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1978) Northern Lights
The Ground (Pleni sunt caeli) (2010)* [3:37]
Serenity (O magnum mysterium) (2010)* [5:13]
Ubi caritas (2001) [3:06]
Northern Lights (Pulchra es, amica mea) (2008)* [4:22]
Dark Night of the Soul (2010)* [12:38]
The Spheres (Kyrie eleison) (2008) [4:47]
Tota pulchra es (2001) [5:27]
Prelude (Exsultate, jubilate) (2004) [2:57]
Phoenix (Agnus Dei) (2008) [4:16]
Unicornis captivator (2001) [6:37]
Evening Prayer (2010)* [5:54]
Alison Chaney (soprano) Ola Gjeilo (piano) Ted Belledin (tenor saxophone)
Phoenix Chorale/Charles Bruffy
Harrington String Quartet
rec. 28-30 May 2011, Camelback Bible Church, Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Texts and English, French, German translations included
*First recording CHANDOS CHSA 5100
Ola Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) is a Norwegian composer, who
moved to New York in 2001 to study at the Juilliard School.
He also studied for two years at London’s Royal College of Music.
He continues to live in New York. A meeting with Charles Bruffy
led to an invitation to become composer-in-residence with the
Phoenix Chorale for the 2009/10 season, the first time the ensemble
had honoured a composer in this way since it was founded in
1958. Several of the works included on this disc were written
during that period of association.
According to the notes it was one of Gjeilo’s earliest pieces,
Ubi caritas, that caught Charles Bruffy’s attention
and I can see why. It’s a lovely little piece which makes its
effect through a disarming simplicity of utterance. The music
is fluid and displays a debt to or awareness of plainchant.
Gjeilo displays in this piece a fine awareness of choral textures
and an ability to write transparent and well-crafted pieces,
eminently suited to an expert ensemble, such as the Phoenix
Chorale. In fact, to be honest, I think the unaccompanied pieces
on this disc are much more successful than those that involve
an instrumental accompaniment for reasons to which I’ll come
in a moment.
One exception to that comment is Serenity. Here, apart
from in a brief central section, the choir sings in block chords
and the melodic interest lies in a part for solo cello, eloquently
played by Emmanuel Lopez. In the central passage the cello falls
silent and the choral lines become flowing and melodic. The
use of the cello is most interesting and the setting, described
by its composer as full of “passionate peacefulness”, is a winning
I also liked The Spheres, an a cappella adaptation
of the Kyrie from Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass. The opening
pages give “a sense of floating in space” the composer says.
Here the textures are rarefied and very beautiful. Later on,
from 3:01, the music becomes a lot stronger in tone. Equally
successful and just as lovely, I think, is Northern Lights,
inspired by the sight of the Aurora Borealis. Somehow the decision
to set words from the Song of Songs seems highly appropriate,
given that the music was prompted by one of the most beautiful
of all natural phenomena. Tota pulchra es sets words
from Marian antiphons. The tempo indication is ‘Tempo liberamente’
and the music certainly flows. This is an engaging composition,
not least on account of the light, innocent choral textures.
Much of the music so far discussed has been slow or moderate
in tempo. By contrast, Unicornis captivator once again
boasts light, airy textures but this time the music features
dancing rhythms and irregular metres, though there is a slower,
contemplative central section before the dance resumes. This
is a most refreshing piece and the precision and acuity of the
Phoenix Chorale’s singing is very impressive. Also successful
is Prelude (Exsultate, jubilate) which is described
as being “as exuberant as a peasant dance, anchored by a robust
drone in the lower voices”. The music has a quasi-medieval feel
to it, especially in the vigorous outer sections that encase
a quieter, more contemplative central core.
It’s time to consider the pieces with instrumental accompaniment
and, as I hinted earlier, I found these less enjoyable. The
very first piece we hear, The Ground, is extracted
from the Sunrise Mass. The notes tell us that one of
Gjeilo’s favourite devices is that of strings and singers doubling
each other’s part to create “a bed of warm and evocative sound”.
That is what we hear, with the composer playing an independent
but pretty unoriginal piano part. Frankly, the word “unoriginal”
applies to the piece as a whole. It sounds unashamedly commercial
and rather like the aural equivalent of a warm bath. It contains
nothing that one has not heard before from composers infinitely
less accomplished than Gjeilo.
Dark Night of the Soul is a setting of words by St
John of the Cross though I have to report that quite often the
words are unintelligible – or, perhaps the choir is singing
wordlessly – even when listening through headphones. Parts of
the work feature driving, irregular rhythms in the piano part,
joined at times by the strings. Much of the music, however,
is slower and lush and romantic in tone. At times the piano
writing could best be described as sub-Rachmaninov. I’m sorry
but this piece struck me as desperately unoriginal and derivative.
Gjeilo is capable of better stuff than this.
Evening Prayer is the last work that Gjeilo wrote for
the Phoenix Chorale during his residency and, apparently, it’s
the first choral piece that he’s written with a largely improvised
accompaniment – provided here by tenor saxophone and piano.
The words are by St Augustine and I’d hoped they might call
forth a better, more tranquil and reflective response from the
composer. The music is pleasant enough but it’s pretty commercial
and I’m not entirely sure that the presence of the saxophone
is beneficial. To be honest, the piece is rather kitschy.
I’m left with a number of impressions after auditioning this
disc. At his best Ola Gjeilo writes well for the choral medium
but on the evidence of this particular programme I’d suggest
that his music for unaccompanied choir is by some distance the
more effective. I also wonder if he has reached a compositional
plateau. Some of the best music here, to my ears at least, is
the earlier music and I’m not entirely sure that Gjeilo has
“kicked on” from there. I wonder if he felt pressured to write
quite a bit of music in a short space of time during his residency
with the choir. This is a subjective reaction and it’s only
fair to remind readers that Brian
Wilson was very enthusiastic about the download version
of this release.
If I have reservations about some of the music I have none whatsoever
about the quality of the performances. The Phoenix Chorale has
made some impressive discs already for Chandos and this latest
release is fully up to previous standards. I listened to this
SACD as a conventional CD and in that format the sound was excellent.
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