Ola Gjeilo Sunrise Mass
All Saints' Church, June 2017
Summer celebration with the Phoenix Choir
Phoenix Choir has built up a real reputation, locally, for its authentic and dramatic performances of some of the great oratorios. On Saturday night in All Saints’ Church however, together with pianist Gavin Stevens and the Corelli Ensemble, Phoenix Choir proved again that they can turn their hand just as effectively to quite a different type of programme.
A sense of celebration was in the air from the start when the choir’s musical director, Michael Fields, appeared in his genuine 1960’s striped trousers and flowery shirt, to direct the choir and players in lively settings of three popular sixties hits, Up, up and away, Feelin Groovy and The Rhythm of Life, Fields himself also playing the ukulele and tambourine.
This was an unusually high spirited and upbeat start for a concert that promised classical works by some great composers, but the bridge into the predominant calm of the rest of the evening was crossed seamlessly: the 1st movement of Bach’s Concerto for two Violins is a work of timeless beauty. Maeve Jenkinson, leader of the Corelli Ensemble, gave a fine performance on 1st violin. With closed eyes one would never have guessed that her duetting partner was a child: twelve year old Rikart van Zyl played with remarkable strength and flair, exhibiting a maturity way beyond his years. This young man, one felt, was simply a miniature adult, and a talented one at that. He is surely someone we will one day be proud to have heard first in Eastbourne.
After three beautiful, lulling choral works, by McGlynn, Whitacre and Stopford, the programme turned to works by Scandinavian composers. The Corelli Ensemble gave a rich and passionate account of Sibelius’ Andante Festivo which beautifully set up the mood for two choral works by Morten Lauridsen. Sure on this Shining Night was a vehicle for some lovely singing from the gentlemen of the choir, here frequently given the melody. The gentle ebb and flow of the lines was truly suggestive of a summer’s evening and brought the first half to a gentle close.
The Corelli Ensemble opened the second half of the programme with Grieg’s Elegiac Melody, a work whose broad lyricism seems to portray a yearning for a vast and beautiful landscape.
Similarly atmospheric were the soundscapes created by Ola Gjeilo in his Sunrise Mass. This is not an easy work, but Phoenix Choir presented it with great confidence and poise. In his four movements, Gjeilo creates four dreamlike worlds. We knew, from the very first ethereal soprano entry in The Spheres, that this would be a memorable experience. The overlapping voice parts created an almost womb-like echo chamber. In Sunrise, the shimmer of the morning light was audible in the strings. The City was an urgent pulsing and Identity and the Ground brought Heaven and earth together with a very low and grounded “pleni sunt coeli et terra gloriae tuae” (Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory) and, at the end, an almost hymn-like “Dona nobis pacem” with a solo violin then climbing back up to Heaven.
We might quite happily have been left to float up, up and away with the first violin, but Phoenix brought us back to earth with an encore of The Rhythm of Life. It was clear from the toe tapping and head nodding that the audience was happy to come full circle and to leave the church with a spring in its step,
This was an evening of brightness and fun as well as of beauty and pathos. We had come in from a beautiful summer evening to hear music, and the whole of summer had been in there with us.