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"The goal is really for people to be genuinely moved" - Maestro Leslie Dala to conduct SSO in performance of Bach's Johannes Passion

Updated: Apr 2

by Scott Roos

photo courtesy of the SSO and Leslie Dala


The countdown is on. In just over a week's time, on Sunday, April 7th, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO) will mark the 300th anniversary, to the very day, of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Johannes Passion with a very special performance at Knox United Church. At the helm of the proceedings will be Maestro Leslie Dala. Dala is an experienced director of choral works, opera, and oratorio. Known for his “passionate, dynamic, and charismatic approach to music making”, this will be his fourth time working with the SSO and he’s looking forward to it.  


“The musicians are really excellent players. It's also a nice environment to work in. Everybody works really hard, that's what I remember. Especially the last couple of times I was there,” Dala told NSMZ in a telephone conversation last week ahead of his SSO appearance, “From one rehearsal to the next, everything just really gels and gels and by the time you get to the concert it feels like you've really been working collectively towards something important.”


At the absolute heart of it, Dala is relishing the opportunity to work through the Johannes Passion. Seeing it as one of Bach’s three great choral masterpieces alongside the Matthaus Passion and the B Minor Mass, the Johannes Passion is also very much in Dala’s wheelhouse in terms of what he loves to do. 


“I work a lot in opera and what I love about this program in particular is that it's not an opera but it is a work that is similar in the sense that it is a dramatic piece telling a story, that involves the chorus, that involves soloists and the orchestra working together, and that's where I'm happiest.”


“I think most classical musicians would agree that there's no one that can touch Bach in terms of the sheer output of works and just the craft (of his compositions). I mean his mastery of counterpoint and form is… Nobody can touch it and what's unbelievable,” Dala raved of Bach. 


For Dala, the overriding goal will be to create as authentic a sound and atmosphere as possible with how he, the chorus, the soloists and the orchestra interpret the work; something challenging to do with modern instruments and in a modern world that in no way resembles that of which Bach would have lived in. He aims to delve deeply into the score and lean heavily upon his research into the subject of early music. 


“It doesn't matter how close we try and get to what it was, it can never be completely authentic because we live in a different time and our experience is so completely different now,” Dala explained.


“(The SSO is) a modern orchestra. It (uses) modern pitch (A440 instead of the historical Baroque pitch standard which could vary considerably from place to place). It's people trained today and not 300 years ago. We’re flying in on a time capsule. So it's been my general approach to respect the articulations that are in there and as close as what we understand now to have been the approach.”


“I am a huge believer in the approach that the early music folks have towards this music which means less vibrato in the strings, generally shorter articulations, a drier kind of concept (in the overall sound).”


At the end of the day, Bach’s piece is powerful and moving. It features the story of the “Passion of the Christ” as laid out in the gospel of John. There are incredibly written and worked out passages for choir that will be performed by the SSO Chorus under the watchful tutelage of Duff Warkentin. There will be gorgeous melodic commentary provided by the “evangelist” which will be sung by visiting tenor Asitha Tennekoon. There will be tenor arias from local favourite Spencer McKnight, alto arias from local favourite Oli Guselle, soprano arias from the returning favourite Angela Gjerichanin, who is a former student of the University of Saskatchewan, and Raphael Ladon-Guindon providing the heavy lifting on the bass solo parts. Indeed, the Passion is in good hands with all the talent involved. 


“The goal is really for people, believers or non-believers, who come to this performance to be genuinely moved by it and I can't help but think that that will be the case simply because the music is so devastatingly powerful,” Dala Said. 


“I think once people simply turn off their phones and they hear that opening chorus and that music, the turbulence of it, the pain, the pathos and it's this kind of a physicalization of the sound of struggle and conflict. I mean it's incredible.Then there's resolution an hour and 50 minutes later with one of the most beautiful lullabies ever written, they will be.”


Tickets for the Passion can still be purchased by clicking HERE. Things will get underway at Knox at 7:30 pm on Sunday, April 7th.

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