Uplifting and uploading

Thirteen Strings Orchestra still playing, still in touch

Robert MacDonald

The Thirteen Strings has been a key part of the Ottawa music scene for over 40 years. Founded by Brian Law, the Organist and Choirmaster at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in the Glebe, its roots are in Baroque chamber music. Today, under Artistic Director Kevin Mallon, the orchestra’s repertoire ranges from Baroque to the works of modern Canadian composers. As well, the orchestra runs a junior program for aspiring young musicians and an annual composition competition at the University of Ottawa’s music faculty. But, as with all arts organizations, COVID has challenged the orchestra to rethink how to remain viable and relevant.

When the COVID lockdowns were first announced in March, the orchestra had three concerts remaining in its 2019-20 season. Needless to say, the concerts were cancelled. Of immediate concern for the orchestra was the well-being of its musicians. With the generous support of granting agencies and sponsors, as well as subscribers who immediately turned the money paid for seasons tickets into donations, the orchestra was able to pay its musicians for the cancelled concerts.

Having dealt with the immediate issue of the cancelled concerts, the orchestra, with the invaluable guidance and energy of Sandy Hill couple Guylaine Lemaire (Executive Director) and Julian Armour (principal cellist), turned its attention to ways in which the orchestra could stay in touch with its audience—virtually.

Over the summer, the Thirteen Strings launched a series of short clips by members of the orchestra performing in their homes. These intimate glimpses into the lives of the orchestra members, sometimes performing with their children, were well received. But they were a stepping stone to more ambitious projects. (See the web site:

Earlier in the fall, the orchestra got together at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre for the first time since COVID hit. Socially distanced and masked, the orchestra recorded Respighi’s Bergamasca as arranged by Julian Armour. The recording is powerful and uplifting and can be found on the Thirteen Strings YouTube channel,

But the COVID challenge remains: how to reach an audience when live performances will not be possible for the foreseeable future. The answer: virtual concerts to replace the orchestra’s typical six-concert season.

In November, the members of the orchestra reassembled at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre to record an hour-long concert of English chamber music featuring the music of Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Edward Elgar. The Thirteen Strings welcomed noted Canadian violinist Marc Djokic as soloist in Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending.” The concert has just been released on YouTube,

So, what does the future hold? Plans are in place to record a concert to be released in time for Christmas, including works of Corelli, Rutter and Finzi and featuring Mireille Asselin, soprano. But, once that is done, the orchestra will have to assess what else it can offer for the remainder of the season. A series of one-hour concerts are planned for 2021 but, without the ability to support itself through ticket sales, the viability of those concerts remains uncertain.

The challenges faced by the orchestra are not unique: they are shared by all arts organizations. While the Thirteen Strings will remain virtual for the moment, the orchestra cannot wait to perform in front of a live audience.

In mid-November Thirteen Strings’ managers uploaded a 6-minute clip of Respighi’s splendid work, a week later they added a new, full-length performance of English music, and in early December a new podcast. All on YouTube, seeking your interest and support.