Ola GJEILO (b. 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); Phoenix Chorale/Charles Bruffy; Ola Gjeilo (piano); Harrington String Quartet; Ted Belledin (tenor saxophone)
rec. 28-30 May 2011, Camelback Bible Church, Paradise Valley, Arizona. DSD
Texts and English, French, German translations included
*First recording
CHANDOS CHSA 5100 [59:43]

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 one.
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.
John Quinn

Choral pieces by Ola Gjeilo in excellent performances though the music itself is more variable.