This story features “Northern Lights” presented by the National Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore. Learn more about this performance and get tix.
The best time to see the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis — natural displays of light from gas formations in the sky, seen especially in regions of high latitude and in parts of Norway and Iceland — is from November through April.
Even if you’re not at an ideal location to see the sky dazzle, like a fluorescent light tube, you can catch a concert of the National Philharmonic Orchestra that’s at least partly devoted to, and has the overall title of, “Northern Lights.”
The Saturday, April 28 concert at the Music Center at Strathmore presents new works by contemporary composers Ola Gjeilo (pronounced: “Yay-lo), a Norwegian-American, and Bethesda native Alistair Coleman. Gjeilo and Coleman will join the orchestra to play their compositions at the piano.
“This is a wonderful chance to see them as guest artists as well as composers.” said Stan Engebretson, artistic director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra Chorale, who is conducting.
The two composers have connections: one is an affiliation with New York City’s Juilliard School, where Gjeilo earned a master’s degree, and Coleman is a first-year bachelor of arts student. The other is that both men began taking piano lessons at a young age but felt more drawn to “improvisation” than straight practicing.
It was this preference, both have said, that led them to composing. “I was bored playing piano pieces, and always loved to improvise,” said Coleman. “My parents said, ‘Stop improvising, and start practicing.’ (But improvising) came naturally. I began to write music. I loved the idea of creating new ideas and my own sound.”
Added Gjeilo: “I’ve always dreamed of having the freedom to create, to shape things my own way. There are infinite possibilities.”
Gjeilo now resides in New York City, working as a full-time composer. Recording with Decca Classics, he described his work as “very accessible, completely tonal or modal. It has a cinematic feel, evocative, in a slightly Romantic direction.”
Among Gjeilo’s favorite composers of the past are Bach, Brahms, Gustav, Richard Strauss and Rachmaninoff. As to living composers, he is drawn to John Adams, but most of the artists he likes, such as Howard Shore, John Williams and Thomas Newman, write film scores.
“Ola is a remarkable artist, with a natural gift for melody,” said Engebretson. “His work reflects a minimalist influence. It has a mechanical rhythm, but also long-note color.”
Showcasing his improvisational skills, Gjeilo will perform his own compositions: “Dark Night of the Soul,” “Luminous Night of the Soul.” “The Ground, from Sunrise Mass” and the evening’s signature work, “Northern Lights.”
The mystical poetry of 16-century St. John of the Cross as well as from the actual Northern Lights inspire his compositions. “St. John’s poetry is very passionate and spiritual,” Gjeilo said.
“Northern Lights” is an a cappella piece with a Latin text. The other works will be performed by piano, strings and choir, which is Gjeilo’s preference over working with orchestras.
Coleman, at 19, has been appointed the National Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence, a position created three years ago, said Engebretson. Coleman interned at Strathmore in high school and was recently named a Top Teen by Bethesda magazine.
NPO premiered his “Of Radiance and Light” in 2016 when the composer was still in high school.
For him, composing is a “collaborative process” with the musicians who play one’s work rather than a solitary activity.
Coleman’s piece in “Northern Lights” — “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” — derives from a William Wordsworth poem. “I look for different kinds of poetry, and it seemed jam-packed … I immediately loved the idea of art and nature intersecting.”
The National Philharmonic commissioned the work, which will premiere at the concert. Set to piano, string quartet and chorus, Coleman considers his piece to be in the English choral tradition, perhaps “more tonal” than other new works. He admires Herbert Howells, who composed a great deal of church music, but also fell “in love” with Debussy and Ravel. “The first score I studied was Ravel’s ‘La Mer” (The Sea), Coleman said. “It’s a beautiful piece of music, so closely related to the visual arts.”
According to Engebretson, Coleman presents “modern sounds of our time in a rich manner, frequently using the expanded harmony of jazz chords.” The work of both composers, he added, includes dance rhythms.
The concert opens with an a cappella setting of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” a “magnificent and majestic work,” Engebretson said. Some consider it his finest achievement, and the composer himself viewed it as one of his favorite works, he noted.
Also known as “All-Night Vigil,” the work was Rachmaninoff’s last major composition before leaving his native Russia after the 1917 Revolution. He felt threatened because he was a member of the elite, and in fact, his works were banned in Russia. The composer escaped to Scandinavia with his family and later settled in the United States, where he enjoyed a flourishing career as a virtuoso pianist, conductor and composer. The work reflected a resurgence of choral music in Rachmaninoff’s native country as well as his tribute to the evening service of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In addition to the piano soloists/composers and string groups, the concert will feature guests from the Montgomery College Chorus, with whom National Philharmonic has had a long-standing partnership, and the Strathmore Children’s Chorus. They will perform along with the National Philharmonic Chorale, amounting to a total of 200 singers.
During the week preceding the “Northern Lights” concert, Coleman reached out to county residents through informal performances, student master classes and interactive presentations. He engaged with several elementary and middle school music programs to share his experience as a young composer and the county activities that helped shape and encourage his musical learning. He also worked with two Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra ensembles that will perform Coleman compositions April 28 at a 7:15 p.m. pre-concert in the Music Center’s lobby.
The theme of “Northern Lights” holds a personal connection for both Engebretson and Gjeilo. The former has family in both Iceland and Norway and has seen the natural wonder twice. Gjeilo, though he used to reside in southern Norway where the lights are rarely seen, did witness them once.
“It’s a beautiful, mystical time of year,” Engebretson said of the appearance of the lights. “The music we are presenting during the concert is exotic, with such an ability to move the emotions and display the glory of nature.”
The National Philharmonic presents “Northern Lights” at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets start at $23, with ages 7 to 17 admitted free; visit www.strathmore.org or call 301-581-5100.