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01 November 2018

Recorded Sound Reviews

by David Rentz (Choral Journal)

Of Radiance & Refraction
NOTUS
Dominick DiOrio, director
Innova INN002 (2018: 73:19)

NOTUS was founded in 1980 as the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble and was renamed in 2013 when Dominick DiOrio became its fourth, and current, director.  One of the cornerstone ensembles of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the group commissions, programs, and records new works and second performances – over 150 at the time of this recording. The disc features five new works commissioned from active and emeritus members of the IU composition faculty (and from DiOrio himself), three of which are their composers’ first major compositions for chorus.  The sound of the ensemble is mature and assured, even as it navigates a thorny array of styles, characters, and vocal demands.  It is also remarkably consistent, given the roster turnover from piece to piece- only two singers (out of an average ensemble size of around twenty-five) appear on all five recordings.

The disc opens with Claude Baker’s Hor che’l ciel e la terra, a reimagining of Monteverdi’s work of the same name, from the latter’s eighth book of madrigals, Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi. Written for four percussionists and a chorus of twenty-four voices, which acts both as a traditional vocal ensemble and as part of the percussion battery, it includes intermittent, extended direct quotations from Monteverdi with percussion outbursts, exclamations, and rumblings.  Sven-David Sandström’s The Giver of Starsfollows. One of two works for unaccompanied chorus on this disc, it exemplifies Sandström’s madrigalistic approach to text setting, rendering into music the vivid, passionate words of the poem. DiOrio elicits a particularly wide expressive and gestural range from his singers on this track.

In the short, highly effective Virginia: The West, Aaron Travers gives the three primary stakeholders in Walt Whitman’s poem their own distinct musical identities: the South, a quasi-medieval, organum sound; the North, a more imitative texture with a more contemporary tonal language; and “the Mother of All” – the enture nation – two solo sopranos undergirded by and eventually sweeping along the rest of the chorus to an ending somehow perfectly appropriate in its abruptness.

In In Flight, John Gibson sets give wildly divergent poems by William Carlos Williams, Linda Allardt, Ted Kooser, Margaret Atwood, and Elizabeth Bishop all dealing with some aspect of flight and both hard and soft landings, from the mythical Icarus to birds, stars, and airplanes.  Scored for chorus and electronics, In Flight forms the centerpiece of the album.  In over thirty minutes of music, Gibson explores the potential and pushes the limits of vocal-electronic synthesis. Paradoxically, the combination of live performers and electronics can sometimes play more clearly in performance than as a recording, but, thanks to Gibson’s keen ear for texture and his fierce dedication to expressing the poetic texts along with excellent audio engineering, this work captivates from beginning to end.

The transition to Stravinsky’s Three Piece for String Quartet, expertly played by the Zorá String Quartet, is jarring, but sets the stage for the last choral piece.  Amy Lowell was inspired by the Russian composer’s trio of short pieces to write Stravinsky’s Three Pieces ‘Grotesques’, for String Quartet, and DiOrio was, in turn, inspired by Lowell’s poem to write Stravinsky Refracted, for chorus, organ, percussion, and string quartet.  Subtly bookending Baker’s homage to Monteverdi by quoting musical material from the Stravinsky, the composer-conductor engages in further artistic alchemy, offering a flight of fancy that manages to stay connected the source material while also expressing his own uniquely imaginative voice.

As NOTUS's first commercial recording and a collection of significant new music, this disc will be a welcome addition to the collections of choral aficionados, and a reminder of the benefits (and challenges) of encouraging "non-choral" composers to write for our ensembles.