10/07/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 12/06/2012 05:12 EST

National Arts Centre Orchestra, Nunavut make sweet music together

The National Arts Centre Orchestra doesn't play its first actual concert in Iqaluit until later this month, but artists from the Ottawa-based institution have been making sweet music with the Arctic capital for years.

The 30-member ensemble will be bringing Grieg and Vivaldi to the territory later this month as part of a tour that also includes Yellowknife and Whitehorse. But just as important are its collaborations with Inuit artists and its ongoing efforts to encourage local music-making.

"They've been really good partners in saying, 'Well, tell us what you need and we'll try to support that,'" said Darlene Nuqingaq, a music teacher in the Iqaluit school system. "The sustained building of skills is really exceptional."

The orchestra has been working with teachers, students and musicians in Nunavut since 2009.

Fiddle and accordion, introduced by Scottish whalers in the 19th century, remain popular in the territory and orchestral violinists have been using Skype to give lessons to Inuit fiddle clubs. As well as sending its own musicians up North for teaching visits, the orchestra has sent fiddlers, accordionists and drum dancers to five Nunavut communities as far afield as Igloolik.

It has provided 187 instruments, including 27 donated violins, to various schools in the territory and helped with music curriculum development.

The orchestra's concert in Iqaluit will be a fundraiser for a group hoping to build a performing arts centre in Iqaluit. Orchestra management is helping that group organize its plans.

In everything it does in Nunavut, the National Arts Centre ensures that Inuit music features prominently. When the orchestra's brass trio visited Iqaluit last winter, it brought arrangements of three traditional Inuit songs that had never before been played on western instruments.

The trio played them at an impromptu concert for some Inuit women at Iqaluit's elders centre.

"The ladies started singing along and they started getting all choked up," recalled trumpet player Karen Donnelly.

"They would have never seen a live concert of these instruments before — and playing their music, absolutely never. That was really neat."

The orchestra's Oct. 27 performance in Iqaluit will feature western classical music and include violin soloist James Ehnes. But it will also offer work by Canadian composer Alexina Louie that features two throat singers and a collaboration with legendary Inuit button accordionist Simeonie Keenainak.

The orchestra will play an arrangement of Keenainak's version of an old Inuit song that hunters sang while seal-hunting to mask the sound of their footsteps on the ice.

"They like Inuit musicians and Inuit music," Keenainak said.

"They seem like they're interested to learn it. They can play their own thing down there all they want, but they want to come up and play with musicians up here, which is really good."

The National Arts Centre is involved in promoting music in other jurisdictions as well. It has extensive programs in Alberta and Saskatchewan and is getting into northern Manitoba as well.

But the relationship with Nunavut is closer, said Genevieve Cimon, director of music education.

"It's a much more comprehensive program," she said. "It's tailored to the needs of the communities."

Since 2009, nearly 5,000 kids have been involved in concerts or programs. About 1,200 community members have participated in them. And nearly 300 students have attended summer music camps sponsored by the arts centre, which spends $105,000 a year on its Nunavut outreach.

The work may be starting to pay off.

Following several workshops, Igloolik now has enough demand to have hired a full-time music teacher. Demand in Iqaluit is also high, said Nuqingaq.

"There's a waiting list of kids that want lessons. The communities would love to have more music programs for their youth."

It pays off for the orchestra, too.

"It's been absolutely a revelation for everybody involved," said CEO Peter Herrndorf. "All of us keep saying we're learning so much — and, hopefully, contributing.

"What's important is to bring music to the North — not just European-based music, but also music that's Nunavut-based."