his eye—a little phrase in the first violins, like a flirtatious wink or smile. Then, scampering motifs—perhaps a giggling game of chase—rush to a held chord. With glints of glockenspiel and harp, the atmosphere becomes filled with romantic suspense as a violin solo evokes a long look at the new beloved, then the music emerges into a glorious sweeping melody. It builds in waves to a passionate climax but at the peak, the harmony turns to minor with ominous syncopated chords in the woodwinds and brass—the Don seems suddenly disenchanted with the woman before him. Hints of the opening flourish suggests that it doesn’t take long for him to extricate himself from the situation, and with the return of the striving theme, he heads off in search again. 

In the developmental section, a moody melody appears, fervidly sung by violas and cellos—has the Don found someone else? Solo flute responds with plaintive sighs, and the melody is reiterated more ardently. Soon, he has her heart, and a romantic episode with his new love follows—a beautiful long-breathed melody intoned by the oboe, against a murmuring backdrop that evokes a tender night scene. Out of this moment of deep contentment, we are suddenly rushed into a bold heroic tune proclaimed by four horns in unison—the Don seems to have triumphed, and a playful episode ensues. Tension and momentum mount but eventually collapse in swirling figures of disillusionment, and a deep plunge of despair. 

Like a flurry of reminiscences, various themes from earlier in the piece are reprised with greater brilliance than before, driving to another declamation of the heroic tune by the horns, which the violins then take up fervently. It reaches a massive climax, and the Don’s striving theme returns. It presses on but soon rushes to a complete stop; there’s silence, then a quiet chord as two trumpets deliver the fatal blow. With a final shuddering of strings, Don Juan’s life of passionate pursuit is over. 

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major, K. 495

I. Allegro moderato
II. Romanza: Andante
III. Rondo: Allegro vivace

Among the many concertos he had written for various solo instruments, Mozart (1756–1791) composed four for French horn, finishing three in the 1780s, and a fourth, which was published as No. 1, in 1791. During this period, he was living in Vienna, working “freelance” as a composer and performer, and being practical, he saw an opportunity to meet a demand for music for horn, which was then coming into its own as a solo instrument with the rise of public concerts featuring professional virtuoso players. 

This development arose alongside advancements in the technology and technique of playing the instrument. On an 18th-century horn, a player was typically only able to produce, with their lips, notes in the harmonic (or overtone) series. To create a wider range of notes to play, such as in the horn’s lower register and chromatic effects, enterprising musicians invented a technique called hand-stopping, whereby they would insert their hand into the horn’s bell to change the pitch. Playing with hand-stopping requires immense skill, especially to even out the timbral differences between the open, partially stopped, and fully stopped notes to make a singing line. Indeed, it became a distinguishing characteristic of a horn soloist, and the concerto became the artform with which these performing specialists could show off their technical and artistic abilities. One of the foremost horn virtuosos of the day was Joseph Leutgeb (1732–1811), who gave many concerto performances, including at the famous Parisian concert series, the Concert spirituel, where a critic had praised him for his ability to “sing an adagio as perfectly as the most mellow, interesting, and accurate voice.” All four concertos by Mozart, who had long known Leutgeb, were written for him. While today’s horn players usually play valved instruments that allow them to produce the notes of a chromatic scale across the horn’s full range, Mozart’s concertos are still important works with which they demonstrate their musicality and mastery of tone, as well as the nobility and grace of the instrument.

Composed in 1786, K. 495 in E-flat major remains the best known of the group today. The first movement opens with an orchestral exposition rich with themes and effects: first, a robust tune, enriched by three-note chords in the violins, followed by plunging leaps and vigorous runs; then, a graceful melody that leads into a “Mannheim crescendo” (a full-orchestra crescendo) that culminates in more plunging leaps; and finally, a lyrical “postscript”. When the solo horn enters, it introduces a completely new theme (not unusual in Mozart’s concertos of this time), highlighting singing tone and line, and develops it. Later, the violins recall the graceful melody, with the horn now providing commentary, followed by the Mannheim crescendo, though here its full effect is delayed so the horn’s notes are not covered. 

