El Niño, presented by the Vancouver Bach Choir, Saturday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. at The Orpheum. Tickets: $25-$59, visit vancouverbachchoir.com/tickets.
A work making its Canadian debut Saturday night at The Orpheum turns a contemporary eye on the Nativity, retelling the classic Christmas story in epic fashion.
More than 200 musicians will grace the famed Vancouver stage to bring El Niño (The Child), an opera-oratorio by American composer John Adams, to life under the baton of Leslie Dala, music director of the Vancouver Bach Choir.
"I think it's a magnificent piece. I can guarantee people will never forget this evening. No matter how much musical experience or how little they have, it's something that is incredibly striking and so I just urge people to come out and see it," says Dala, who also serves as associate conductor and chorus director with the Vancouver Opera and music director of the Vancouver Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra.
Dala is incredibly excited to be presenting the one-night affair, dubbed "a Messiah for the modern age," a major coup for Vancouver.
"I dare say, I work with other groups in town, but I think this is the event of the season quite frankly. I don't just mean December but of this 2012/2013 year, this premiere, because again it's a major, major work that hasn't been done and with all the forces coming together, it's very significant," he says.
The Vancouver Bach Choir is presenting the work along with the Vancouver Bach Children's Chorus and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO).
El Niño has long been a piece Dala has been interested in tackling, having put it forth as a potential worthwhile production to the Bach Choir's board and management when he took on his current role three seasons ago. He played under its composer locally, back in 2000, on keyboards with the VSO. Interested in building on the success of the 2010 Canadian premiere by the Vancouver Opera of Adams' Nixon in China, the choir endeavoured to "strike while the iron is hot," says Dala.
Further adding to the timing was an opening on the local Messiah production rotation. For more than 30 years, thanks to a "gentleman's agreement," the Bach Choir, Vancouver Chamber Choir and Vancouver Cantata Singers have taken turns presenting Handel's oratorio annually during the holiday season.
"It just so happened that a couple of years ago the Cantata Singers decided to take themselves out of that rotation so it created a void for this season and so I pitched that the Bach Choir would like to step in and take over the Cantata Singers' slot, not with another Messiah, but rather this piece," says Dala.
While they remain committed to the classics, for example, the Bach Choir will be back in 2013 with a production of Messiah, balance is important, and performing contemporary works and works relevant to our time are also an important aspect of the ensemble's mandate.
"It's important for arts groups not to fall back completely on what they see as the old successful formula because then you're kind of lacking in inspiration and vision. To my mind it's crucial for any group to be able to offer a wide array of works," he says.
It's been interesting to hear the public's response to the choir's decision to present El Niño this season, says Dala.
"You talk to people who love music and they'll say to you, 'Oh God, not another Messiah.' You hear this all the time. And now suddenly this year, it's "How come you're not doing the Messiah?" I shake my head at stuff like that," he says. "One has to just forge ahead and the truth is you have to believe in what you're doing and really that's the number one thing. We're not doing this for publicity, we're not doing this for any other reason except that I think it's a great, great piece."
El Niño, since its debut in Paris in 2000, has continued to be staged at major arts centres around the world to critical acclaim. Recordings have also been produced.
The first half of the Nativity oratorio focuses on Mary's thoughts leading up to Jesus' birth. The second half chronicles the events in the stable, Herod's slaughter of the innocents and her son's early life. "It's not just about the birth of Christ, but it's about the idea of what the significance of birth is so there are modern reflections on this," says Dala.
Much like the Messiah, there are texts from the King James Bible, however the story is given a contemporary spin through the inclusion of a variety of other writings, including the Wakefield Mystery Plays, "gnostic" gospels from the Apocrypha, Martin Luther's Christmas sermon, as well as Latin American poetry, including by Rosario Castellanos.
"The piece as a whole tells a narrative, but inserted are these slightly more poetic or more modern takes on that," says Dala. "I would say it depicts Christmas from a very 20-21st century point of view of looking back on this incredible story and how every birth is an incredible story."
The music of El Niño is "off the charts," says Dala, of course including big choruses and solo arias.
"What I love about John Adams is that he really puts everything into his melting pot of writing," says Dala, explaining the composer lives in "the now" and his songs are reflective of today's contemporary music as well. "He's a composer who doesn't have his head buried in the sand," he adds.
The "stunning" orchestration is written for a traditional symphonic orchestra but includes guitars, keyboards and a huge battery of percussion, lending a kind of modern exoticism.
The Canadian premiere of El Niño will feature a number of internationally acclaimed soloists, including: American soprano Jessica Rivera; and Canadians, mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabó, who lives in Toronto, and baritone Gregory Dahl, who's a Winnipeg native. The Vancouver production's three countertenors, Daniel Bubeck, Steven Rickards and Brian Cummings, sang the same parts in the oratorio's premiere performance at the Théâtre du Châtelet 12 years ago.
"The piece, I'd say, there's this kind of arc to it which is overwhelming because you really have extremes of dynamics, loud and soft, of the kind of reflective moments where you feel like time has stopped and then other moments where it's all about nothing but the sheer drive of the piece. I think it's an incredibly inspired work," says Dala.