A ‘luminous night’ for Brattleboro Concert Choir
Morten Lauridsen

A ‘luminous night’ for Brattleboro Concert Choir

Concert spotlights contemporary composers

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Concert Choir, led by Susan Dedell, will be introducing to Southern Vermont a rising star in contemporary choral music when it performs three short works by Norwegian pianist and composer Ola Gjeilo as the centerpiece of its winter concert.

On Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 24, at 3 p.m., at Centre Congregational Church on Main Street, the choir will present Luminous Night, featuring the music of three extraordinary composers: Morten Lauridsen, John Tavener, and Ola Gjeilo.

“The program combines the impressive Svyati of Tavener with four of Lauridsen's most beautiful compositions and introduces a trilogy of pieces from Ola Gjeilo,” Dedell writes in her notes for the concert. “The pieces in the program weave together to form a vivid musical impression, although each of the composers has a unique style.”

In all the works performed, Dedell is using the full chorus, sometimes singing unaccompanied, other times with cello or string quartet and piano.

“I am particularly glad to include the Tavener because he has substantial music for men,” says Dedell. “And right now the Brattleboro Choir has some beautiful sounding tenors and basses we are eager to show off.”

Although she says all the music in this concert is remarkable, Dedell is particularly excited to introduce the “riveting” works of Ola Gjeilo to the Brattleboro audience.

“Gjeilo's music has recently been catching attention around the country,” says Dedell. “Gjeilo is a truly original voice, and one of the most exciting composers on the contemporary scene today. Gjeilo's music is very 'present'-it speaks directly to us on a very physical level and, at the same time, draws us towards the mystery - and magic - of our existence.”

Dedell says that his music is “of our time.”

“It is difficult to say how he makes his music sound so contemporary,” she says. “He can achieve this, not in any ostentatious way, almost as if without trying.”

She says his music expresses who we are, rather as Mozart sounded to his contemporaries. “In essence, the music seems truthful.” she says.

Dedell recently caught an interview with the composer and found him to be a “cool young man. I already was a fan of the music, but I fell in love with Gjeilo as a person,” she says.

She discovered that even though he has now become something of a celebrity, at least in the choral music world, Gjeilo is very humble. He also is someone who early on was clear about what he wanted.

“He was such a promising student in Norway that he could go anywhere in the world to continue his studies,” says Dedell. “He chose Julliard in New York City because he felt that European academies pushed music that was atonal and cerebral. And while he finds that kind of music compelling, he is interested in tonal music.”

The Concert Choir will perform three of his recent works: “Dark Night of the Soul,” “Luminous Night of the Soul,” and “Serenity.” Scored for chorus, string quartet and piano, the pieces have a multidimensional sensory experience, which perhaps comes as a result of Gjeilo's stated inspiration and influence by films and contemporary film music, Dedell says.

“Gjeilo had claimed that his musical influences go back back to Renaissance stuff, through the French Baroque, to modern composers like Tavener and the American minimalists,” says Dedell. “But he says that he has also been influenced by contemporary composers who write for the movies. Some are Italian or French who will be unknown to most of us, but others are quite famous and should be familiar to American audiences, such as John Williams.”

Dedell believes Gjeilo's music has a “cinematographic” sound. “By cinematographic, I mean that there is a certain dimension to his work, an atmosphere, that seems almost 3D,” she explains.

Gjeilo's is not easy music, she adds.

“By that, I do not mean for audiences,” Dedell says. “His music is quite accessible for most listeners. But it can be difficult for the average singer to learn. There are lots of layers to it, with a strange texture full of unorthodox harmonies that come and go. His work, Serenity, for instance, looks simple on paper, but it is deceptively hard to make sound beautiful. However, once the singers get it, they exclaim, 'Oh, this is how it works!'”

Dedell says it is important to remember that Gjeilo is a pianist as well as a composer.

“His writing for the strings and piano is fabulous, and is really at the core of both Dark Night and Luminous Night,” she says. The string quartet for this concert consists of Moby Pearson, violin; Michelle Lehninger, violin; Barbara Wright, viola; and Judith Serkin, cello.

“The piano here is quite virtuosic,” says Dedell. “You need to have classical chops and a contemporary ear to pull it off. Luckily we have a pianist who does. Brian Fairley, currently pursuing a doctoral degree at Wesleyan University and who coaches chamber music at Harvard, has played every kind of music.”

In the Luminous Night concert, Dedell and the choir will complement the music of Gjeilo with works by John Tavener and Morten Lauridsen.

“I had wanted to do the Tavener piece for several years now,” says Dedell. “But I could not think of anything that would be suitable to program with this short work, except, of course, a complete Tavener evening. His music is so distinctly sacred. But you know, he also has a mystic side, which keeps everything a little open-ended.”

Dedell says she feels that Tavener's Svyati is a dramatic and profoundly moving work, where the solo cello and choir have a dialogue as though between priest and choir in a service.

“The cello also represents the Icon of Christ, and the choir functions as the 'bells of heaven,'” writes Dedell. “It is a truly amazing composition.

“Both the cello and the chorus are written with a huge tonal range, with extremely low tones in the men's voices, as well as some very high writing for the cello. The writing for the cello is narrative and vocal, while the choir may function more instrumentally - for instance when they create the effect of overlapping bells. The ambient effect of this piece is awe-inspiring.”

Judith Serkin is the featured soloist in Tavener's Svyati, written for a cappella choir and solo cello. Serkin is well known as a frequent performer at the Marlboro Festival, and was one of the original founders of the Brattleboro Music Center School.

The third composer of the concert, Morten Lauridsen, received the National Medal of Arts “for his composition of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide.” His works have been recorded on more than 200 CDs, five of which have received Grammy Award nominations.

“Lauridsen is a real treasure,” says Dedell with enthusiasm. “He seems incapable of not writing beautifully. You give a chorus something of his to sing, they invariably love it. I think his accessible sound helps audiences relate to the other more challenging music in the contemporary singing world.”

The choir will sing his O Magnum Mysterium, Ubi Caritas, Sure on this Shining Night, and a new composition, Prayer. Dedell chose these four pieces because she finds them particularly moving, she says.

She explains, “They remind me that although I don't know where music comes from, and I certainly don't know where inspiration comes from, I do know that some music has the power to melt away the ice that sometimes seems to form around our hearts and minds. And I just don't think we can get enough of that.”

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