The central development section features musical material to showcase a horn player’s artistry, including downward-flowing phrases, poignant chromatic lines, wide leaps, and delicate trills. In the ensuing recapitulation of themes, the horn part is given new figurations, and a greater prominence in the dialogue over the second theme. Following the cadenza (usually provided by the soloist), the horn joins in the reprise of the postscript from the orchestral exposition, and the movement draws to a confident close.

The ensuing Romanza is a beautiful song, spotlighting the soloist in long, singing melodies and exquisite turns of phrase. Warmth, subtlety, and tenderness characterize the mood of the entire movement.

Among the most famous movements of the horn repertory, the Rondo finale features a merry tune that alludes to hunting horns. Initially presented by solo horn and repeated by the orchestra, the theme returns throughout in alternation with contrasting episodes. The first of these expands on references to various hunting horn-style motifs—fanfare-like arpeggios, running phrases. Mozart shifts into the minor mode for the second episode, during which solo horn and strings enter into a spirited dialogue. The third episode recalls the first, but now with new harmonic twists; a humorous surprise appears just before the tune’s final return, after which horn and orchestra drive to a jubilant ending.

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD

Kevin Lau

The Infinite Reaches (World premiere, NACO commission)

One of Canada’s most versatile and sought-after young composers, Kevin Lau (b. 1982) has been commissioned by some of Canada’s most prominent artists and ensembles, and his work has been performed internationally in the USA, France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. A prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, ballet, opera, and film music, he served as Affiliate Composer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 2012 to 2015; to date, he has produced seven works for the TSO. Shortly after, he was commissioned to write two ballets with choreographer Guillaume Côté: a full-length ballet (Le Petit Prince) for the National Ballet of Canada and a half-hour ballet (Dark Angels) for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. He served as composer in residence for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra from 2021 to 2023.

Kevin’s creative output, often inspired by the fantastical and the surreal, is unified by the search for deep connections amidst surface diversity—connections that serve as a metaphor for the reconciliation of seemingly fundamental differences.

As Murphy’s work responds to Strauss’s Don Juan, Lau’s NAC Orchestra commission is inspired by Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration. “I gravitated immediately toward it,” he says, “its gripping, transcendent musical narrative resonated powerfully with my own creative sensibilities. At the same time, its central, existential question—what lies beyond death—had begun to occupy my own thoughts with increasing regularity.”

He continues:

“Many months would pass, however, before I could transform these thoughts into a coherent musical imperative. Eventually, after more than one episode of creative paralysis, I found my “gateway” in the form of an ancient myth: the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman who transports the souls of the dead along the river Styx to the realm of Hades. This image provided the spark for the music’s opening: a heaving, churning ostinato in 9/8 meter that begins in the lowest depths of the orchestra and gradually ascends to its highest registers. This dramatic association allowed me to seek refuge in metaphor; by depicting a mythical journey along the shores of the underworld, I felt free to explore the emotional and psychological terrain of Death and Transfiguration without explicitly following in Strauss’s footsteps. (Having said that, I did include a reference to Strauss’s iconic Transfiguration theme; here, it is quoted once in its original form before being inverted, so that its opening three notes are followed by a vertiginous plunge an octave below—a despairing mirror image of transcendence.)

“Transcendence arrives, all the same, although its appearance is sudden rather than “earned.” After a series of climaxes, in which cyclonic gusts of brass are whipped into an apocalyptic frenzy, the storm clouds part, and we are offered a brief glimpse of a pastoral, divine place. The repeated notes of the opening are transformed into a luminous melody that, I hope, will feel as though it has always existed. A moment of discord disrupts this vision of paradise; soon, a dirge-like cello solo leads the orchestra back into its deepest registers, with the barest hint of a major chord hidden beneath the bass drum’s rumble.

