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13 April 2018

Music review: Variety of voices come together in impressive series of performances

by Peter Jacobi (Herald Times)

“The Solitude of the Spirit” is the title given to Tuesday evening’s NOTUS concert in Auer Hall. It well served the theme that conductor Dominick DiOrio thoughtfully conceived for the group’s closing program of the current music season.

Through the performance of eight compositions, all but one written in the 21st century, Maestro DiOrio and his gifted band of musicians sought to emphasize the silent, time-consuming and lonely struggle involved in the complex act of composition. Not only that, but the theme enunciated the difficult, yet necessary and potentially opportunity-laden deed of releasing the composition to performers who will bring it to life, those who — in DiOrio’s words — “spent time getting to know its nooks and crannies, those who have also perhaps fallen in love with its emotional possibilities, those who have distilled its essence, its spirit.”

The pieces chosen for this NOTUS outing seemed to reveal the results of composers lavishing mental and emotional struggle on their work. Each reading, in follow-up, gave evidence of interpreters that, under their leader’s guidance, “spent time getting to know its nooks and crannies.”

Note please that for the first time in covering NOTUS, I’ve not attached the subtitle, “IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble.” That, of course, is the group’s place in the Jacobs School of Music’s firmament: to perform no music written before 1900 and, in this way, be contemporary, as its similarly inspired institution, the IU New Music Ensemble, is wedded to its reason for being, to focus on the “new.”

NOTUS, taken from Notos, Greek god of the south wind, suggests fresh and fragrant breezes. DiOrio applied the changed identity in 2013. It’s descriptive of what he’s tried to accomplish with his widely scoped choices of repertory. It’s been NOTUS for five years. It’s time, I think, to simply go with the name NOTUS, proven still to be a distinguished 35-voice IU chorus for the music of now, as it has always been.

Tuesday’s program was heavily pointed to IU connections: six claim that tie, three as winners of the NOTUS Student Composition Contest (each honored with a premiere), one as written by a former student, and two as works of faculty:

• Nathan Stang’s “O felix anima” (“O glad soul”), set for choir and organ on millennium-old words by Hildegard von Bingen, offers music of sacred heart containing intersecting washes of sound from divided portions of the chorus. The organ, animated by faculty member Vincent Carr, provided a sturdy base to wandering voices, all to meaningful effect.

• Katherine Bodor’s “Two Songs of Solitude” attach music of quiet passion to two poems by Sara Teasdale, “The Crystal Gazer” and “The Solitary.” The message in both reflects this portion of the text: “My heart has grown rich with the passing years. I have less need now than when I was young to share myself with every comer.”

“Being at home with oneself” was composer Bodor’s explanation for her welcoming piece.

• Jake Gunnar Walsh’s “I See Words in Color” brings choral song to “Synesthesia,” a poem written by the composer’s friend, Kristin Vegh, which preaches the power of connecting words with colors.

“I wish I could say that everyone knew that every word has a color, each letter a hue,” and the remainder of the text, have been expressed, as the composer explains it, in hints of musical paint, in an effort to enhance the senses. Does it work? For a listener open to the thought: perhaps. Yes or no, the music vibrated.

• Former student Nicolas Chuaqui’s “Qui confidunt in Domino” (“Those who trust in the Lord”) employed eight NOTUS singers and assistant conductor Grant Farmer to radiantly use Historic Performance technique for an item spiritual and breathlessly subdued in nature.

• Maestro DiOrio, a gifted composer as well as conductor, added his “An Equal Humanity” to the lineup. A more extended piece than the others, it contemplates a tale of Khalil Gibran that warns how “the smallest seeds of selfishness and callous avarice can easily fester and multiply into the most demonic of atrocities.”

Faculty bass-baritone Peter Volpe supplied the recitatives.

An instrumental ensemble of six underscored the singers (Kathryn Lukas, flute; Howard Klug, clarinet; Simin Ganatra, violin; Graham Cullen, cello; Stephen Karukas, percussion, including a bass drum at boom level; Kimberly Carballo, piano).

• Retiring faculty composer Sven-David Sandstrom contributed “Lobet den Herrn” (“Praise the Lord”), a Bach-inspired chorus of power and beauty, built on music that truly sings. Sandstrom’s choral music is remarkable; here was proof again.

The amazing African-American conductor and arranger Byron Smith’s version of “Blessed Assurance” carefully and triumphantly added contemporary harmonies to the lovingly optimistic original; it was sung stirringly, as was everything throughout the evening.

Smith has no known close ties to IU. Nor does the Philippine composer Nilo Alcala, whose “Song of the Night,” led by associate conductor Joshua Harper, impressed for its shifts of volume and pace, sometimes ever so calming and dreamy, signs of needed sleep; at other times shouted and swift as the score expresses wonders for those traveling the night sleeplessly.

In sum: The concert was NOTUS impressively at work.