Programs prepared by Dominick DiOrio for NOTUS Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, the chamber chorus he directs, are always fascinating and beautifully prepared. Sunday afternoon’s concert, titled “O, Fallen Star, Depictions of Death in Air and String,” proved no exception and drew a large audience to Auer Hall.
That audience remained dramatically silent when conductor DiOrio turned the music on and became just as dramatically vociferous when he turned it off, the listeners responding to what was heard with justifiable praise. The afternoon’s fare consisted of two items of scope: Jennifer Higdon’s 2005 ode, “Dooryard Bloom,” and James MacMillan’s harrowing depiction of the “Seven Last Words from the Cross.”
American composer Higdon’s work reflects Walt Whitman’s “Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the poet’s elegy marking the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There is sadness in the words and the music. There is anger. There is contemplation. It may be unusual to say for a vocal composition that the instrumental music is more interesting, but so it was to this reviewer’s ears. For the chamber orchestra, Higdon used an appropriately lyrical yet restrained style that artistically benefits the mournful content. For the vocal line, on the other hand, she reverted to a speech-song method that became popular among composers several decades earlier, around the mid-20th century, in which the musical line often failed to support the verbal content.
The composition’s performance, however, was potent because the vocal soloist, Connor Lidell, so generously lavished the power of his baritone and the conviction in his musicality on what the score asked him to do. So, in fact, did his colleagues. Lidell, the IU Chamber Orchestra and conductor DiOrio gave the music all they could and then some.
With the orchestra reduced to just the strings but with the choral ensemble on stage and Lidell’s presence in the middle of it, Maestro DiOrio turned to MacMillan’s representation of the words attributed in the New Testament to Jesus Christ during his crucifixion.
For each of the sayings — from “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit” — MacMillan, a proud Scot and loyal Catholic, composed a setting expressive of the words Jesus uttered: calming or beseeching or lamenting or forgiving. The whole of the cantata is passionate, whether quietly or deafeningly, and at the start of the sixth movement, “It is finished,” the music turns shattering with three hammer blows that brutally foretell what’s soon to come.
MacMillan’s music is powerful. Sunday’s reading was powerful, fully in sync with how the composer addressed this grief-rousing biblical tragedy. DiOrio knew what he wanted in way of performance and had his musicians, the orchestral and the choral, immersed, so to capture the startling beauties that the composer ascribed to this momentous story.