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01 October 2018

NOTUS: OF RADIANCE AND REFRACTION

by Daniel Morrison (Fanfare)

NOTUS: OF RADIANCE AND REFRACTION— • Dominick DiOrio, cond; Notus; various artists • INNOVA 002 (73:19 &)

C. BAKER Hor che’l ciel e la terra (John Tafoya, Kevin Bobo, James Cromer, Andrew Riley, perc). SANDSTRÖM The Giver of Stars. A. TRAVERS Virginia: The West (Sooyeon Kim, Cecilia Ratna, sop; Malcolm Cooper, Mark Philips, ten). JOHN GIBSON In Flight (Kellie Motter, sop; Elisabeth Culpepper, mez; Nicolas Chuaqui, ten). STRAVINSKY 3 Pieces for String Quartet (Zorá String Quartet). DIORIO Stravinsky Refracted (Tabitha Burchett, sop; Michael Linert, ct; Christopher Sokolowski, ten; Erik Krohg, bar; Ji Eun Hwang, Aviva Hakanoglu, vn; Haojian Wang, va; Magdalena Sas, vc; Brent Te Velde, org; Marco Schirripa, Andrew Riley, perc) 

Notus, the liner of this release informs us, is the Greek god of the south wind, of whose efforts the ancient poet Hesiod declared, “These winds are a god-sent kind, and a great blessing to all.” It is also the name of Indiana University’s contemporary vocal ensemble. All of the works on this disc, except for the Stravinsky, were commissioned by Notus and are receiving their world premiere recordings. All of the composers of these works are faculty members of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. If you think that contemporary music is all harshness and noise, you might want to give this disc a try, for much of what is on it is actually quite euphonious. That doesn’t mean that these works are derivative in style. They are in fact quite inventive and original, although some do draw elements from earlier periods.

Among the highlights of Claude Baker’s career is an eight-year stint as Composer in Residence of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. His Hor che’l ciel e la terra(Now That Heaven and Earth) is described as a “reimagining” of the second piece in Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals.Scored for 24-voice chorus and four percussionists and lasting slightly over seven minutes, it sets a sonnet by Petrarch expressing the agonies and ecstasies of love, somewhat abridged in Baker’s version. The composer writes that he used both literal and distorted references to Monteverdi’s music. These references are well disguised, however, and I doubt that a listener coming to this work without any prior knowledge would associate it with Monteverdi. Turning to my one recording of the Eighth Book of Madrigals, performed by Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Concerto Italiano, in which the corresponding piece is the 12th madrigal, not the second, I find that there is some resemblance in the overall shape of the piece. Also, the slow, dirge-like intoning of the singers in the first two minutes of the Monteverdi resembles the initial tempo of Baker’s chorus, although the pitch distribution is very different, with Baker’s strongly emphasizing the higher frequencies and cultivating an unearthly, disembodied sound, evoking the supernatural. Both pieces grow more assertive as they proceed, with Baker’s punctuated by percussion interjections of varying degrees of force and violence. Baker’s 24-voice chorus at times produces polyphony of intriguing complexity. 

Sven-David Sandström had an extensive academic career in his native Sweden before joining the University of Indiana faculty and is a prolific composer, whose works have received a good many recordings. He is represented here by The Giver of Stars, a five-minute a cappellasetting of a voluptuous poem by Amy Lowell. It is quite an engaging piece, of considerable beauty and alternating between hushed quiescence and excited peaks.

Virginia: The West, by Aaron Travers, is an even shorter a cappellasetting of a poem by Walt Whitman that symbolically describes the American Civil War. The composer uses different musical idioms to represent the various actors in the struggle. In the opening pages, the listener will be surprised to hear music that it clearly Medieval in style, and in his remarks Travers confirms that it is inspired by the Notre Dame organum of Perotin. This music is intended to represent the South and its archaic attitudes. The piece soon transitions to more modern idioms, although the Medieval style makes a brief reappearance later, and offers a variety of interesting choral textures.  

