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A new focus: Alexander Shelley

Phillip Sommerich

Meet the Maestro: Alexander Shelley

8:00, 10th February 2018

Tears, laughter and lots of audience involvement – it’s a recipe that has given Alexander Shelley pop-star status in Nuremberg and is beginning a similar elevation across the Atlantic in Ottawa.

When Shelley ended a decade as chief conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra, his farewell concert in July sold out within minutes, so a free, open-air event was organised that attracted 85,000 people. It was broadcast live by Bavaria’s BR television and by popular demand has been repeated twice to audiences across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and has had thousands of plays on BR’s website (bit.ly/2A55kZ0).

Typifying the north London-born conductor’s sense of humour, the programme aped the Last Night of the Proms, with thousands of Germans enthusiastically and tearfully singing Jerusalem, Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory on what had been the Nazis’ earliest parade ground for rallies.

It is unsurprising, then, that Ottawa has taken to its heart the music director of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra since his arrival two years ago. The immediate aims are different, but the effort to spread musical enthusiasm to new audiences remains.

The son of pianists Howard Shelley and Hilary Macnamara went to Germany in 1988 to study cello in Düsseldorf, and in founding the Schumann Camerata there began implementing his ideas on audience engagement. ‘When I started building the orchestra in Düsseldorf, the process of developing an ensemble, building its sound and building its audience were the most enticing thing. I proselytise about any kind of music. I am a classical musician but I also love playing jazz piano and it fortifies me as a classical musician. If you take a chord progression by Bill Evans, you can more closely compare it to what is happening in Bach and Monteverdi than with Schoenberg.’

That outlook won him the post in Nuremberg, where his nine outdoor concerts were the biggest in Europe, attracting up to 90,000 (Nuremberg’s population: 510,000) to the themed programmes. One year, after persuading the audience to join in an encore of Bernstein’s ‘Mambo’ from West Side Story, he jokingly said that for the next concert they would learn a canon. He was stunned to discover the city authorities had put ‘Canon’ on the programme.

Shelley had a lighting tower erected in the midst of the audience, bounded up it with two illuminated aircraft batons, split the audience into four groups and conducted Bruder Jakob (Frère Jacques), the largest canon ever.

A decade ago, Shelley knew of Nuremberg only as the spawning ground for Nazism and the post-war trials. ‘I wasn’t aware of a great, cultured city, a meeting point for centuries of trade routes and cultures.’

The close relationship he developed with the city and its people convinced him a British theme for his farewell concert would go over well. ‘It was my last night and I thought, “What is the most famous last night in the world?” Germans love that British tongue-in-cheek humour and they love that jingoistic stuff because in a way they can’t do it themselves.’

In Nuremberg’s concert hall, Shelley’s programming has respected that Germanic history, but in Ottawa he is adopting the adventurous repertoire of his Düsseldorf days. ‘I see the role of the National Arts Centre as different from Nuremberg. We have the mandate to be a forum for composers, a space where they can innovate with us.’

The Ottawa players, under Pinchas Zukerman’s baton for 16 years, gained high repute, and last season during Canada’s 150th anniversary attracted guest artists such as Lang Lang, Emmanuel Ax and Joshua Bell.

Under its recording contract with Canadian label Analekta, he and the orchestra alternate between core repertoire and contemporary works. They are recording a Brahms and Schumann symphony cycle and have just released Life Reflected, a multi-disciplinary biography of four extraordinary Canadian women, which is to tour Europe in 2019.

He continues to talk to his audience and even writes many of the programme notes. ‘I try to create themes that an audience can follow so you can pop in new works within a particular context.’

He also uses thematic programming as principal associate conductor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London to introduce unfamiliar composers such as Ibert, Korngold and Weill.

Shelley made no secret in Nuremberg about his disappointment at the Brexit vote, but expresses understanding of it. ‘There are things that need to be improved about the way Europe is seen in the UK. We didn’t have the same experience as Europe of world war two. We have a different relationship to that side of history and we don’t feel the moral essence of Europe that the French and German do – they feel a moral need to be together.’

He is increasing demand for guest engagements with orchestras across Germany and, while he and his wife maintain a home in London, one senses Shelley’s heart remains in Europe.


1979 Born London
2001 Wins Leeds Conductors Competition; founds Schumann Camerata
2009 Chief conductor, Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra; artistic director of Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s Zukunftslabor project
2013 Music director, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Canada
2015 Appointed principal associate conductor, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
2017 Undertakes cross-country tour of Canada to mark 150th anniversary

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