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01 January 2019

FEATURE Review

by Huntley Dent (Fanfare Magazine)

NOTUS: Of Radiance and Refraction • Dominick DiOrio, cond; Kevin Bobo1, James Cromer1, Andrew Riley1, 6, Marco Schirripa6, John Tafoya1 (perc); Tabitha Burchett6, Sooyeon Kim3, Kellie Motter4, Cecilia Ratna3 (sop); Elisabeth Culpepper4 (mez); Michael Linert6 (ct); Nicolas Chuaqui4, Malcolm Cooper3, Mark Philips3, Christopher Sokolowski6 (ten); Erik Krohg6 (bar); Aviva Hakanoglu6, Ji Eun Hwang6 (vn); Haojian Wang6 (va); Magdalena Sas6 (vc); Brent Te Velde6 (org); Notus;1–4, 6 Zorá Str Qrt5 • INNOVA 003 (74:19 )

C. BAKER 1Hor che’l ciel e la terra. SANDSTRÖM 2The Giver of Stars. A. TRAVERS 3Virginia: The West. JOHN GIBSON 4In Flight. STRAVINSKY 53 Pieces for String Quartet. DIORIO 6Stravinsky Refracted

If you look up the two prominent words in the title of this new album of contemporary choral music, “radiance” and “refraction,” both apply to the physics of light. Here, however, they are used in a musical and poetic sense, as we’ll see. But one scientific connotation still applies—much of this music feels like an experiment in listening. Contemporary composers often aim to change our way of hearing, pushing the envelope of harmony and crossing the boundary between music and sound until they merge. Experiments don’t have predictable outcomes, but I’d venture that few listeners with open ears will come away without being fascinated.

NOTUS is a select choral ensemble at the prestigious music school of Indiana University, Bloomington. It should be no surprise that the two dozen members posing in a group photo are accomplished, but I was astonished at their ability to find and hold pitch in a cappella works. Diatonic harmony and home keys do occur incidentally in some pieces, but more commonly the music takes flight beyond the categories of consonance and dissonance. NOTUS sounds like a top-tier professional chorus capable of meeting any vocal demand—the members have unerring intonation, freedom of vocal line, pure tone, and effortless unanimity.

Other than Stravinsky, the composers represented here are connected to the Jacobs School of Music at UI, and the innovative director of NOTUS, Dominick DiOrio, came with multiple graduate degrees from the Yale School of Music to become the youngest-ever tenured faculty member in the conducting department at Indiana. DiOrio, born in 1984, has directed NOTUS since 2013.

The booklet includes composer bios and helpful descriptions of each work, but since the vocal style and sound world of each piece is unique to itself, putting the music into words is a refractory task. “Refection” is the term DiOrio uses for the complex imaginative process he has been applying to a series of his own recent compositions grounded in fragments of music by Purcell, Brahms, Britten, and Hildegard von Bingen. Stravinsky Refracted, one of my two personal favorites on the program, is a transformation of Three Pieces for String Quartet from 1914, which we first hear performed by the accomplished Zorá String Quartet.

Stravinsky expresses in miniaturized form many of the Russian sounds that infuse masterpieces like Le sacre and Les noces. On hearing the work in Jordan Hall in Boston in 1915, the poet Amy Lowell was struck by the exoticism and impact of such new sounds, which led to one of her best poems, the awkwardly titled “Stravinsky’s Three Pieces ‘Grotesques,’ for String Quartet.” DiOrio sets the poem’s three sections in a transformation that could be called a variant of Berio’s technique in Sinfonia, where the original music darts in and out of sight, except that Stravinsky Refracted is more, well, refracted—unlike Sinfonia, we aren’t given a complete Mahler symphony movement to follow. Quite often we hear no obvious resemblance to Stravinsky’s Three Pieces. Many gestures of transformation take place, and there’s panoply of resources to expand the music’s reach, including a vocal quartet that includes a countertenor, percussion, organ, and string quartet, the last linking us back to the Stravinsky original. Words falter, because DiOrio’s ingenious, kaleidoscopic score must speak on its own. I found the piece captivating and particularly appreciated the composer’s goal of making sure that Lowell’s text is always clearly and transparently in the forefront.

My second favorite piece is a five-part cycle, In Flight, by John Gibson (b. 1960), which is also inhabits the most experimental sound world in that he uses electronica in various ways, sometimes purely as sound to augment the chorus at other times to transform a singing voice along the lines of European electronic pop. “Flight” is treated quite diversely in the texts, from the aerial view of cities burning during racial protests in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Night City” to flying dreams, captured in Margaret Atwood’s “Flying Inside Your Own Body,” along the way giving us a beautiful evocation of Breughel’s haunting painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in a poem by William Carlos Williams. Gibson’s music is exceptional in its invention of new choral sounds, the electronica adding its own coloration but never obscuring the magical expressivity of the human voice.

Space forbids me from describing the three shorter works on the program, which last between four and seven minutes, but in its own way, Claude Baker’s Hor che’l ciel e la terra (a beautiful transformation of a great Monteverdi madrigal with the startling addition of a percussion ensemble), Sven-David Sandström’s The Giver of Stars (another Amy Lowell setting, tonal and luminous), and Aaron Travers’s Virginia: The West (a multi-layered setting of a Walt Whitman poem from the Civil War) are absorbing and exciting.

DiOrio conducts these varied idioms with exceptional skill and understanding, at all times bringing out the musicality of each work. In assembling five experiments in radiance and refraction he’s created a unique CD that rewards every kind of listener, not just those devoted to contemporary music. Very good recorded sound and full texts.