We can’t be singing for our audiences these days, but we’re still thinking of you! We thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to introduce some of our staff to you in more detail, and see what they’ve been thinking about, and listening to during social distancing. In seasons past we sent out a monthly newsletter titled “talkBach.” We’re bringing it back here, in a fresh, new format.
For our first week, we asked Music Director Leslie Dala to reflect back on his first decade with the Vancouver Bach Choir. Below you’ll find a more or less alphabetical guide to his top ten performances from the past decade as well as playlist of all the mentioned pieces. Well, the first five at least! Watch this space next week for the continuation and future installments.
As I reflect on my ten years as Music Director of the Vancouver Bach Choir, I decided to compile a top 10 list of some of the most memorable performances that I have led personally over this period. When I came on board, the choir was celebrating its 80th anniversary season, which is proof of the amazing legacy the organization has as one of the oldest arts organizations in the country. I was very excited to begin working with this famed choir that had been led so ably, and to great acclaim, for almost 30 years under their former Music Director, the distinguished conductor Bruce Pullan.
Although I have been extremely fortunate to conduct many of the great masterpieces of the choral symphonic literature with the Vancouver Bach Choir including the Messiah, the Requiems of Mozart, Fauré, Brahms and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the list I have put together include a number of rarities, and a couple of world premieres commissioned by the VBC. All of these projects were labours of love (at least for me and I hope for most of the choir members) and had their share of challenges, but they stand out for me as personal highlights in my conducting career.
John Adams El Niño
In December 15th 2012, the VBC gave the Canadian premiere of this significant Christmas Oratorio by American composer John Adams, with a libretto assembled by him and his long time collaborator, writer and director Peter Sellars. This is an extraordinary work which makes huge demands on the choir, orchestra, and soloists. I had worked with Peter Sellars in the summer of 2008 at the Santa Fe Opera when I was the assistant conductor on Kaija Saariaho’s opera Adrianna Mater which Peter was directing, and in 2010 I was again the assistant conductor and chorus director on the Canadian premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China which Vancouver Opera presented during the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. These experiences turned me into a huge fan of these brilliant creators and when I was appointed Music Director of the VBC in 2010, I was very keen to present this modern day masterpiece. One of the works most unusual features is that it features three solo counter tenors. I was thrilled that we could present Daniel Brubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards who had sung the world premiere and appeared on the only recording of the piece, in addition to soprano Jessica Rivera and Canadians mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabo and baritone Gregory Dahl.
The day before the performance was the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, and I remember watching the news in the morning in complete shock and sorrow before heading to the Orpheum to meet with the soloists in advance of our two rehearsals with the Vancouver Symphony that day. Everyone was extremely upset about this (four of the soloists were US citizens) and one of the movements featuring the Bach Choir was entitled “And he slew all the children” from Matthew Chapter 2 referring to King Herod’s slaughter in Bethlehem. I could never have imagined how powerful this text would be in the wake of this senseless tragedy and I remember doing everything I could to keep it together both in the final rehearsals and performance. The energy in the Orpheum that night was something I will never forget.
Bach St. Matthew Passion
As I write these notes, I realize that today, April 15th, is in fact the very day on which Bach’s monumental masterpiece was first performed in Leipzig (thanks to Steven Isserlis on twitter!). The VBC performed the work in March 2016 during our 85th season and I loved the coincidence of 85 years of the VBC with Bach being born in 1685. I realize that is very geeky of me. Welcome to my world!
In any event, the St. Matthew Passion is written for double chorus, children’s chorus, double orchestra and a myriad of soloists. It also is almost 3 hours in length. Programming this piece is by no means inexpensive and we had discussions at the board level about possibly making cuts to avoid paying overtime to the VSO musicians, something which my artistic hat was having trouble swallowing.
About two months before the performance I had the good fortune of being invited to hear the great Hungarian pianist Sir Andras Schiff play a recital at the Vancouver Playhouse presented by the Vancouver Recital Society. As a special bonus, I was invited to a private dinner afterwards by Martha Lou Henley one of the city’s greatest arts supporters and philanthropists. Since I myself am of Hungarian background and it was the first language I learned I had the special privilege of sitting next to Sir Andras for the evening.
Needless to say, I was in heaven sitting next to one of my idols and we talked about a lot of things musical, flipping back and forth between Hungarian and English. Sir Andras is one of the greatest living Bach interpreters and he has also conducted operas, oratorios, and symphonic works. The topic of the St. Matthew Passion came up and I told him that I was under pressure to make cuts to the work. I will never forget the intense look he gave me, I felt as if I had personally done great harm to him and his family. He said in his beautifully refined mix of Hungarian and British accents: “Oh no, you must not do this. It is impossible”. I told this story to the board and to the choir at our next meeting and thankfully it was the support of Sir Andras Schiff that convinced everyone that we had to play the entire score without cutting a single note!
