Nunavimmiut, MSO come face to face for first time ever

Making music and history in Nunavik

By Jane George and Justin Noble

KUUJJUAQ – The Montreal Symphony Orchestra toured three Nunavik communities last weekend in a cultural exchange that brought Nunavimmiut face to face with music many had only heard over the radio, if at all.

"This orchestra has been all over the world," said the MSO's music director, conductor Kent Nagano. "Tokyo, Paris, New York, San Francisco, but we've never come here, and to see the beautiful mountains and the air and the sea is really special."

Nagano was joined on the tour by seven members of the orchestra, which typically consists of about 100 players, along with filmmaker and narrator Jobie Weetaluktuk and throat-singers Taqralik Partridge and Evie Mark.

The musicians played in front of full, or nearly full, houses in Inukjuak, Kangiqsujuaq and Kuujjuaq, where the tour wrapped up Sept. 14.

"It was awesome," said Mary Pilurtuut, the mayor of Kangiqsujuaq.

Tunu Napartuk, who works for the Kativik Regional Government, came with his family to see the Sunday evening concert at Kuujjuaq's Kaitittavik centre. Even Napartuk's three-week old son came along, with mother Lynn.

"I loved it," Napartuk said after the concert, adding that he planned to take up the offer that Nagano made to the those in the audience, when he invited them to attend an MSO concert next time they're in Montreal.

For the orchestra members, the tour was the trip of the lifetime.

In Inukjuak, the group hopped off the Air Inuit Dash-8 charter to boat over to a nearby island, where they visited a team of sled dogs and picked berries.

Jobie Weetaluktuk impressed the southern visitors by catching a fish with nothing but a hand line and a piece of plastic bag for bait. Composer Alexina Louie also caught a small cod, which was served to everyone at supper that night.

In Kangiqsujuaq, a Canadian Royalties' helicopter landed the group beside an inuksuk on a windy hill overlooking the town.

"The landscape is unbelievable," said bassoonist Mathieu Harel. "I expected no trees, but I didn't expect the hills and the mountains."

The MSO trip to Nunavik was the grand finale of a nationwide tour that crossed Canada from Yellowknife to St. John's, Nfld., last year, said Nagano.

Reflecting on what he'd observed in Nunavik, Nagano said the "complicated simplicity" of the region impressed him.

"Nature seems to be direct and simple, but we know how violent nature can be," Nagano said.

Nagano held workshops in each community before the evening concerts to introduce the performers and their instruments.

The trumpet and trombone with their parade-like overtones were more familiar, but the deep boom of the bassoon and delicate swoon of the clarinet were new for many.

"I've heard music like this before on YouTube," said one teen, with hair gelled in a mohawk, listening to the afternoon session at the Qaqqiq community centre in Kangiqsujuaq. "But I usually listen to rock."

The value of their instruments, such as a bass violin worth $80,000 or a violin bow at $15,000, astonished the audience.

Nagano, who described the role of a conductor as someone who tells musicians when to play, asked several hesitant children in Kangiqsujuaq to try their hands at conducting.

With nervous arm flaps the kids brought forth a glowing sound from the musicians.

"That's a conductor!" Nagano said.

In Kuujjuaq on Sunday afternoon, 10 music students from Pitakallak primary school played xylophones and metallophones for Nagano – who joined in for some on-the-spot improvisation.

Nagano explained how composer Louie weaved the sounds of local wildlife into the music she wrote for the Nunavik tour.

"You'll hear the orchestra sing like a bird," said Nagano. "Normally you don't hear an orchestra sing like a bird."

Louie's music was inspired by a recent trip to the Northwest Territories, during which she was wowed by the beauty of the tundra landscape.

"It really communicates from the soul," she said.

For the evening concerts, the orchestra members dressed in white and black tuxedos. The throat singers wore special amautiit, and Weetaluktuk wore a sombre black and grey silapak.

"This is a gift," said Line Roy, a Kangiqsujuaq nurse, who arrived early and sat in the front row with her radio in her purse for emergency calls from the clinic. "I've been trying for two years to see them in Montreal, but now they're here. What was I running around for?"

The large gymnasium at Kangiqsujuaq's Arsaniq School was darkened, lit only by the glow of red, green and yellow strobe lights and two bright white lights that shone from above and cloaked the musicians in dreamlike halos.

A band of kids welcomed the guests with several rounds of drumming.

In Kuujjuaq's 500-seat Kaitittavik centre, Weetaluktuk narrated "The Soldier's Tale" in Inuktitut against a musical background composed by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Then, the musicians played Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," written as an evening serenade, Nagano told the audience.

The concert ended with Louie's piece, divided into eight movements, each one imitating sounds from the Arctic environment.

Throat-singers Partridge and Mark stood beside the musicians, arms clasped in a half-hug, with their throat singing acting as an anchor for the music.

After the concert in Kangisujuaq, children flocked to trombonist James Box and residents lined up with Nagano for photos.

Nagano stood smiling for dozens of shots and signed posters commemorating the event. At one point he glanced around the gymnasium, still filled with concert-goers.

"There's a lotta love here," said Nagano.

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