The lengthiest work on the program is John Gibson’s In Flight, for vocal soloists, chorus, and electronics. The piece is in five movements, each of which is a setting of a poem dealing with various aspects of flight. The first of them sets “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, which describes the well-known painting of the same name by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Both the painting and the poem depict the indifference of the farmers going about their daily tasks to the figure of Icarus plunging into the sea, to which they seem oblivious. As Gibson points out in his remarks, his setting uses “hocketing, wordless voices and computer-generated sound washes” to create an image of the sea, while a tenor soloist, Nicolas Chuaqui, serves as the narrator, sometimes joined by the chorus. The music is predominantly calm and tranquil, with subtle colorations, rising to a climax when the sun melts the wax on Icarus’s wings and he falls to his death. The electronic sounds are thoroughly musical rather than industrial. The second movement, “July,” sets a five-line poem by Linda Allardt describing the flight of a goldfinch. It begins and ends with a half-minute of silence. The initial silence is followed by a gradual choral crescendo from near inaudibility, accompanied by faint rustling sounds. The chorus then declaims the text, with discreet interjections of electronic sounds, again eminently musical. The third movement sets Ted Kooser’s poem “Flying at Night,” which describes the experience of a night flight and compares the lights of cities and countryside below to the stars above. Gibson’s choral setting is predominantly tranquil and contemplative, with added color from the euphonious electronic accompaniment. Margaret Atwood’s poem “Flying inside Your Own Body,” the text of the fourth movement, describes a rapturous dream, followed by the severe letdown upon awakening. Gibson’s setting is evocative and expressive. In the first part, describing the dream, the excellent soprano soloist Kellie Motter floats ecstatically above a carpet of choral sound. The awakening portion is darkly colored and angry, with a quiet, despairing conclusion. The electronic accompaniment adds color and accent. The final and longest movement of the Gibson work sets Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Night City,” which depicts a riot-torn city during the era of the Vietnam War, viewed from a plane. It is also the strangest and most radical of the five movements, including contributions from distorted, apparently computer-generated or modified voices, choppy, staccato phrasing from the chorus, and electronic sounds that are less conventionally musical than in the other movements. There are also brief, lyrical passages sung by the fine mezzo, Elisabeth Culpepper.  I find the results intriguing.

Dominick DiOrio’s Stravinsky Refractedis a setting of the Amy Lowell poem “Stravinsky’s Three Pieces ‘Grotesques,’ for String Quartet,” which is a very imaginative description of the Stravinsky work and the images it conjures for her. The DiOrio work is preceded on this disc by a rendition of the Stravinsky piece, on which DiOrio drew in fashioning his own composition. The performance is by the Zorá String Quartet, a prize-winning ensemble composed of graduates of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Its performance is a good one, lively and incisive in the first two pieces, although leaner in tone than that of the Alban Berg Quartet (EMI). The Zorá tempo for the third piece is substantially slower than that of the Viennese ensemble and is quite dirge-like, perhaps appropriate for music that quotes the Medieval dies iraemelody. For some reason, the quartet is recorded at a noticeably lower level than the rest of the program, and a considerable boost in volume is necessary for the performance to register with the intended impact.

DiOrio writes that his intention was to convert Lowell’s take on the Stravinsky pieces back into music, taking “cues” from both those artists. He uses “much of the original musical content of Stravinsky’s pieces (motives, pitch content, entire phrases verbatim),” but also adds “further dimensions of timbral interest and color in scoring for instruments suggested by Lowell’s poem.” The additional forces include drums, organ, chorus, and soprano, countertenor, tenor, and baritone soloists. Also included in the scoring is a string quartet. Although borrowings from the Stravinsky work are sometimes clearly audible in DiOrio’s piece, it is much more than a mere arrangement of the Stravinsky. At over 13 minutes, it is nearly twice as long, and with its expanded forces it seeks to express Lowell’s extravagant imagery in music. The work abounds in vocal and instrumental color, in forceful assertiveness, and in mysterious contemplation.

Throughout the program, I am impressed by the skill and engagement of the Notus singers and the other performing forces. The vocal soloists, all of whom are members of the Notus chorus, acquit themselves well. Adding to the success of this release is recorded sound that is clear, spacious, detailed, and free from harshness. The accompanying booklet supplies extensive information on the works and the performers, as well as the texts, with an English translation of the Petrarch.

I am not an aficionado of contemporary music, but I did thoroughly enjoy this disc, which offers interesting music, expertly performed and recorded. I recommend it not only to those with a special interest in new music but also to a wider audience. Daniel Morrison