Joshua Hopkins and the outlet through art

The National Arts Center Orchestra (NAC) and baritone Joshua Hopkins premiered Thursday night in Ottawa in their orchestral version Songs for Murdered Sisters, by Jake Heggie, with texts by Margaret Atwood. The score, inspired by the murder of Hopkins’ sister and dedicated to all victims of feminicide, is an important addition to the repertoire. In short, a masterpiece.

The world premieres follow one another on a daily basis. After the experimental Keiko Devaux, the exotic and moving David Bontemps, the swirling violin concerto by Tim Brady, the experience of Songs for Murdered Sisters immediately plunged us into another dimension. Neither in the sound laboratory, nor in the sympathetic, nor in the respectable, but in the universal heritage.

A winter journey

The issue, basically, of Songs for Murdered Sisters was the following: can they be for baritone what the Neruda Songs for mezzo, that is to say the great emblematic vocal cycle of the nascent 21st century? The answer is yes, thanks to Jake Heggie’s art of marrying in a few notes, a few stamps, the words of Margaret Atwood (introduction to dream ; bird soul and its evolution from insouciance to distortion; Lost).

Songs for Murdered Sisters adds to the list of tremendous creative successes of the NAC Orchestra in its way of approaching the subjects of the times with respect, sometimes even transcending them. This is the case, here, of the scourge of feminicides.

Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins lost his sister, Nathalie Warmerdam, on September 22, 2015. Like two other women on the same day, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam was the victim of bullets fired by an ex-spouse. Joshua’s pain transcended by ordering these Songs for Murdered Sisterseight songs, whose composition was completed in February 2020 and whose orchestral version could not be created as planned.

Alexander Shelley heated the orchestral embers to make the singer roar with barely contained rage: “ Anger is red. The color of spilled blood (“anger is red, the color of spilled blood”). THE Songs for Murdered Sisters constitute a kind of winter travel in the eyes of Jake Heggie who sees “Josh as a wanderer. He travels the world wondering how to make sense of this event and put the pieces back together, filled with grief and rage, in a quest for connection and transformation.”


At the end of the long-awaited course, the heroic baritone, or rather brother, broke down in tears at the first applause, consoled by the conductor and joined by Margaret Atwood. We were here at the heights of the healthiest, most fruitful, respectful and judicious expression of this social conscience that we were discussing on Thursday. A fact, an acute and major social problem has generated an outlet through art for the sole benefit of the repertoire and the public. What could be more noble?

The concert opened happily with a skilfully chosen work by a composer; opening Faust by Émilie Mayer, a solid German romantic composition. Alexander Shelley also led the 4th Symphony by Brahms, an interpretation that took off three-quarters of the way through the first part, when 1st violinist Yosuke Kawasaki started to give impetus to the group by getting up from his chair.

There, the whole orchestra, which was playing very well but “comfortable” until then, began to unleash tension and sonic density, never to let go until the end. The interpretation of the English conductor ended with a rare gem: a Final held to tempo in a great irrepressible breath. By not slowing down the variation played by the flute, Shelley was able to preserve an impressive structural, intellectual and musical coherence afterwards. Long live the disc!

Christophe Huss was the guest of the National Arts Center.

Atwood, Heggie & Brahms

Mayer: Faust-Overture. Heggie: Songs for Murdered Sisters. Brahms: Symphony No. 4. Joshua Hopkins (baritone), National Arts Center Orchestra, Alexander Shelley. Southam Hall, Thursday, February 9, 2023.

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