Technicolor light glimmers in the night sky. Plaintive strains of a Dolly Parton tune intermingle with the ancient music of Johann Pachelbel. Improvised jazz piano melodies weave around a drifting wave of Nordic choral music.
Sweet dreams? No, it's the sweet song of Dolce Canto, the Missoula choir that has made its name presenting concerts where the unexpected blends into the sublime. To celebrate its 10th birthday, Dolce Canto is pulling out all the stops at 3 p.m. Sunday in the University of Montana's Music Recital Hall in a concert titled "Northern Lights" that leaps across oceans and time to explore the far reaches of the choral repertoire.
Actually, the ocean itself plays a pretty pivotal role in the program, when Dolce Canto premieres its first commissioned work, "You Sing" by Giselle Wyers, a Washington-based choral conductor and composer. That work, set to a poem of the same name by Pablo Neruda, blends evocations of the ocean and rain, gravity and soaring beauty - and in the process epitomizes why Dolce Canto came to exist in the first place, said artistic director and conductor Peter Park.
"It's a very challenging piece that uses a lot of text-painting and gives a great sense of the potential of the human voice - which is what we're really all about," said Park. "It's a bold, broad poem that I think speaks to a lot of people, and I think this music will do the same. It's a great piece to showcase how far we've come in the past 10 years."
Wyers' a cappella work is one of two world premieres on the program. The second comes in the program's second half, which is wholly devoted to the works of Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo, whose music has peppered concerts by Dolce Canto this season. Dolce Canto will present the first-ever performance of Gjelo's "Tundra," a piece written for choir, soprano soloist and string quartet. For that and other works on the program, Dolce Canto will be joined by members of the String Orchestra of the Rockies - on whose winter concert Dolce Canto also performed some of Gjelo's music - and Emily Murdock, a former Dolce Canto member who is now enjoying a budding opera career.
Park said that Dolce Canto's interest in Gjelo's music developed out of an encounter with the composer last year in Seattle.
"We had an interview that turned into a long conversation, which turned into dinner, and we subsequently became friends," said Park. "He's becoming such a rising star; you can't go anywhere without hearing his stuff in the choral realm. So we extended an invitation to come out and have us premiere a few of his pieces, and this has developed into half a program devoted to his music."
Park emphasized that, while local audiences may not recognize the composer's name, his style should be immediately enjoyable.
"There's a subtlety to this music that everyone will connect to," said Park. "It's harmonically gorgeous. He uses dissonance in a really moving way; his melody lines are ethereal. He really understands the human voice, so there's a warmth to the sound."
That said, Gjelo's music will steer Dolce Canto into some previously uncharted waters. The choir, which typically performs a cappella, will be joined by string players and a pianist for some of Gjelo's music, and on one piece Gjelo himself will perform improvised jazz on the piano while the choir sings his "Northern Lights."
If any of that sounds a little far-out, the rest of the program will provide plenty of firm ground. There'll be classical music by Felix Mendelssohn and Johann Pachelbel, operatic music by Donizetti and, yes, some Dolly Parton and even a dose of U2 thrown in for good measure.
"It's a very diverse program that we would hope offers someone for everyone," said Park. "I think this will be a fantastic introduction to what we do for those who haven't heard us and a great celebration of how far we've come for those who know us well."