The first language that Alexander Shelley, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, heard was music. It was ever- present in his life in London, England, where his mother Hilary MacNamara was a celebrated concert pianist, as was his conductor father Howard. As a grandson of the talented cellist and great-grandson of an organist, it was inevitable that music ran in Alexander’s blood.
Never pushed by his parents who wanted him to have a broad education, he felt all paths were open to him. At Westminster School he studied physics and humanities, played the cello, sang in the choir and conducted a chamber orchestra he founded at 14. After high school, he attended the Royal College of Music and furthered his studies in Germany where he completed two degrees as a cellist and a conductor.
In 2005, he won the Leeds Conductors Competition and his life-long dream of becoming a conductor was realized. At the age of thirty, he became chief conductor at Nürnberger Symphoniker, its youngest ever principal conductor, and was named the principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015.
Alexander has been the NAC’s enthusiastic and dynamic music director since last year, and although his home base is London where his wife Zoe lives, Ottawa has become a real home for him. He feels very connected to the city and its people, and appreciates the culture, restaurants and spectacular scenery. As the capital of a G7 country, he marvels that Ottawa is less than ten minutes from the purest of nature in the Gatineau Hills. When he speaks of Ottawa in his travels, he is careful not to promote it too much as it’s become his utopia and a peaceful sanctuary from the rigorous demands of his schedule.
WHERE DO YOU FIND YOUR INSPIRATION? First and foremost, from the composers, from the music that I study. Who they were and how beautifully they crafted the work that we perform. I also get inspired by the world class musicians that I work with. Ottawa’s orchestra has some of the finest musicians in the world. It is a genuine privilege to be able to lead them, perform and rehearse with them. I want to make sure that the orchestra is maintaining its excellent standards and always improving.
WHAT PART OF YOUR CAREER DO YOU MOST ENJOY? I get to travel around the world and immerse myself in different cultures. People share the same human instincts even if their cultures are different. I work with people very directly in a visceral sense, as I am face-to-face with the orchestra I am conducting. Whether it is Japan, Korea, Australia, Russia, Europe or South America, when it comes to working on music you can see into people’s souls, which is very rewarding.
HOW EXCITING ARE THE CHANGES BEING MADE TO THE NAC? I couldn’t be more excited about the rejuvenation plans for the complete transformation of the building. Southam Hall’s interior has just been completed and we have already noticed a big change in the acoustics. In two years, there will be a new acoustic shell around the orchestra which will be the final icing on the cake. The original architect turned the building towards the canal because he thought that a marina would be built, but it was not. The new plans have the glass building oriented around, showcasing an open square so that people feel like they are looking in on art being performed. The new NAC will become a beating heart in the centre of the city for everyone to come and enjoy.
HOW DO YOU ENGAGE WITH THE AUDIENCE? Body language is of vital importance in a conductor. If you can marry together excellent technique, body language, a deep commitment and understanding of the music, then you are on a good path. I like to talk about music and want people to have a wonderful experience. The last thing I try and do is tell them how to listen, but I like to point out things that fascinate me. We are on a journey together.
WHAT DOES YOUR FUTURE HOLD? I hope only positive things but I am sure that there will be hurdles. I am so excited about my relationship with this orchestra. I really can’t wait for what comes in the next few years. Looking at 2017, we have the sesquicentennial which will include wonderful celebrations for us all. 2019 brings the 50th anniversary of the orchestra. We are in exciting times.
Vacation destination: Italy
International city: New York
Ottawa restaurant: Beckta
Ottawa hotspot: the National Arts Centre
Guilty pleasure: wine
Music genre: classical
Band: Cuban jazz band called Irakere