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  • Lara Spence

Interview with Leslie Dala, pianist and conductor

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Vancouver Classical Music Enthusiasts! Learn More about Leslie Dala, Asitha Tennekoon and the pieces they will play on May 12, 2023.

We were thrilled to speak with Leslie Dala recently, who had this to share on performing and learning new music. Leslie Dala will be playing with Asitha Tennekoon on May 12, 2023, performing the world premiere of a song cycle composed by Ian Cusson.

How does your knowledge as a pianist influence your decisions as a conductor/director?

I would say that these days it’s more the other way around for me, in that I approach anything I play more like a conductor than I did when I was a student. I need to dig into the structure more and really understand how a piece is put together, whether it is 2 minutes or 2 hours long. I try to imagine the piano sounding like an orchestra, with solo woodwind lines or hushed string sonorities or big brass outbursts. It just makes the music more three-dimensional for me. The piano is by definition a percussion instrument, but we spend our lives trying to find every way we can to fool listeners that it is not!

How do you approach learning new music that you’ll be premiering?

I treat the process of learning all music, whether it be old or new, the same way. In familiarizing myself with the text, the music, the composer’s instructions about tempo, dynamics etc. and I try to get into the head of the composer (not sure if I am successful) to understand why he/she may have written something in a certain way. Ian writes so naturally for the voice and has composed numerous operas, so he is so well versed in the elements of creating a scene and capturing a dramatic situation.

You have a diverse performance repertoire. Do you have any favourite performances, productions, or premieres that you have taken a part in? Why are they your favourites?

Oh boy, there are too many to choose from! But I will go with the most recent production that I am still currently working on. Vancouver Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman is a dream come true for me to conduct as this is a work on a grand scale which involves over 100 performers onstage and in the pit, and it is a piece that showcases the orchestra and chorus in a big way with some incredibly dramatic scenes. I always joke that “Les is more” but I guess deep down I am drawn to big projects like the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Mahler’s Symphony no. 8, and the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, all of which I have also conducted.

Are there any pieces in the program that you are particularly excited to perform? Why?

I am excited to perform all of the works on this program because they are all great pieces of music, but the chance to premiere a work specially written by Ian for Asitha and me is a huge honour and privilege, and it is a work of stunning beauty and inspiration. Also, I am glad that we are including “Somewhere Along the Line” as a tribute to the late great Jocelyn Morlock, who was also a personal friend.

About the May 12 Event, Composer Ian Cusson, performers Leslie Dala and Asitha Tennekoon

Join us for an in person premier of a song cycle by Canadian Métis composer Ian Cusson, performed by pianist Leslie Dala and tenor Asitha Tennekoon.This concert is taking place on the ancestral and living lands of the Coast Salish Peoples.

Ian Cusson is a composer of art song, opera and orchestral work. Of Métis (Georgian Bay Métis Community) and French Canadian descent, his work explores Canadian Indigenous experience including the history of the Métis people, the hybridity of mixed-racial identity, and the intersection of Western and Indigenous cultures. He studied composition with Jake Heggie (San Francisco) and Samuel Dolin, and piano with James Anagnoson at the Glenn Gould School. He is the recipient of the Chalmers Professional Development Grant, and grants through the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, the Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council. Ian was an inaugural Carrefour Composer-in-Residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra for 2017-2019 and was Composer-in-Residence for the Canadian Opera Company for 2019-2021. He is a Co-artistic Director of Opera in the 21st Century at the Banff Centre and the recipient of the 2021 Jan V. Matejcek Classical Music Award from SOCAN and the 2021 Johanna Metcalf Performing Arts Prize. Ian is an Associate Composer of the Canadian Music Centre and a member of the Canadian League of Composers.

Leslie Dala enjoys a multifaceted career spanning the genres of opera, symphonic music, choral and contemporary works. On the podium, he is known for his passionate, dynamic, and charismatic approach to music making. Named one of the top ten artistic leaders by the Vancouver Sun, Dala's national profile has grown steadily with guest conducting appearances with Pacific Opera Victoria, Edmonton Opera, Saskatoon Opera, Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra, Kamloops Symphony, Thirteen Strings of Ottawa, the COSI Festival in Sulmona, Italy, the Goh Ballet, University of Toronto Opera Department and the Glenn Gould School Opera Program. Dala began his professional career as a pianist and repetiteur, which led to his appointment as Chorus Director with Vancouver Opera. Since then, his role at Vancouver Opera has expanded to include the title of Associate Conductor and Program Director of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program. He has worked on more than 70 Vancouver Opera main stage productions. Operas he has music directed and conducted include Le Nozze Di Figaro in the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival, Madama Butterfly, the World Premiere of Stickboy by Neil Weisensel and Shane Koyczan, Albert Herring, The Magic Flute, La Boheme, Rigoletto, West Side Story and the Threepenny Opera.

Asitha Tennekoon is a Sri Lankan tenor who has quickly established himself as one of Canada's most impressive and versatile singing artists. He drew critical acclaim as Paul in Tapestry Opera/Scottish Opera's Rocking Horse Winner , receiving the 2016 Dora Award for Best Male Performance. Of his performance, Richard Harris of the Globe and Mail wrote, “The surprise of the night was Asitha Tennekoon... his silky, emotional presence on stage – both vocally and dramatically – gave the show a powerful focus.” For his performance in the 2019 world premiere of Shanawdithit (Nolan/Burry) with Tapestry Opera, Ian Ritchie of Opera Going Toronto wrote: “Tennekoon's savage depiction of vicious racist magistrate and merchant John Peyton is nothing less than harrowing.” Asitha's operatic highlights include performances with Opéra de Montréal, Tapestry Opera, Against the Grain Theatre, Vancouver Opera, Soundstreams Canada, Opera on the Avalon, Opera 5, and Opera Lafayette (USA). On the concert stage Asitha is known for performing a wide variety of repertoire, from the Evangelist in Bach's Passions to premiering new works. Concert highlights include engagements with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Regina Symphony Orchestra, Ottawa Choral Society, Toronto Bach Festival, and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

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