Choral Arts Ensemble review: Ola Gjeilo’s cinematic sounds

Contemporary choral composer teams up with Portland choir in a showcase of his music for voice, piano, and more.

by BRUCE BROWNE

Composed of equal parts traditional choral settings, improvisation, movie score, and some light gospel cum nightclub style thrown in, Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo’s music, now widely published, has been heard at national choral conventions and on an acclaimed CD of his works by the Phoenix Chorale. He describes a number of his pieces as cinematically inspired. I agree. The repeated harmonic structures, forms and textures heard at last Saturday night’s concert by Choral Arts Ensemble of Portland, ably led by David De Lyser, work to advantage in a cinematic score that needs to carry an entire film. John Williams, John Barry, Hans Zimmer — film score icons who have treated us for decades to tremendous background, mood-setting scores like E.T., Bond, Angels and Demons — come to mind.

Flugelhornist Thomas Barber joined Choral Arts Ensemble in music of Ola Gjeilo last weekend. Photo: David Hughes.

Flugelhornist Thomas Barber joined Choral Arts Ensemble in music of Ola Gjeilo last weekend. Photo: David Hughes.

Two pieces stood out: “Dark Night of the Soul” performed by the string quartet of Kevin Lefohn, Erin Conor, Catie Pennie and Dieter Ratzlaf, and the choir, with the composer himself at the piano. Cinematic by the composer’s own description, the piece in 7/8 meter shows echoes of John Adams’s Harmonium, and not just a minimal bit of Philip Glass. Balances among all forces  — strings, choir, and piano — were carefully engineered.

The other standout was the composer’s setting of the chant “Ubi Caritas,” one of Gjeilo’s earlier works. The choir showed its capabilities in blend and dynamic spectrum in this lovely, transparent gem.

Those of us who enjoy live performance should be grateful for the opportunity to witness the composer in performance. Improvisation is one of Gjeilo’s strongest tools as a composer and performer. Several of these pieces featured his extraordinary talents at the piano, along with the sonorous playing of guest artist Thomas Barber on the flugelhorn. Two of the pieces were exclusively for piano and flugelhorn, accenting the abilities of both performers to play with imagination and beauty.

Composer Gjeilo joined Choral Arts Ensemble at Portland's St. Philip Neri church.

Composer Gjeilo joined Choral Arts Ensemble at Portland’s St. Philip Neri church. Photo: David Hughes.

The Choral Arts Ensemble made several smart moves. The truly choral portion of the program was perfectly dialed in to the choir’s temperament and talents. Within the limited harmonic diversity of the pieces, voices blended and, especially in southeast Portland’s St. Philip Neri church, melted into a velvet blanket of sound. Kudos to one of the only small (under 40 voice) NON professional (unpaid singers) choirs for entertaining the Portland choral audience.

Dr. De Lyser’s programming was intelligent: Less is very often more in programming a concert, especially one in which much of the music sounds similar. And the relative sameness of the pieces, couched as they were in a continuous wash of harmonic color and homophonic structure found us traversing the same soundscape, with just a short detour from one piece to the next. I like to expect the unexpected, but it was not to be – even the improvisations were predictable after a while.

Some of the composer’s earlier works not included on this concert are more intricate, much more difficult. So we are probably seeing a composer in transition. Stravinsky did it; Lukas Foss did it; certainly Leonard Bernstein did.

But where does he go from here? All of the greats, those whose music lives beyond their earthly years, have evolved in some way, and Gjeilo will continue to evolve, but in what direction? That’s for history to decide.

Portland’s Bruce Browne, who directed the Portland Symphonic Choir, Choral Cross Ties, and the Portland State University choral programs for many years, has led choirs around the world.

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