“The title, The Infinite Reaches, is derived from Alexander Ritter’s description of “man’s sought-after transfiguration,” in which the protagonist of Strauss’s narrative is embraced by the “infinite reaches of heaven.” I have stripped the quotation of “heaven,” not because I am lacking in my own spiritual intuitions, but because I felt that ambiguity was crucial to this work: it is a title that suggests both everlasting light and the void of the abyss.”

Biography and program note provided by the composer


Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), Op. 24

Richard Strauss was only 24 years old when he completed and conducted the very successful premiere of Don Juan, the orchestral tone poem that would make his name. Within less than a year, he followed with another hit: Tod und Verklärung, or Death and Transfiguration. During the summer of 1888, Strauss was employed as a répétiteur (or vocal coach) at the Bayreuth Festival, where Richard Wagner’s music drama Tristan und Isolde was being performed. While absorbing the work in this context, he became fascinated by the opera’s ending, in which Isolde is “transfigured” in death to be mystically united with her lover, Tristan. It inspired Strauss to explore the concept of “death and transfiguration” in his own tone poem, the narrative of which he described as “a dying artist, obsessed by an artistic Ideal, is transfigured at death to recognize his Ideal in eternity.”

Along with the subject matter, Death and Transfiguration owes its sound world in part to that of Tristan und Isolde. Employing a large orchestra, it’s rich and sonorous; furthermore, the tonal ambiguity that underscores the feeling of longing experienced by Wagner’s two lovers is also used in Strauss’s piece though for a different dramatic purpose. As the work progresses, two main musical motifs—one representing death and another representing transfiguration—essentially do “battle” with each other, thus evoking the artist’s struggle on his death bed, with harmonies not firmly resolving until the very end. 

When he had completed the score to Death and Transfiguration in 1889, Strauss asked his friend and professional associate Alexander Ritter to compose an explanatory poem expanding on his narrative sketch, to be distributed at the first performance and published with the score. Ritter’s text is provided in quotations below, interleaved with commentary as to what to listen for as each of the four sections of the piece unfolds.

I. Largo. “In a small bare room, dimly lit by a candle stump, a sick man lies on his bed. Exhausted by a violent struggle with death, he lies asleep. In the stillness of the room, like a portent of impending death, only the quiet ticking of a clock is heard. A melancholy smile lights the invalid’s pale face: does he dream of golden childhood as he lingers on the border of life?”

Muted violins and violas introduce a pulsating pattern that many have interpreted as the death motif, connoting the ticking of the clock, laboured breathing, or the irregular beat of a failing human heart. Later, wistful strains of a melody appear over rippling harp accompaniment, shifting from flute, to oboe, to a muted violin, and back to the woodwinds.

II. Allegro molto agitato. “But death grants him little sleep or time for dreams. He shakes his prey brutally to begin the battle afresh. The drive to live, the might of death! What a terrifying contest! Neither wins the victory and once more silence reigns.”

A loud strike of the timpani (sounding with the orchestra’s bass instruments) signals the start of the man’s struggle. The syncopated motif, now sped up, is passed between the instruments, and leads into a deeply agitated theme. The mass of orchestral sound includes swirling chromatic fragments punctuated by more ominous strokes of the timpani. At the terrifying climax, we hear the brass proclaim for the first time the beginning of the transfiguration theme—a climbing theme characterized by a giant upward leap. But death doesn’t yet come (resolution is not achieved), and the music returns to an ethereal calm. 

III. Meno mosso, ma sempre alla breve. “Exhausted from the battle, sleepless, as in a delirium, the sick man now sees his life pass before him, step by step, scene by scene. First the rosy dawn of childhood, radiant, innocent; then the boy’s aggressive games, testing, building his strength—and so maturing for the battles of manhood, to strive with burning passion for the highest goals of life: to transfigure all that seems to him most noble, giving it still more exalted form—this alone has been the high aim of his whole existence. Coldly, scornfully, the world set obstacle upon obstacle in his way. When he believed himself near his goal, a thunderous voice cried: ‘Halt!’ But a voice within him still urged him on, crying: ‘Make each hindrance a new rung in your upward climb.’ Undaunted he followed the exalted quest. Still in his death agony he seeks the unreached goal of his ceaseless striving, seeks it, but alas, still in vain. Though it grows closer, clearer, grander, it never can be grasped entire or perfected in his soul. The final iron hammer blow of death rings out, breaks his earthly frame, and covers his eyes with eternal night.”

