Northern Lights = Choral Works by OLA GJEILO – Phoenix Chorale/ Harrington String Quartet/ Emmanuel Lopez, cello/ Ola Gjeilo, piano/ Alison Chaney, soprano/ Ted Belledin, tenor saxophone/ Charles Bruffy – Chandos multichannel SACD 5100, 59:43 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
Ola Gjeilo is a 34-year-old composer from Norway who got his musical degrees from the Royal College of Music and then the Juilliard School. He currently lives in New York where he is making a living as a composer, and was also the Phoenix Chorale’s composer-in-residence, hence the high number of pieces on this disc written for that ensemble. I have not heard his orchestral or wind ensemble music, his other two favorite genres aside from the choral, but based on this disc it should give one something to look forward to.
Despite the rather obvious association with the aurora borealis, one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world, the title Northern Lights has a specifically religious connotation, as indeed do all the pieces on this disc. It is in effect a religious album though you would not know it by Chandos’s clever masking of that fact, making it look more like a typical Norwegian album devoted to the cold and beautiful clime of that country. Ola Gjeilo is a profoundly religious man if we are to take the texts seriously, coming as excerpts from his Sunrise Mass to St. Augustine, to John of the Cross. In that regard he fits right into the James Macmillan scheme of things, yet his music is a far cry from the acerbic struggles of that wonderful composer. Even Eric Whitacre’s densely packed dissonances hail from a distance Gjeilo’s basically diatonic and melody-driven compositions, making for a quaint and sometimes ingenious combination of Slavic feeling set in the mode of someone like Daniel Pinkham. But even his occasional flirtations with mixed meter are not to be taken any more seriously than that given in a song like “All You Need is Love”—the rhythm is established and that is that, no confusion needed.
There is no denying Ola Gjeilo’s profound melodic gifts or his ability to write idiomatically for a choir—he has that down pat. Over time we shall see if he sticks with the tried and true or branches out into more adventurous territory. In the meanwhile, I can’t imagine any music lover not being enchanted with this superbly sung album, recorded in spacious Super Audio sound that is simply riveting. Highly recommended!
TrackList: The Ground, Serenity, Ubi caritas, Northern Lights, Dark Night of the Soul, The Spheres, Tota pulchra es, Prélude, Phoenix, Unicornis captivatur, Evening Prayer.
—Steven Ritter