Berlioz La Damnation de Faust
In 2011, at the conclusion of my first season with the VBC we presented Berlioz’s visionary work which is a piece I had been obsessed with for a while. It is basically an opera but Berlioz called it a dramatic legend since he realized that the technology of his time could not do the piece dramatic justice. In our own time, the brilliant Canadian director Robert Lepage created an epic production for the Metropolitan Opera. Perhaps the most famous excerpt from the work is the “Rakoczi March,” which had a thunderous success in Hungary in Pest (before it joined with its neighbouring city Buda). This also happens to be the 15th Hungarian Rhapsody of Franz Liszt which is a work I performed a lot as a teenager. (I warned you that I could be quite geeky).
I believe that the work had not been performed in Vancouver since the 80’s or 90’s when Bruce Pullan led the VBC and the VSO in a performance. The biggest thrill for me was to have tenor Paul Groves as Faust (Paul has sung this role all over the world including at the Met with James Levine), Canadian Bass John Relyea as Mephistopheles, who sang the role at the Met in the Lepage production, and a couple of Canadian singer friends whom I had both first met at Banff years earlier: Allyson McHardy making her role debut as Marguerite and Giles Tomkins as Brander. I had made my debut with conducting members of the VSO a few months earlier with the VBC in the Messiah and to follow it up with this massive symphonic opus was a dream come true!
Brian Current The River of Light
Brian Current is at the forefront of Canadian composers with several international awards, commissions and residencies. I first met Brian in 2003 when I was engaged to conduct a workshop of his chamber opera “Airline Icarus” in Vancouver, which had been commissioned by Opera Breve. It was a remarkable and extremely challenging piece with a libretto by Anton Piatigorsky, also an award winning writer and personal friend of Brian’s who also happens to be the grandson of the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorksy.
The piece skilfully weaves the legend of Icarus with the theme of fear of modern day flying. The score was highly original, colourful, and inventive, especially rhythmically. Brian used a technique which he referred to as “slanted time” in which the music was constantly accelerating every few bars and then shifting temporarily to a new plateau only to repeat the process continuously. Brian was present for the workshop, and he and I became friends and stayed in touch over time. Naxos released a recording of Airline Icarus in 2014 conducted by Brian which won a Juno award for best new composition. It was around this time that Brian and I met in Toronto and I approached him about writing a large scale work for chorus and orchestra. The rest as they say, is history…
In Brian’s own words, “The River of Light is a multi-movement cycle for soloists, choir and orchestra. The music is about transcendence and is based on the texts of writers from various traditions (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Indigenous, Canadian, Islamic, Secular and Chinese) that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state. The cycle is modelled on the religious oratorios of the past while celebrating the diverse beliefs of the urban communities of North America today. The work is inspired by Dante’s vision in the Paradiso where he enters the glowing core of heaven and declares: “And I saw a light in the form of a river, radiant as gold”.
I believe that this work is a modern day masterpiece. Each movement has a character of its own and is extremely evocative with fantastic effects for the chorus, orchestra and soloists alike. Some of the notation was unfamiliar to our members but we all worked extremely hard to try and get what Brian had written. For this performance we were joined by two choirs from the Bach Choir Family of Choirs: Sarabande and the Chorus and the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, as well as soprano Caitlin Wood, tenor Martin Renner Wallace and Tlicho Dene narrator Mason Mantla from the Northwest Territories. It was co-produced with Vancouver Opera at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre as part of the 2019 Opera Festival whose them was Fables and Legends.
Andrew Downing Phantom of the Opera
In 2013, the VBC premiered a work that we commissioned from Andrew Downing, a friend and colleague from our student days at the University of Toronto. In addition to being a composer and improviser, Andrew is a virtuoso double bass player with two Juno awards under his belt. Andrew and I reconnected after several years while we did a BC tour with our mutual friend soprano and chanteuse Patricia O’Callaghan. This tour was probably the closest I have ever felt to being a jazz musician, being on the road in a trio that played a lot of great music from Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits among others.
During one of our post show chats, Andrew and I discovered that we had a mutual love of silent films and that he had in fact performed live accompaniments to several films with his ensemble in Toronto which were partly written out and largely improvised. I got very excited about this news and I commissioned Andrew to compose a score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari while I was Music Director of the Prince George Symphony. We screened the film with live original music being performed by a small contingency of the orchestra including Andrew on double bass. The concert was a huge success and a couple of years later I approached Andrew about writing a score to the classic 1926 film The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, featuring the Bach Choir and a small ensemble made up of some of Canada’s finest jazz musicians and improvisers based in Vancouver.
The choir had never done a project like this before and to say that they loved it would be an understatement. The band was first rate and it was so fitting to perform this in the Orpheum Theatre, which was of course first built as a movie and vaudeville theatre. The music that Andrew wrote was so idiomatic featuring numerous sound effects and captured the full range of the light and dark aspects of the film. Chris Gestrin played a magnificent improvisation on the mighty Wurlitzer organ in the scene just before Christine rips the mask off the Phantom revealing his hideously deformed face. I have never had so many choristers come up to me after a concert to ask “when can we do this again”? So by popular demand we presented it again two years later. Last season we gave the world premiere of another Andrew Downing score, Nosferatu, also with Andrew’s participation as a performer. Who knows, perhaps he may have another one up his sleeve…
Part 2 coming next week!
A shoutout to our fabulous graphic designer, Lydia Avsec of Co-Pilot Design. The El Niño, St. Matthew and Phantom posters are all her artwork.