Strauss reimagined: NACO commissions four new works

On the left, Kelly-Marie Murphy, a woman with short curly hair, and on the right, Kevin Lau, a man with short black hair wearing glasses.
Canadian composers Kelly-Marie Murphy and Kevin Lau

Contemporary Canadian composers create companion pieces to Strauss classics

“This is a musical adventure that pushes the boundaries of creativity. We are thrilled to have these distinguished Canadian composers join us on this incredible journey, reimagining Strauss’s masterpieces with their unique 21st-century perspective.”

Alexander Shelley, NAC Orchestra Music Director

More than a century after Richard Strauss (1864-1949) left his footprint on the classical cannon as a boldly modernist composer, four Canadian composers have been commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) to create new works that serve as modern counterparts to the German composer’s music.  

Under the visionary leadership of Music Director Alexander Shelley, these eminent Canadian composers have been tasked with crafting compositions that resonate with the spirit, narratives, soundscapes, or moods found in the original works of Richard Strauss. Drawing from their 21st-century sensibilities, these composers will create a dynamic juxtaposition between tradition and innovation, creating new works to live alongside Strauss’s masterpieces.

The Canadian composers selected for this significant endeavour, and their respective Strauss compositions, are as follows: 

  • Kevin Lau (responding to Death and Transfiguration
  • Kelly-Marie Murphy (responding to Don Juan
  • Ian Cusson (responding to Also Sprach Zarathustra
  • Alexina Louie (responding to Der Rosenkavalier

NACO is embarking on a multi-season journey that will see the premieres of these new commissions in Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre, performed in concert alongside their inspiration from Strauss. This series of new commissions and concerts extends into the 2025-2026 season and will culminate in a commercial recording release of all five works and their Strauss counterparts. 

Two world premieres in November 2023

The first commissions of the Strauss project debut in Southam Hall with Shelley Conducts Strauss on November 22-23, 2023, as well a free livestream taking place on November 23, 2023, at 8 pm Eastern Time.

A highlight of this first concert from the series is the eagerly anticipated world premiere of Kevin Lau’s composition, The Infinite Reaches and Kelly-Marie Murphy’s opus, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe.

Kevin Lau,The Infinite Reaches

Composer Kevin Lau expressed his anticipation, saying: 

“Creating The Infinite Reaches has been an exhilarating journey. I’m excited to share this new work that weaves seamlessly with Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration. It’s a profound exploration of the human spirit.”

One of Canada’s most versatile and sought-after composers, Kevin Lau (b. 1982) is a prolific composer of orchestral, chamber, ballet, opera, and film music, and his work has been performed internationally and by some of Canada’s most prominent artists and ensembles. He was commissioned by the NAC in 2017 for Dark Angels, which premiered during Encount3rs with the National Ballet of Canada and the NAC Orchestra.  

Lau’s latest NAC Orchestra commission is inspired by Strauss’s tone poem Death and Transfiguration. He says:

“I gravitated immediately toward it. 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. 

“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.”

Lau shares further thoughts on his creative process in the concert’s program notes

Kelly-Marie Murphy, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe

In her first NAC Orchestra commission, composer Kelly-Marie Murphy was commissioned to write a response to Richard Strauss’s orchestral work, Don Juan. On her new work, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe, Murphy mused:

“Working on Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe has been a remarkable experience. The juxtaposition with Strauss’s Don Juan creates a sonic tapestry that I believe will resonate with audiences in a profound way.”

With music described as “imaginative and expressive” (The National Post) and “a pulse-pounding barrage on the senses” (The Globe and Mail), Kelly-Marie Murphy’s voice is well known on the Canadian music scene. Murphy (b. 1964) grew up on Canadian Armed Forces bases all across Canada. After living and working for many years in the Washington, D.C. area where she was designated “an alien of extraordinary ability” by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, she is now based in Ottawa, quietly pursuing a career as a freelance composer.  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 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. Bright Stars, Dark Nights, Vast Universe has a few main themes throughout: questioning, searching and curiosity, perseverance and determination, and the beauty of the starry sky.”

Murphy’s program note expands upon the piece in further detail.

About Richard Strauss

Musicologist Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD expounds on the famed composer: 

“Richard Strauss, the German composer and conductor was best known for his tone poems and operas. He had become 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 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.

“In 1888, 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. Within a decade, both Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung were firmly a part of the German performance repertory. Thereafter, with each tone poem he composed—from Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks to Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) to An Alpine Symphony—Strauss found innovative and ever expansive ways of using orchestral timbre, texture, and sonority to vividly convey the breadth of human experience.” 

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