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Thoughts from a composer

(r to l) Ola Gjeilo, Beth Livingston-Hakes, David Lubeck and Joy Lubeck.

In late April I had the great pleasure of having a new work of mine, called Phoenix, premiered by the Phoenix Chorale in downtown Phoenix and Paradise Valley. The piece was commissioned by Mrs. Joy Lubeck on behalf of the Chorale; she was the winner of a silent auction last year, in which she submitted the highest bid for the work, which I donated to the choir. The performance was wonderful, as it always is with the Chorale. I wasn’t able to attend any rehearsals before the performances, but I felt completely relaxed and confident that they would do a great job with it. That’s what’s so great about working with these guys; you know they will always meet or exceed your expectations.

Desert landscape of Arizona

The work was inspired by my first trip to Phoenix the year before, when I drove from LA with a friend of mine and saw the desert for the first time. It had a strong impact on me, and I was so touched by the friendliness of everyone in Phoenix. So the piece was really more about Phoenix and the desert than about the text, which was a simple Agnus Dei text in Latin, chosen for it’s many open vowels more than perhaps the actual meaning of the words; it was a perfect vehicle for the symphonic sounding music I wanted to express through the choir. Using the Agnus Dei text for such a purpose is of course nothing new; Barber used it for his choral arrangement of the timeless Adagio for Strings, and someone also mashed Elgar’s wonderful Nimrod from the Enigma Variations up with the same words.

The Phoenix Chorale performing at Trinity Cathedral

Happy with the way everything worked out, we decided to auction off another piece of mine not yet written, for next year. The winner of the 2nd auction was Ms. Donna Corcoran, and her commission on behalf of the Chorale will be performed during Spring of 2010.

This blog entry is really about the Phoenix Chorale, but let me continue for a bit with one of my main passions outside of music; the art of Pixar.

A photo of Dale Chihulys installation at the Desert Botanical Garden and my favorite visual artist.
A photo I took of my favorite visual artist Dale Chihuly's installation at the Desert Botanical Garden.

I am probably one of the biggest non-animator Pixar fans on the planet. The animation studio that has released an unbroken string of commercial and artistic triumphs, starting with Toy Story and continuing, hopefully, with Up this summer, has an uncanny ability to connect with massive audiences every time they release a new movie. This is a complete anomaly in Hollywood, and no other studios have come close to replicating this. DreamWorks have tried, by attempting to give people what they ‘want’, but more through formulaic stories and pop culture references instead of stories with heart and originality. But Brad Bird, Pixar’s perhaps foremost director (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) insists that there’s no great secret behind Pixar’s unprecedented success. He says, ‘It’s really pretty simple; everyone here loves films, and they just want to make something that they themselves want to see’.

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this applies just as much to music as it does to film making; To me, it’s essential that, given that most people in the music business love music in the first place, we compose and perform music that we really want to hear ourselves. It sounds like a given, but it turns out more often than not, it isn’t. That this is music I would put on my iPod and enjoy listening to over and over again. Can we say that about all the music that we write and perform, or do we let other factors determine too much what music we end up focusing on? I do think so, and I believe that’s part of the reason the classical music business is in some trouble at the moment. For instance, quite often, musicians and ensembles will perform pieces by composers they think should be performed, simply because few others know or play their music, or because it is historically significant, no matter whether this music actually is something they really love and that will give the audience an amazing, transporting experience.

Phoenix Chorale singer Ryan Garrison and Ola Gjeilo

I believe Phoenix Chorale’s success is related to all of this. The choir, with their conductor Charles Bruffy, has released a number of CDs (often in collaboration with the Kansas City Chorale) of strong music that they believe in, and that seems to connect with audiences. Which is also why the Chorale has enjoyed back-to-back Grammy wins and nominations recently, and cemented its position as one of the premier ensembles of any kind in the world. They are very discerning about what they choose to perform, and I think that also contributes to the wonderful energy of the group.

Bluegrass band Fire Ridge

In the most recent Phoenix Chorale concert I had the pleasure to attend, they performed mainly spirituals and bluegrass music, accompanied by a bluegrass band called Fire Ridge. The audience was clearly enjoying themselves, as did the choir, who seemed to have the time of their life. And I think the key wasn’t that they were doing cross-over music or trying to be more commercial by performing something non-classical. It was that they performed something that they loved and were thrilled to communicate with their audience.

Add this to the Phoenix Chorale’s vocal artistry and inimitable conductor, it’s no surprise that they’re the only American choir to release albums with a major British label or that they are adored by the Grammy juries.

— Ola Gjeilo (Manhattan, NY)

**You can read more about Ola Gjeilo on his website:
**See photos from the “Amazing Grace” concerts at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral here and at Camelback Bible Church here.