December 2016 at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle
|We gathered at Saint Mark’s Cathedral last December for a multi-media concert blending music and images that heightened our delight in the winter season. Ola Gjeilo’s popular Sunrise Mass was sung with orchestra and visual media presented by Bus No. 8 video productions. Ancora, a Seattle based women’s choir joined us for the world premiere of Wintertide by Seattle composer Donald Skirvin.|
Sunrise Mass for Choir and String Orchestra
~ by Ola Gjeilo
- The Spheres (Kyrie)
- Sunrise (Gloria)
- The City (Credo)
- Identity & the Ground (Sanctus/Benedictus & Agnus Dei)
Ola Gjeilo (pronounced YAY-lo) is a Norwegian composer who exploded onto the choral scene in 2007. Gjeilo’s repertoire has taken its place in the choral limelight and is considered “must do” by choirs across the world. Today, Ola Gjeilo is in tremendous demand as a composer and collaborator. The “Sunrise Mass” is his masterwork for double SATB chorus and string orchestra. The Mass was commissioned in 2007 by Tore Erik Mohn for performance by two combined choruses, Majorstua Kammerkor and Kammerkoret Nova, and was premiered in Oslo on November 2, 2008. Since then, the Mass has been presented in concerts both stateside and across the world to grand acclamation.
Gjeilo’s compositional style and fingerprint is distinct and is the result of an amalgamation of cinematic and classical influences with sacred and secular elements. The Sunrise Mass was clearly composed with one eye on the big screen, influenced by today’s hottest motion picture composers, and one eye towards the past in the direction of Brahms, Britten, Duruflé, and Bach.
Gjeilo considers himself a ‘symphonic’ composer in that he often aims for a lush, orchestral sound, however small the performing ensemble. In choral music, this potentially means that the music is ultimately more important to him than the text. Gjeilo achieves a symphonic quality in his choral music by first, employing the choir as a background texture and, second, by using words for the beauty of their vowel sounds, rather than for their literal meaning. Both of these methods contribute to his desire to create a musical atmosphere.
For the Sunrise Mass, Gjeilo set the meaning of the Latin text respectfully and observed the traditions that masses are expected to exhibit, but his overall vision for the piece lies within the titles of the work, only loosely related to the meaning of the Latin. In so doing, he reveals a structure outside of the text; a metaphysical journey from the heavens to Earth. One need look no further than the names of each individual movement for an illustration of how spirituality plays a role in Sunrise Mass. The text comes from the Ordinary of the Mass: The Spheres (Kyrie), Sunrise (Gloria), The City (Credo), Identity & The Ground (Sanctus & Agnus Dei).
Neither expressly sacred nor secular, the four movements of this spiritually uplifting work bind beautiful harmonies and melodic lines with themes of identity, affirmation and our connection to the universe.
Commissioned Video by Robert Lawson
Performances of the Sunrise Mass this December will include original video art by Seattle film maker Robert Lawson, of Bus No. 8 Video Productions. We asked Robert to give us his perspective on working with Ola Gjeilo’s musical score.
“Given the cinematic inspirations that Ola Gjeilo has cited as influencing the creation of Sunrise Mass, it would seem that creating a video component to accompany the live performance of the piece would come easily. But Gjeilo has brilliantly created a piece of music that, while fairly specific in its structure, evokes in its listeners an almost instinctive surrender to its beauty and drama, allowing for a free association of visual interpretations that each listener will bring to their experience.
“Coming from a documentary film background, my focus is almost always on the structures and rhythms of storytelling. But in creating the video for Sunrise Mass, my goal is for the visuals to harmonize with the music in ways that are not always specific in a narrative sense, but tap into that primal response that this music evokes. It is an enormous challenge, but this gorgeous music inspires me, and I am very honored to have been entrusted with the task.”
More about Ola Gjeilo
The dynamic young Norwegian, Ola Gjeilo, is a “rising star” and award-winning choral composer. Gjeilo, then just 30 years old, burst into the choral world in 2008 by employing the lush palate of combined choir and orchestra to give voice to his belief that "people naturally and instinctively want to experience transcendence, resolution and the feeling of redemption, joy and peace that the resolving of discord can yield."
Gjeilo began his musical studies in his native Norway, and at the age of 23, commenced his composition studies at the Juilliard School in New York City. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in composition at the Royal College of Music in London in 2004, and then in 2006 received his Master’s degree in composition at Juilliard. After Juilliard, Gjeilo made one final yet crucial stop academically—tenure at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Here, Gjeilo studied film music and began learning how to “score for a film.” Undoubtedly, USC fostered his creative thirst for film music and impassioned him to pursue it further professionally.
Gjeilo’s music appeals to the general public not only because of cinematic influences but due to his humanistic approach as stated by the composer himself:
This isn’t academic music. It’s not music that you have to twist your brain to figure it out. It’s all there even though there are things that are conscious in terms of the architecture of it. Mainly it’s an attempt to communicate with people in a way that’s hopefully not sentimental or superficial. Most of my favorite composers are film composers, and I really think the best composers alive right now are working in Hollywood, more or less. The Sunrise Mass is a little bit reflective of that in that I wanted to bring that cinematic style into the choral world, which isn’t really done a lot. I wanted to bring that lush, evocative kind of sound into choral music, so that’s been kind of my baby.
When asked by the author about the inspiration for Sunrise Mass, Gjeilo offered the following statement,
The Mass is kind of inspired by the Howard Shore film score for “Lord of the Rings.” I just loved how he used choir in that score and then just the mix of how he would combine choir and strings together into this beautiful mesh. I wanted to use quite a lot of that in this piece. Just the combination of strings and choir which is one of the most beautiful sounds attainable.
As Gjeilo mentioned previously, his goal was not only to experiment with bringing the “cinematic style” into the choral repertoire, but also to be deliberate in his conversation with the audience. He wishes to transport them on a journey:
It’s truly just that I wanted the Mass itself to go from the most eerie, nebulous to gradually from heaven down to earth, and becoming more and more earthy. This is often the opposite of a Requiem when you end with the In Paradisum. You end up in heaven, right? I wanted it to become more and more human and relate to the human experience.