This section begins quietly with solo instruments trading phrases of the wistful melody from the opening—the man reflecting on his life. They eventually build to a march-like section that evokes his maturation into adulthood. As the orchestra surges forward, the syncopated death motif, in the trombones and timpani, disrupts the texture with increasing vehemence. Waves of struggle culminate in ever grander presentations of the transfiguration theme, signaling that the end is near. After a final outburst, the orchestra’s stormy fury gradually dissipates, and with the toll of the gong, the death knell sounds.

IV. Moderato. “But from the endless realms of heavenly space a mighty resonance returns to him bearing what he longed for here below and sought in vain: redemption, transfiguration.”

The tone poem’s concluding section builds on the transfiguration theme, itself undergoing its own transformation into a grand apotheosis. In the final moments, the violins sing the theme one last time, its leaping arc finally resolving on a serene chord.

Program note by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


  • dscf9130-curtis-perry-2-cropped
    Conductor Alexander Shelley
  • 02-felixklieseryymaikehelbig-kopie-cropped
    Horn Felix Klieser
  • Composer Kelly-Marie Murphy
  • kevin-lau
    Composer Kevin Lau
  • bio-orchestra
    Featuring NAC Orchestra
  • Stage Manager Laurie Champagne


NAC Orchestra

First Violins
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Jeremy Mastrangelo
Marjolaine Lambert
Emily Westell
Manuela Milani
*Martine Dubé
*Annie Guénette
*Heather Schnarr
*Oleg Chelpanov
*Lauren Deroller
*Renée London
*Andréa Armijo Fortin

Second Violins
*John Marcus (guest principal)
Emily Kruspe
Frédéric Moisan
Carissa Klopoushak
Leah Roseman
Winston Webber
Mark Friedman
Zhengdong Liang
Karoly Sziladi
Edvard Skerjanc 
*Karoly Sziladi, Jr.
*Sara Mastrangelo
*Sarah Williams

Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
Paul Casey
David Thies-Thompson
Tovin Allers
*Mary-Kathryn Stevens
*Pamela Fay

Rachel Mercer (principal)
**Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Leah Wyber
Timothy McCoy
Marc-André Riberdy
*Karen Kang
*Desiree Abbey
*Daniel Parker
*Sonya Matoussova

Double Basses
*Sam Loeck (guest principal)
Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
Vincent Gendron
Marjolaine Fournier
*Paul Mach
*David Fay

Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Stephanie Morin
*Christian Paquette

Charles Hamann (principal)
Anna Petersen
*Melissa Scott

English Horn
Anna Petersen

Kimball Sykes (principal)
Sean Rice
*Shauna Barker

Darren Hicks (principal)
Vincent Parizeau
*Thalia Navas

*Louis-Philippe Marsolais (guest principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Lawrence Vine
Lauren Anker
Louis-Pierre Bergeron
*Olivier Brisson

Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
*Stéphane Beaulac
*Michael Fedyshyn

*Steve Dyer (guest principal)
Colin Traquair

Bass Trombone
Zachary Bond

Chris Lee (principal)

*Andrei Malashenko (guest principal)

Jonathan Wade
*Dan Morphy
*Louis Pino

*Angela Schwarzkopf
*Alanna Ellison

Principal Librarian
Nancy Elbeck

Assistant Librarian
Corey Rempel

Personnel Manager
Meiko Lydall

Orchestra Personnel Coordinator
Laurie Shannon

*Additional musicians
**On leave