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A Messiah for the modern age
He may not be considered “young” by many industry standards, but, in the world of classical music, 41-year-old Vancouver conductor Leslie Dala is a relative spring chicken.
“In the earlier part of the 20th century, most of the conductors were all white-hairs,” Dala says. “It was unthinkable that you would have somebody younger than that.”
But times are changing, he explains. With the evolution of the recording industry, and in hopes of preserving the future of classical music, it’s no longer necessary to have a lifetime of experience before taking up the baton. Today, Dala says more and more passionate young conductors with an appetite for creating excitement are getting big opportunities early in their careers.
Now in his third season as music director of the Vancouver Bach Choir, Dala hopes to create said excitement with El Niño. Written in 2000 by American composer John Adams, the contemporary nativity oratorio makes its Canadian debut at the Orpheum Theatre this Saturday. It tells the age-old story of the birth of Jesus Christ — with a few modern-day touches.
The large-scale production features the Vancouver Bach Choir, six soloists — three of whom are countertenors — the Vancouver Bach Children’s Chorus and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. A percussion ensemble, keyboards and steel-stringed guitars add a contemporary sound. Meanwhile, the libretto — or the words of the opera — weave text from pre-Christian prophets, canonical and Gnostic gospels, and mid-20th century Hispanic poetry.
While El Niño doesn’t have the same name recognition as popular Christmas productions such as The Nutcracker or Handel’s The Messiah, Dala promises the visual and musical impact of this concert will be hard to top.
“I just think it’s an extremely important and relevant piece and I, among many other people, believe that John Adams is one of the most important living composers,” he says, explaining Adams has made an indelible mark on the international music stage over the course of his career.
Like much of Adams’ work, Dala says, El Niño transcends boundaries and will appeal not just to classical music aficionados. After all, there are guitars and drums.
“These days people are so caught up with their iPods that music is usually just experienced through digital or technological means,” Dala says. “That’s great, but it has no comparison to what it is to actually walk into a hall and see people making music in real time, with their own voices, with their own instruments.”
Dala experienced live music at an early age growing up in Toronto. For his Hungarian immigrant parents and their social circle, classical music was part of everyday life. Like his three older siblings, Dala studied music and eventually found his way to Vancouver when he did his master’s degree at UBC.
A lifetime of practise has paid off. In addition to his role with the Vancouver Bach Choir, Dala is also music director for the Vancouver Academy of Music and associate conductor and chorus master for the Vancouver Opera.
And he’s only just getting started.
The Vancouver Bach Choir performs El Niño at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 15 at 8 pm. Tickets are $25-$59 at VancouverBachChoir.com or 604-696-4290.