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National orchestra returns to Yukon

Alexina Louie had an interesting problem to solve when the Montreal Symphony Orchestra commissioned her to write a piece inspired by Canada's North. How do you write music for a symphony that gives honest consideration to an oral culture?

Alexina Louie had an interesting problem to solve when the Montreal Symphony Orchestra commissioned her to write a piece inspired by Canada’s North.

How do you write music for a symphony that gives honest consideration to an oral culture? How do you write down throat singing at all?

“I wanted to do honour to both traditions,” said Louie.

Louie combines traditional Inuit throat singing, found-object percussion and classical orchestral music in her piece, Take the Dog Sled, which will be performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Whitehorse Saturday.

The orchestra’s visit to the Yukon will conclude their current tour of the North, with earlier stops in Iqaluit and Yellowknife.

“We are located in the country’s capital, but have a mandate to serve Canadians everywhere,” said Christopher Deacon, the orchestra’s managing director.

This will be the Ottawa-based orchestra’s second visit to the Yukon. It was their first time in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

“The tour has been, so far, absolutely inspiring for the over 30 artists who are travelling on the tour,” said Deacon on the phone from Yellowknife Wednesday.

One of the most exciting parts for the musicians has been working with Evie Mark and Akinisie Sivuarapik, two throat singers from Nunavik, he said.

The orchestra will perform twice Saturday at the Yukon Arts Centre, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. The matinee will feature family-friendly programing, including an appearance by actor John Doucet as Vivaldi and a performance by Fiddleheads Yukon, a group of young musicians and performers based in Whitehorse.

Collaboration between Northern and Southern Canadian artists is a feature of much of the programming for the orchestra’s visit.

Louie, the composer, drew on her own experiences in the North to come up with the music for Take the Dog Sled.

A decade ago she visited the Northwest Territories with then recently-appointed governor general Adrienne Clarkson, hopping across the vast territory in a Twin Otter plane.

“I was really amazed when we flew into the Mackenzie Delta and there were so many, so many lakes, with the sunlight glinting off them,” said Louie.


“I really got to feel the vastness and the beauty of the land.”

On the tour Louie visited Nahanni National Park, met with elders and attended community feasts.

One of the highlights was casting a fishing line into the Arctic Ocean with John Ralston Saul late one summer evening, she said.

“It was just such a magical thing to be there at 11 o’clock at night with the sun still up. It was so amazing.”

Louie immersed herself for two months in the myths, art and music of Canada’s Arctic before she began composing Take the Dog Sled. It took an additional six months to write the piece.

The eight movements bear evocative titles like “Tundra,”“Mosquito,” and “Great Dog Sled Journey (Keep Going).”

Louie has the orchestral musicians use rocks as percussion, and blow into glass bottles, to mimic and complement the lively and competitive throat singing by Mark and Sivuarapik.

“Throat singing is just such a remarkable tradition. It’s so deeply human and primal,” said Louie.

“I wanted to depict in musical terms the strength and perseverance of the people that live in the North, throughout all kinds of adversity and the difficult weather, and the kind of deprivation that the North has experienced. That no matter what, life continues.”

The orchestra will perform an excerpt Take the Dog Sled during the morning performance, and the full piece during the evening concert.

“I’m thrilled to be on this northern tour and have the really lovely responses that we’ve had to this piece,” said Louie. “I’ve had so many people come up to tell me that I’ve really captured their experience of the North, which is really remarkable. It’s very moving.”

The composer will be available for a pre-performance chat from 6 to 7 p.m.

The orchestra will also perform music from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, featuring Canadian virtuoso violinist James Ehnes.

Twelve visual art pieces from the Yukon Permanent Art Collection have been selected for display at the arts centre, in keeping with the Four Seasons theme.

Special guest Arild Remmereit will conduct the concerts.

In addition to the two performances, members of the orchestra and special guests will facilitate 15 educational and community-engagement events during their stay in Whitehorse. Most of these events are not open to the public.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra is currently visiting the North, but in the spring they will invite the North to them.

“We’ve actually decided that the ‘12-‘13 season has kind of been branded the Year of the North,” said Deacon.

From April 25 through May 4, the National Arts Centre will host 250 artists from across Canada’s North for Northern Scene, slated to be the largest festival of Northern art south of the 60th parallel, said Deacon.

More information about the orchestra’s tour can be found at

Saturday’s evening performance is sold out. The matinee had a small number of tickets left, as of Thursday at midday. Tickets can be purchased at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and online.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at