London, England – It was to be a celebration of partnership, of the bond between two nations that came together 100 years ago to fight “the war to end all wars.”
It was to honour the 600,000 Canadian soldiers, nurses and chaplains who volunteered to join the British in the First World War, and to mourn the 61,000 Canadians and the more than 888,000 British and colonial soldiers who never made it home.
And it was to be a showcase of brilliant classical and contemporary works by British, Canadian and German composers, as well as a testament to the healing power of music.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra’s United Kingdom tour last month was all these things.
But, because of two acts of terror – and countless acts of bravery – back home in Canada, the artists and the audiences shared an immensely powerful, emotionally charged experience beyond anything that could have been anticipated.
My husband and I participated in the orchestra’s tour of Scotland and England with NAC patrons and board members from across Canada. We attended the five major concerts and took in some of the 50 educational events – including master classes, chamber performances and workshops – led by music director and violinist Pinchas Zukerman and the 80 musicians.
Dan and I were exploring the streets of Edinburgh on October 22, a few hours before the tour’s official start, when friends started texting us about the terror attack in Ottawa.
The messages were frequent, contradictory and confusing. There were two shooters – or three. Shots had been fired in the Rideau Centre. A shooter had been killed. Two soldiers were wounded. Ottawa was in lockdown. The lights were out in the west end.
It was hours before we learned that there had been only one shooter, a radicalized convert to Islam with a history of mental illness, and one dead soldier, Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. It was not until the next day that we heard about the remarkable bystanders who fought to save Cirillo’s life, and the decisive actions by House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers and the security team to kill the gunman.
But it’s no exaggeration to say that the tour took on a new level of meaning after the attack. Every event began with a moment of silence, and the tour was dedicated to the memory of Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who had been run down and killed by another radicalized Islamic convert in Quebec two days before the Ottawa attack.
The British media were all over the story. And the Canadian visitors suddenly became unwilling members of a club that was all too familiar to our British hosts, who had decades of experience with terror attacks on their own soil.
The music that was to honour those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom 100 years ago was no longer an emotional abstraction. It was an aching, immediate tribute to the lives of two soldiers – one just beginning his career, the other about to retire – who died in a new kind of war, one fought not by armies but by fanatics in thrall to religious propaganda and hatred.
Though every performance was stellar, my heart and mind keep returning to that first concert in Edinburgh.
Never had I heard Canadian composer John Estacio’s Brio performed with such passion. Maestro Zukerman’s violin performance of Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was an inspired, almost defiant celebration of life.
After the concert officially ended with a magical rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a visibly moved and exhausted Zukerman returned to the stage and addressed the audience.
“The way I like to remember a life, to people and to peace, is through music,” said the Israeli-born musician. “And the best way to do it is through [British composer Edward] Elgar.”
He then conducted the orchestra in Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a piece that had been rehearsed only once before the tour but that flowed flawlessly.
A week later, we stood in London’s Royal Festival Hall, in the presence of Prince Charles, and sang O Canada and God Save the Queen, accompanied by the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the glorious London Philharmonic Choir.
The evil that had always seemed to be happening somewhere else had struck not just our country, but the capital city in which we live.
But, surrounded by fellow Canadians, and by Britons who all but physically reached out to us in our time of grief, the horror receded and the healing began.