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01 December 2018

Of Radiance & Refraction

by Colin Clarke (Fanfare)

OF RADIANCE & REFRACTION • Dominick DiOrio, dir; Notus (ch); Zorá Str Qrt (Dechopol Kowintaweewat, Seula Lee, vns; Pablo Muñoz Salido, va; Zizai Ming, vc); 1James Tafoya, Kevin Bobo, James Cromer, Andrew Riley, Marco Schirripa (perc); Brent te Velde (org); Ji Eun Hwang, Aviva Hakanoglu (vns); Haojian Wang (va); Magdalena Sas (vc) • INNOVA 002 (73:19)

CLAUDE BAKER Hor che'l ciel e la terra S.-D. SANDSTRöM The Giver of Stars A. Travers Virginia: The West GIBSON In Flight STRAVINSKY Three Pieces for String Quartet DiORIO Stravinsky Refracted

The group NOTUS is Indiana University’s contemporary vocal ensemble. Here, it presents five newly-commissioned works by Indiana University Jacobs School of Music composers. The freshness of the performances, and indeed of the music itself, is testament to this group’s zeal.

Scored for 24-voice chorus and four percussionists, Claude Baker’s Hor che’l ciel e la terra (Now that the heaven and earth and wind are still, of 2014) takes Monteverdi’s piece of that name (from the Eighth Book of Madrigals) as reference, quoting the earlier piece both literally and in distorted form. The Petrarch text subdivides neatly into a number of parts, a subdivision followed by both composers. The musical languages are very different however, and Baker expands his textures from six vocal parts to 24 as well as adding various percussion. Baker’s splendid piece (an “expansion” rather than any sort of modern “realization”) seems to take in the uncompromising status of much Italian contemporary music. Eastman trained, Baker’s writing is stunningly effective, his responses both to the text meaning but also to the very sound of the language a miracle. Interestingly, Marc-André Hamelin’s Naxos recording of Baker’s Piano Concerto (coupled with Baker’s Aus Schwanengesang) made it to David DeBoor Canfield’s Want List this year. 

Restrained and powerful, Sven-David Sandström’s setting for choir of Amy Lowell’s The Giver of Stars is a glowing piece of choral writing. A pupil of Ligeti and Nørgård, Sandström’s 2015 piece reveals an easy expertise in writing for voices. Although initially interested in quarter-tones, his later music returns to tonal and modal writing (the latter in evidence here). The performance is impeccable, the balance of voices perfect (as is the placement of the choir in the sound picture). Aaron Travers’ Virginia: The West (2013) sets Whitman (a poem from Drum Taps) with a nod to the Notre Dame organum of, specifically, Perotin. The various “voices” in the poem (the Mother of All, the noble son) are effectively differentiated. The fragility of the two soprano voices (Sooyeon Kim and Ceclia Ratna) are particularly touching, tellingly delivered. The capturing of the sense of gesture used by Travers is another poignant aspect to this splendid performance. 

Cast in five movements, John Gibson’s In Flight (2015) is scored for chorus and electronics. The electronic component is surprisingly warm-toned as it ushers in this multi-angle examination of the nature of flight itself, from that of Icarus, a goldfinch or a plane. Poets set are William Carlos Williams (“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” with a splendidly strong and ardent tenor solo by Nicolas Chuaqui), Linda Allarot (“July,” so much more than a swoopy choral depiction of a goldfinch), Ted Kooser (“Flying at Night,” with its ethereal, ephemeral percussion and floated choral contribution), Margaret Atwood (“Flying Inside Your Own Body,” a dream with a poetic parallel of Icarus’ fall, on waking and featuring a splendid, close-miked soprano contribution from Kellie Motter) and Elizabeth Bishop (an extended, eleven-minute, electronic enhanced setting of “Night City,” the text a mid-air meditation on the carnage of the later years of the Vietnam War). Within his five movement, therefore, Gibson offers whole worlds of views, both harmonic and verbal. A phenomenal performance, with the choir so committed and so well disciplined, of a major piece of choral writing.

The last two items are linked. Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet was actually the inspiration for Amy Lowell’s poem Three Pieces “Grotesques” for String Quartet; in turn, Dominick DiOrio, in returning the poem to music, adds extra elements implied in the poem itself (drums and organ, for example). Perfect to have the Stravinsky in its original form prefacing DiOrio’s work, in a performance of raw energy that seems to drown in those ostinatos. The Zorá Quartet offers one of the finest performances available, the power of the chords in the final piece overwhelming in its very restraint. There is an immediate sense of refraction at the instrumental opening of DiOrio’s Stravinsky Refracted; as the familiar ostinatos appear, they take off in different directions. DiOrio’s own liking for rhythmic irregularity finds a soul brother in Stravinsky; the vocal element to Stravinsky-like passages seems to seek to bring in The Soldier’s Tale but at other points we enter a far more personal, interior space that mirrors the astonishing, perhaps even startling, beauty of the poetry; elsewhere, the music moves to the primal. An intriguing and magnificent way to close a most satisfying disc.