Classical Music

Texans Figure Heavily on Northern Lights, One of the (So Far) Best Albums of 2012

If it was in question before, Ola Gjeilo is now officially a rising star, thanks to the release of the album Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo.

Over the past few years, the 33-year-old, Norwegian-born Gjeilo (pronounced Yay-lo) has been a constant presence in classical music, ranging from performances in more than 30 countries to numerous commissioned and published works.

Locally, Houston audiences were hipped to the Juilliard-schooled composer last May during Cantare Houston's one-night-only presentation of Introducing Ola Gjeilo at Houston Baptist University's Dunham Theater. (His Texas premiere of "Across the Vast, Eternal Sky" will be sung by Cantare on March 6 and 10 during the group's Remembrance concerts.)

Throughout Gjeilo's numerous freelance projects and engagements, he's kept a relationship with the Phoenix Chorale, the 53-year-old, Grammy Award-winning choir that's often noted as one of the best on the planet. (Gjeilo was the group's first and only composer-in-residence during the Phoenix Chorale's 2009-2010 season.)

Northern Lights: Choral Works by Ola Gjeilo, the first of its kind on a recorded document, realizes a multi-year process of composing, rehearsing (which included several practices in a barn in the cow town of Wickenburg, Arizona) and performing with the only North American choir that United Kingdom-based Chandos has released on its heavy-hitting classical music label.

Led by Phoenix Chorale conductor and artistic director Charles Bruffy, Northern Lights features tight renditions of compositions that incorporate some 2,000 years of music history (from a circa 104 text to Gjeilo's initial impressions of the Arizona desert, which he experienced for the first time a few years ago).

The disc begins with pianist Gjeilo and the Amarillo-based Harrington String Quartet laying out a sonic field of utopia in "The Ground" so that the 28-member choir can interpret the ancient text from the Sanctus hymn with stout execution.

The album's longest track, "Dark Night of the Soul," is a film score waiting to happen and features the only solo vocalist showcase -- from Dallas-born Alison Chaney (soprano) -- on the album. Stretched out over nearly 13 minutes, pianist Gjeilo, the Harrington String Quartet and the Phoenix Chorale (with Chaney at the forefront) interpret the full-bodied, 16th century poetry of St. John of the Cross as the song's mood shifts from hyper and dramatic to troubled and pensive and eventually to a boastful and redemptive finale.

Northern Lights concludes with a light dusting of jazz in "Evening Prayer." Gjeilo, who's greatly influenced by American pianist Keith Jarrett, recruits tenor saxophonist Ted Belledin (who, on this number, explores deep tones in the Sonny Rollins register) to help give St. Augustine of Hippo's prayer a charming and transcendent presence.

The album, featuring unpierceable engineering and production, is currently available for purchase on iTunes. The physical CD will be released on February 28. For more information, check out the Chandos and/or Phoenix Chorale Web sites.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen