This Friday, we continue our Music Director Leslie Dala’s retrospective of his first decade with the VBC. If you missed part one, you can read it by clicking here.
Haydn Die Schöpfung (The Creation)
‘Papa’ Haydn began this masterpiece in 1796 at the age of 64 and spent two years completing it.
Haydn was a mentor to both Mozart and Beethoven, and both composers dedicated works to their senior colleague. In our own time, Haydn is less revered than Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, and yet he was someone who produced music of the highest quality throughout his lifetime and was also a great experimenter with form. He is considered the “father” of both the symphony and the string quartet (having composed 104 and over 80 respectively).
In this late masterpiece, Haydn set out to depict the opening of the book of Genesis with the help of Gottfried van Swieten who provided the text in both English and German. The first two parts depict the six stages of Creation and part three is a pastoral representation of the Garden of Eden. The three soloists in the first two parts represent the archangels Raphael (bass), Uriel (tenor), and Gabriel (soprano) and in the third part the bass and soprano represent Adam and Eve. The score is filled with the most magical moments of word and tone painting, like the very opening where the orchestra depicts “Chaos”. This is some of the most moody, dark, chromatic music to be found in all of Haydn’s output. The darkness is shattered when the choir sings: “Let there be light” and a glorious C major chord that pulsates in the orchestra.
This performance on March 31, 2012 happened to fall exactly on Haydn’s 280th birthday which was a happy coincidence. Once again the VSO performed with us and we were joined by soloists Virginia Hatfield, John Tessier and Daniel Okulitch. We performed the work in German (which was in fact the original setting) and we had set up surtitles that we were going to run for the performance. Unexpectedly, ten minutes before the performance the machine inexplicable stopped working but I did not realize this until after we started the performance. After the intermission, I came out to apologize to the audience and explain that on the day of Haydn’s birthday, the machine had “given up the ghost”.
Mahler Symphony no. 8 “Symphony of a Thousand”
This symphony is pretty much the dream piece of every conductor I know. Featuring a double chorus, children’s choir, eight soloists, a gargantuan orchestra, including organ, multiple keyboards, percussion and even a mandolin, this symphony is about as big as it gets! Unlike any symphony written before it, the choir sings throughout the entire piece except for a few small sections so it is a major undertaking in size and scope. Some of our choir members have participated in six different productions of this piece across the country! This was our first collaboration with the West Coast Symphony Orchestra and we were all excited to take on the challenges of this daunting but very rewarding piece.
Consisting of two distinct sections, Part One is a setting of the 6th century Latin plainchant Veni Creator Spiritus and Part Two borrows the text from the final section of Goethe’s Faust. The very opening of the piece is one of the most exuberant and explosive outbursts of almost any piece I can think of. Mahler then takes us on a roughly 80 minute journey encompassing just about every mood you can imagine. He is the master of orchestral colour knowing how to get the most transparent web of sound to the most earth shattering eruption. To say that it is a thrill to be at the helm of these forces creating this magical kaleidoscope would be a major understatement.
The Canadian premiere Mahler 8 took place in 1983 in Toronto to celebrate the opening of Roy Thompson Hall with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, none other than the Vancouver Bach Choir and the children’s choirs were made up of singers from St. Michael’s Choir School and St. Simon the Apostle Choir. The forces were all led by then Music Director of the TSO (Sir) Andrew Davis who was a friend and colleague of Bruce Pullan’s from their days at King’s College. Yours truly was one of the boy sopranos and it was a life changing experience. Thirty five years later, my son Andreas sang in this performance and being on the podium I was able to experience the indescribable sensations that I had dreamed about as a young boy.
Rachmaninoff Kolokolá (The Bells)
Rachmaninoff is of course famous for his unforgettable piano music, especially the 2nd and 3rd piano concertos and he was a legendary pianist himself who travelled the world as a virtuoso. It is perhaps a bit surprising that among his own personal favourite works are The All Night Vigil (1915) written for a capella choir and lasting over an hour (the VBC also performed this work for the first time during my first season) and The Bells, which is a choral symphony much like Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. The Vigil, or Vespers as it is better known is a work that is well known and loved and performed by choirs throughout the world. The Bells, not so much, and I had to include this piece on my list as it is such a gem that deserves to be better known.
