Seldom have an entire company of players from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra come together on a single stage.
Yet for the first time in more than 25 years, both orchestras will be working to unite, rather than divide Albertans in the love of the arts through concerts at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Nov. 10, and at the Winspear Centre on Nov. 11.
Calgary Phil CEO Marc Stevens said that the last time the orchestras played in person together was for the opening of the Winspear Centre in 1997.
“I moved to Calgary two years ago, and one of the first things I did after our season at open I went up to Edmonton and went to see the Edmonton Symphony and one of our friends up there… and we started talking about this and saying, ‘Gosh, it’s sounds like it’s been a long time since the orchestras performed together, we should really do this,'” said Stevens.
“When we started floating it with our players, we realized that they were very excited about that.”
The piece of music selected for the Ballad of Alberta was Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony, which lends itself epically to the 200-plus musicians that will be taking the stage at both concert halls—leading to the name of the concerts, Alberta in Harmony: Moving Mahler.
“[When] I heard my first Mahler symphony, it was the most emotional, accessible, heart-wrenching journey that you could possibly go on. I was with a friend recently, and I didn’t realize that it was her first time coming to the orchestra with me, and in the intermission, she turned to me she said, ‘I had no idea. I was going to go on such an emotional roller coaster,'” Stevens said.
“It’s brilliant music. It is so accessible and does take you on an emotional journey. I think certainly our players love playing it, of course, love singing it, and our audiences love hearing it.”
Stevens said that Albertans will get to take in something truly magnificent, at two of the country’s best concert halls with some of the country’s best players.
“The other one there’s only one other great console of this size and that’s in Montreal. We’ve got the Jack Singer and the Winspear, and these are amazing halls. Alberta should be proud and should be shouting about them a little louder than we are,” Stevens said.
“It doesn’t come around very often when you have this many professional musicians on stage playing, momentous Mahler and repertoire like this. There’s that battle of Alberta element thrown in there, and we’ve got a lot to be proud of in our cities.”
He said that he hopes that as audiences leave the performances, they will have a new appreciation for, and pride in, the province’s orchestras.
“I hope that as with any performance that we do, that they go away, moved on cloud nine, with having gone through an emotional journey, that they feel connected to the communities around them… and that their orchestras are important to them and worth hanging on to,” Stevens said.
No battle here
Stevens laughed about the idea of a Battle of Alberta becoming the Ballad of Alberta for a series of concerts.
“I should say upfront, I’ve been a Flames fan since I was 15 years old. But I grew up in a town called Guilford in England, and the Guilford Flames arrived when I was 15 years old. I’d never heard of Calgary at that point,” Stevens said.
“Obviously, the Battle of Alberta is there. I always think that if only we could play orchestras against each other and see who wins, that’d be that extra competitive element. But the thing is, we have these world-class orchestras in our cities, but we don’t ever get to compare them one against the other.”
The next best thing he said, was to put them side by side.
“Sometimes we do collaborate with other orchestras. We had the Calgary Youth Orchestra on stage with the Calgary Phil last season, but this is two professional orchestras coming together.”
He said that this was a rare opportunity for people to celebrate coming together, rather than competing.
“We’re very proud of Alberta, we’re very proud of our cities, and there’s lots of connections between them. Personally, I think that one of the really essential roles that the arts and the performing arts has always performed, and is especially needed right now, is bringing people together,” Stevens said.
“We have a lot of polarization in our society. We have a lot of different opinions and we can get stuck into our different echo chambers. One thing that you do when you come out to events like this, even to hockey, you’re side by side with all sorts of folks… that have different political views, different religious views, different other views in society, but you’re there for similar reasons and you can find ways that unite you.”
Making music accessible
Stevens laughed when talking about the selection of Mahler, referring to the works as being the frequent butt of jokes on Fraiser as the snobbish purview of Frasier and Niles Crane.
But, he said, classical music is truly accessible—and actually affordable.
“It’s that Niles and Frasier Crane kind of snobbery idea that ‘oh, wait that must be terribly expensive.’ Yes, there are expensive tickets, and yes, some people are able to pay that. But we do have many, many deals available.”
For the pair of concerts, tickets start at $28, and Calgary Phil has select ticketing for other concerts that start at $15.
Making an effort to make the orchestra accessible, said Stevens, is representative of the true demographics an audience, and of the province as a whole.
The orchestra surveyed 1,300 visitors and found that only 21 per cent of people were in the 35 to 44 age range, and that 20 per cent of the audience identified as belonging to a minority group or being a person of colour.
“It’s probably better than most people expect from the orchestra. That’s really important to us that everybody, of any age, any background, any physical ability and so on can really feel like ‘OK, there’s there’s people like me, I belong here'” Stevens said.
“Everybody belongs here and that and that we belong to the people in the same way. Come back to the [Battle of Alberta] hockey analogy, you may not like hockey, but you’re glad there’s a great team in your city. And it’s the same thing with the orchestra and that’s the feeling that we’re aiming for.”
Tickets are on sale now at calgaryphil.com/events/alberta-in-harmony-moving-mahler-2023-11-10-730-pm and at www.winspearcentre.com/tickets/events/eso/2023/moving-mahler.