Mahler mem­o­ries drive epic Bach Choir con­cert

> BY ALEXAN­DER VARTY

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

Gus­tav Mahler’s Sym­phony No. 8 changed Les­lie Dala’s life when he was just 12 years old—and ap­par­ently the work’s trans­for­ma­tive power is still po­tent.

“I had been singing for a num­ber of years, and I’d also been play­ing the pi­ano and the vi­o­lin,” the Van­cou­ver Bach Choir’s mu­sic di­rec­tor re­calls in a phone in­ter­view from his Van­cou­ver home. “So I was very much sur­rounded by mu­sic, and mu­sic of a fairly high level of artistry. But be­ing in­volved in this piece com­pletely opened my eyes to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what is re­ally out there.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Wow, if one can make a liv­ing do­ing this, if one can make this one’s life, then there can’t be any­thing bet­ter,’” Dala adds. “That re­ally stuck with me.”

The year of the mul­ti­tal­ented mu­si­cian and con­duc­tor’s “point of en­try” to his pro­fes­sional ca­reer? 1983. The place? Toronto, where the Bach Choir had joined the Toronto Sym­phony Orches­tra and the Toronto Men­delssohn Choir for the Cana­dian pre­miere of Mahler’s mag­num opus. And not only does Dala still re­mem­ber this for­ma­tive mo­ment, he re­vis­its it ev­ery time he per­forms the sprawl­ing work, which re­quires a min­i­mum of a sym­phony orches­tra, adult and chil­dren’s choirs, and eight vo­cal soloists.

“The rush is al­ways there,” he notes. “I just find it truly re­mark­able. The form, and the con­tent… I mean, it’s so in­spired. And the fact that Mahler wrote, in his let­ters, that this sym­phony took a lot less time to write than the oth­ers, I just find in­cred­i­ble.”

That Dala should have been drawn to the 80-minute work is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing. “In my ed­u­ca­tion at St. Michael’s, in the choir school, we sang a lot of Re­nais­sance polyphony and chant, and of course the whole first move­ment, ‘Veni cre­ator [spir­i­tus]’, is based on that,” he ex­plains. “So in terms of the text and the mu­si­cal land­scape, that was quite fa­mil­iar. It was the sec­ond part, based on the last scene of Goethe’s Faust, which seemed very for­eign at the time.…the first part just blew by, and the sec­ond part was more of a mys­tery—but it had cor­ners that I just found so re­mark­ably beau­ti­ful.”

Since that first en­counter, Dala adds, he has only fallen more com­pletely in love with the work. But while his ini­tial at­trac­tion was to Mahler’s dense web of highly charged melody, he has since gained a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the Aus­trian com­poser’s mas­tery of com­plex mu­si­cal form.

“I was just say­ing to the choir the other night, in re­hearsal, that only Mahler can do the sorts of things that he does in this piece, where he’ll stretch out a har­mony and then make a mas­sive colour change, ei­ther with or­ches­tra­tion or with a big crescendo, and only one note which has been in sus­pen­sion of some­thing gets re­solved. There’s this in­cred­i­ble feel­ing of the build­ing of ten­sion and then re­lease.”

There’s an­other, less purely mu­si­cal rea­son why Dala is look­ing for­ward to the Bach Choir’s up­com­ing per­for­mance of the Sym­phony No. 8: it’ll mark his son An­dreas’s first on-stage ex­pe­ri­ence of singing Mahler, as a mem­ber of the Van­cou­ver Bach Choir’s chil­dren’s cho­rus.

“He’s just about to turn 12, so it’s kind of a nice pass­ing-on of the torch,” the proud par­ent con­fides. “He’s been lis­ten­ing to the piece and he said it just hit him like a tidal wave, at the be­gin­ning. It cer­tainly has that ef­fect!”

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