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!”
The Vancouver Bach Choir presents Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Orpheum on Saturday (February 17).