HAVE SYMPHONY, WILL TRAVEL. OR WE COULD SING IT IN VANCOUVER
(Mahler’s 8th symphony has played a special part in the history of the Bach Choir. Former General Manager of the choir and current soprano, Gillian Wilder, took a moment to write down her memories of performing this work throughout the years.)
I was sitting at my desk one day in the spring of 1982 when I had a phone call from Wray Armstrong, General Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at the time. He got straight to the point, ”Would the Vancouver Bach Choir like to come to Toronto to take part in the Canadian premiere performances of Mahler’s 8th Symphony with the Toronto Symphony and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir? Andrew thinks you will sing in tune since Bruce Pullan is your conductor.” Without a thought for the board or the Music Director I simply said “yes”. As it turned out everyone said yes and so began the Vancouver Bach Choir’s love affair with Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
The three premiere performances took place in June of 1983. They were the final concerts of the opening season of the Roy Thompson Hall. Toronto Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andrew Davies (now Sir Andrew) conducted. The whole choir took the red eye to Toronto on June 17th and stayed at the University of Toronto for the duration. Rehearsals for the Mahler were stunning but nothing compared to the performances. Most of the choir found the music almost overwhelming and the audience went mad. After the first performance, which was broadcast, the applause went on for 30 minutes. In the middle Andrew Davies picked up the score and flourished it at the audience to renewed appreciation. Mahler was beyond extraordinary. Critic William Littler described the symphony as, “spine tingling.” Many choir members found the experience life changing and our present Music Director Leslie Dala, a boy soprano at the time, singing in the children’s choir, decided then are there to devote his life to music.
The Canadian premiere was the first of 7 productions in which the choir has taken part so far, for a total of 20 performances, including multiple performances per production. The performance on February 17th will be the 21st and the 8th production.
Our performances of Maher’s 8th, or the “Symphony of a Thousand” as it is known, have normally been part of great celebrations. We returned to Toronto in 1988 for Andrew Davies’ last concerts with the Toronto Symphony and again in 1993 for the final concerts of Music Director Gunther Herbig. Each time we joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. In between, we were part of the 30th Anniversary of the Calgary Philharmonic, singing the Mahler with the Calgary Choir and Orchestra in 3 performances under the direction of Music Director Mario Bernardi in 1985.
Mahler’s 8th Symphony was a natural choice for the VBC’s 60th anniversary in 1990. The musical forces were so large we had to perform in the Queen Elizabeth theatre, for two sold out performances. We hired the Vancouver Symphony, Bruce Pullan conducted and several lower mainland choirs joined with the VBC. This was the British Columbian premiere and was again wildly received by the audience. Critic E. Douglas Hughes commented the performance was “astonishing for its depth, commitment, passion and sincerity…I must say Pullan did one hell of a job.”
From a management point of view the illness of the second soprano the day before the first performance was slightly hair raising. We were very lucky to substitute superb Mahler Exponent Judith Blegan who made it from New York in time for the dress rehearsal.
In September 1999 Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Music Director, Sergiu Commissiona, chose the Mahler for the opening concert of his last season with the VSO. The Vancouver Bach Choir was joined by 6 other choirs including the Bach Children’s Chorus in 3 performances. Critic Brian Hunt wrote, “Mahler’s harmonies shone with pristine clarity… the textures glowed like a vibrantly illuminated medieval manuscript.”
Mahler’s 8th was a major part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2010. The VBC was finally able to welcome the Toronto Mendelsohn Choir to the West Coast for two performances with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Bramwell Tovey. Once again it was an incredibly moving experience for the singers and the audience alike.
Everyone in the Vancouver Bach Choir is looking forward to the performance on February 17th, including many alumni who have returned to the choir for this performance and to re-live the extraordinary experience of singing this amazing work.