The work is a setting of poems by Konstantin Balmont after Edgar Allan Poe and each of the four movements depicts bells representing the various stages of life:
1. Silver sleigh bells (youth and innocence)
2 Golden wedding bells (first love and adulthood)
3 Alarm bells (the struggles and stresses of daily life)
4 Iron bells (funeral bells)
The musical language is rich, luscious romantic excess and the final movement includes the famour Dies Irae motif which Rachmaninoff was very fond of. The third movement is a scherzo for choir and orchestra which is among the most harrowing music Rachmaninoff ever composed. It is scored for a massive orchestra, chorus and three soloists who were soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, tenor Frederik Robert and baritone Alan Corbishley. On November 27, 2016 we partnered with the Vancouver Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in a sold out Orpheum performance that included Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with Christopher Gaze, Artistic Director of Bard on the Beach narrating and members of the Goh Ballet dancing.
Stravinsky Les Noces
This was another bucket list piece for me which I first heard performed at the Bartók Festival in Hungary as a teenager on my first trip to Europe conducted by the eminent conductor and composer, Peter Eötvös. Also, my friends the formidable duo pianists Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann had recently recorded the work with Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s longtime assistant and biographer, so I thought, we have to do this piece!
Les Noces (The Wedding) is a miracle of a piece that Stravinsky began in 1914, just a year after the infamous Parisian premiere of The Rite of Spring and did not complete until 1923. The extremely long gestation period reflects his continual experimentation with both the form and the content of this piece. It is a tableau in 4 scenes depicting a peasant wedding and Stravinsky assembled the text himself from a series of folk songs. It is scored for the very unusual combination of four pianos, percussion, choir and four soloists. There are approximately 2, 500 words set, many of them at lightning speed and we decided to do the work in the original Russian language. On top of that, the metre changes are constant, much like in the Rite of Spring so you never stop counting. The challenges presented by the text and music are formidable and I know that there were many choir members who were not so thrilled by my choice of presenting this. We worked incredibly hard on this piece and I think it was a huge learning curve for all of us.
The Bergmanns were joined by pianists Kinza Tyrrell and Gregory Oh, the UBC Percussion Ensemble and soloists Melanie Krueger, Barbara Towell, Frederik Robert (who miraculously stepped in on 2 days notice!) and Willy Miles Grenzberg.
This work has often been referred to as Verdi’s “greatest opera”. Of course, it is not an opera but a setting of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Mass for the Dead. Written in Verdi’s maturity around the time of Aida and Don Carlos this is arguably the most dramatic setting of the Requiem ever composed. When I began my tenure in 2010 my first assignment was to prepare the Verdi for performances with the VSO conducted by their Music Director Bramwell Tovey. I had just conducted the Vancouver Opera production of Rigoletto in 2009 and I had already worked on several Verdi operas including Aida, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera so I was itching for the chance to work on the Requiem.
One of the great pleasures in working with the VBC was the fact that many of the choristers had sung this piece numerous times with different conductors and so the rehearsals were spent not on learning notes but rather exploring all of the possibilities of sound, phrasing and articulation. The score is filled with the most intimate moments like the very opening, to the most shattering like the famous Dies Irae movement, so there was no shortage of work to do. I was very proud of the performances that the VBC gave in 2010 under Maestro Tovey and he told me afterwards that the Sanctus movement (a fugue for double chorus) was the cleanest he had ever heard it.
In November 2017, I finally had the opportunity to conduct the work myself with the VBC, and VAMSO in another sold out performance at the Orpheum with soloists Joslin Romphf Dennis, Leah Giselle Field, Frederik Robert and Alan Corbishley. I was especially proud of the work of the young musicians in VAMSO who really rose to the occasion and gave a full blooded rendition of the piece. This is a piece I sincerely hope that the VBC and I will get to do many times in the future once this era of social isolation comes to an end!
Thanks for joining us! We’ll back in two weeks with the next installment of talkBach, featuring more of our fabulous staff and artists.