Winter Choral Concert, Gjeilo leave audience wanting more

The Western Carolina University School of Music presented their Winter Choral Concert on Thursday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. The University Chorus, Concert Choir, Catamount Singers and Electric Soul groups performed over two hours.

The University Chorus performed under the direction of Michael Lancaster, and they performed three pieces. Their first piece was G. F. Handel’s “Hallelujah, Amen” from “Judas Maccabeus.” The second piece was Emma Lou Diemer’s “Three Madrigals.” It was a three-movement piece, and it was my personal favorite of the University Chorus pieces. The third and final piece was “Buffalo Girls,” which was thoroughly entertaining.

The Concert Choir, also directed by Lancaster, performed five pieces, all composed by guest composer Ola Gjeilo. Gjeilo was born in Norway in 1978 and moved to the US in 2011. His main instrument is piano, and he writes for choral groups, orchestras and pianos. He has a passion for improvisation, which he showed during the concert. Gjeilo contributed by playing piano along with the chorus, a guitar player and a string quartet.

All of the pieces written by Gjeilo brought a new sound to the audience. Each piece was based on a hymn or a poem that was used as the lyric basis for the song.

The first piece is “Ubi Caritas,” which is a hymn of the Western Church, and it was originally composed as a Gregorian chant. It was sung in Latin with striking harmonies within the single melodic line that Gregorian chants are famous for.

The second piece was titled “The Lake Isle,” and it was based on a poem about the Isle of Inisfree written by William Butler Yeats. “The Lake Isle” was my personal favorite from the entire program. It was originally commissioned by a group of American University Choral Directors, which included Lancaster, and was performed first at the University of Southern California. At WCU’s performance, it included a string quartet, a pianist and a guitarist. The string quartet featured Jason Posnock and Debra Anthony on violin, Gina Caldwell on viola, and Katie Hamilton on cello. Composer Gjeila was the pianist and Kristian Kvalaag was the guitarist.

The next piece on the program was “Ubi Caritas II.” It featured the third verse of the original hymn that was performed earlier in the program and was written in a similar fashion to the first piece.

The final piece performed by the Concert Choir was “Dark Night,” which is based on a poem by St. John of the Cross, and had a prominent piano part while the string quartet stayed in the background. Each verse had its own specific melody and varied tempos.

Between “Dark Night” and the final piece, Gjeilo and Kvalaag spent a few minutes improvising a duet between them. As they played, the harmonious simplicity, which they created with ease, astounded the audience.

The final Gjeilo composition was titled “Reflection.” The University Choir, Concert Choir, the string quartet and Kvalaag on guitar joined in with Gjeilo for this last piece. It was inspiring to see Western Carolina’s students getting to work with the composer of the work, a treat that rarely happens.

Student Eric Jackson said that he “liked that they brought in the guest composer.”

His favorite piece was “The Lake Isle,” though he also really enjoyed “Electric Soul.”

After a stage change, there was a major alteration in the type of music that was being performed The Catamount Singers and Electric Soul groups, directed by Bruce Frazier and Jon Henson, took the stage by storm with their first song, “Let’s Groove” by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Karyn Tomzak choreographed all the pieces, which the performers with gusto and obvious enjoyment.

The second piece, “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, was arranged by Adam Anders, Tim Rice and Mark Brymer. It featured a duet between Whitney Collins and Max Koger. Both Collins and Koger sang wonderfully together and as soloists.

The third piece was Katy Perry’s hit single “Firework,” arranged by Mark Brymer. The featured singer on this piece was Mary Wiedel, who put a lot of heart into her singing while belting out the inspirational number.

The entire group performed well together, and the audience could tell that they had put a ton of work into perfecting everything in each of their three songs. The hard work paid off.

Audience member Frank Jones said that he liked the entire show, but admitted that he “liked the last part best of all.”