Dominick DiOrio, it must be said, is a superb choral conductor. In the few short years he has been member of the Indiana University Jacobs School’s choral department, he has taken the important Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, now with the added name NOTUS, on fascinating voyages of discovery, all the while shaping the choir’s sounds to be flexible, edgily precise, lusciously warm and whatever the music being sung calls for.
From one program to the next, the “music being sung” has been of royal banquet variety and scope, proving that in the world of what is called contemporary music, there are treasures of all sorts to choose from. DiOrio does, and he did so on Tuesday evening in Auer Hall when his student ensemble spun all sorts of strands into a collection of seven pieces he placed under the rubric “Echoes and Storms,” a program the young maestro said was about “cause and effect,” about “the power of intention,” about “the way these forces can have uplifting or damning effects on our lives.”
I had received from Maestro DiOrio his well-crafted and immensely thoughtful program notes, which also included words used for the music, both the language employed and the English translation, if the libretto was foreign. Unfortunately, for some reason, those notes were not distributed at the concert; they would have immeasurably assisted the near-hall-filling number of listeners assembled.
It helped that he took to the microphone several times to provide some background. And he made sure to invite guest composers to speak their peace. Also, the music — as performed by the choral ensemble and guest instrumentalists — managed to get messages and meanings across, simply through the music itself and the sensitivity of interpretation.
I am not always a fan of contemporary vocal and choral music. Too often, it veers into musical directions that seem to have nothing to do with the words; what’s more, the result is unappealing. None of that I heard on Tuesday. Everything was of interest and to the artistic point. And, surprise, everything was composed in the 21st century.
Collaborating with NOTUS for the opening number, “this view of life” by the American composer Jeffrey Parola, was the Monroe String Quartet, a Jacobs School ensemble encouraged into being by the resident Pacifica Quartet. Together, chorus and strings celebrated Charles Darwin and evolution, the Earth’s ability to keep multiplying creatures, just as Parola’s music cleverly built a weave of sounds seasoned with optimism.
For composer Karen Siegel, the outdoors brings inspiration. Her “Saguaro” sheds mystic light on the cactus, which “has been here longer than my family has been in this country, waiting, watching. … You maintain your post in a silent army, defending the Catalinas against time, watching, waiting.” There was an appropriate dreamy quality to the ensemble’s singing.
Michael Ippolito’s “Rain Song,” with words by Carl Sandburg, sheds emotional warmth vocally and through dialogue with a viola scordatura (its strings retuned for different effects). The score calls for a conversation, with singers and violist mimicking each other. Faculty violist Edward Gazouleas complementarily contributed the string component.
“Ang Tren,” by Filipino composer Saunder Choi, copies the sounds of a moving train, in propulsion and pauses and back to propulsion, all cleverly voiced, “like a snake coming from its barracks, its den. … When night comes, its eyes shine bright like flames, you can hear the sound of its whistle from afar.” The music proved delightful.
IU student Matthew Recio won a NOTUS Student Composition Contest prize for “Echo,” given its premiere on Tuesday. Words from the poet Rumi provided inspiration: “A mountain keeps an echo deep inside. That’s how I hold your voice.” Around these words, Recio has constructed a brilliantly evocative piece made personal by memories of his Yaya, his grandmother, who so long gave young Matthew love and guidance, guidance from the past that now must be recalled. One could hear tears in the music.
“Pamugun,” from the late Filipino composer Francisco Feliciano, is a patter song, delivered brilliantly in a language called Maguindanao. It relates a conversation between a sparrow and a hunter. One heard charming patter, charming chatter.
The program ended with the concert’s most extended composition, the infectious work of guest Rex David Isenberg. His “Feathers in the Wind” ethnically explores a Jewish tale about malicious gossip and its destructive impact on a rabbi and a village. As in other works earlier in the evening, Isenberg’s piece asked for brief vocal solos from NOTUS members. Double bass Kurt Muroki and pianist Aram Arakelyan supplied the instrumentals. Composed in 2016, “Feathers in the Wind” is timeless and inviting in its impact. The performance could not have been better.
A note: Maestro DiOrio shared conducting duties with the ensemble’s associate and assistant conductors, Joshua Harper and Grant Farmer. All contributed.