An ecstatic meeting of minds

Sarah Slean. Photo: Submitted

Symphony Nova Scotia made sweet music with Sarah Slean, which has earned the orchestra a Juno nomination for 2021 Classical Album of the Year: Vocal and Choral. The album Ecstasy also grabbed an East Coast Music Award nomination for Classical Recording of the Year.

Slean says CBC producer Jeff Reilly was the mastermind behind the collaboration, which was eight years in the making and involved Canadian composer Christos Hatzis and the symphony with conductor Bernhard Gueller.

“He was looking for an innovative collaboration between a classical composer, a progressive orchestra, and an unconventional singer,” she says. “I knew about Christos Hatzis’s music from my work with the Art of Time Ensemble. His arrangements for that group were always standouts, and I was very eager to work with him. When Jeff arranged for Christos and me to meet, our coffee and a stroll turned into a three-hour conversation about the nature of reality, time, the universe, and human purpose. No small talk lead-in—just straight to the good stuff! It was an exciting meeting of minds.”

After the initial meeting, Hatzis turned those ideas into the creation of Lamento, the first part of the cycle of the composition, which was dark and dramatic with underlying themes of mental illness and death. That darkness turned into a spiritual journey in the second cycle, which is Ecstasy.

Slean learned the first cycle as close to the score as possible. Once she arrived at rehearsal for the first time, Hatzis advised her to make it her own instead of following the score. She made it come to life by diving into the character more.

“There is such theatrical, dramatic flair to this piece,” Slean says. “The emotions are huge and it’s a joy to sing. For Ecstasy, Christos asked me to compose the text, and I kept thinking about the first character from Lamento and how to make sense of her suffering and suicide … given the hopeful and redemptive worldview that Christos and I share.”

Slean and Hatzis explored how love fits in the universe.

“I think we both believe that the stuff of the universe is a living, vast, timeless love, as the prime mover, the only substance, and that love is always seeking contact with its conscious creations,” she says. “A person who ends their own life is someone who, tragically, can not hear or feel that original, omniscient love, although it is always waiting for us. I think the poetry of the entire second cycle is about this.”

Overall, Slean says the collaboration with Hatzis and Symphony Nova Scotia was ideal because everyone brought something unique to the partnership.

Symphony Nova Scotia. Photo: Submitted

“The orchestral musicians are veterans who are skilled, receptive, responsive,” she says. “The conductor knows how to bring out the best in them and how to make a Hatzis score leap off the page. Christos’ work is ideal for my voice and my sensibility. I love the drama, the emotion, the colours, the romance and intensity.”

This Juno nomination comes 18 years after Slean received her first. She’s overjoyed for Hatzis and Symphony Nova Scotia.

“Christos has consistently done ground-breaking work for decades and is always working with unusual collaborators from outside of traditional classical music,” she says. “I find this so refreshing and interesting. Instead of becoming more rigid as he gets older, Christos stretches himself and takes more risks. I applaud Symphony Nova Scotia for doing the same. I think this is how the orchestral tradition will attract new audiences and break new artistic ground. It’s so exciting to work with people who are interested in taking classical music to new and unknown territory.”

For Symphony Nova Scotia, it’s the payoff for years of effort.

“We’re delighted about this Juno award nomination,” says Symphony Nova Scotia CEO Chris Wilkinson. “It’s the first Juno nomination in Symphony Nova Scotia’s history, but our work to create and nurture these collaborative fusion projects has been ongoing for years. It’s a real honour to receive national recognition for our efforts here in Nova Scotia … We plan to continue working with local artists to create even more exciting musical experiences together.”

It’s a musical direction Slean wants to continue to explore too.

“I’ve been doing mostly that for the last eight years, and it’s richly rewarding,” she says. “It’s a thrill to play with an orchestra so receptive to new music and so supportive of their fellow Canadian artists and composers, regardless of genre. Symphony Nova Scotia creates so much value and joy for their community, and their commitment is unwavering. I think this is why they are such a beloved institution in Halifax. I’m very proud to have been a part of this huge, unusually ambitious project, and my sincere congratulations to everyone involved for sticking with it for the eight years it took to make it a reality.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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