Dominick DiOrio’s NOTUS Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in Auer Hall on Thursday evening enveloped the venue-filling audience, with just two works but they offered a vast array of emotional fare.
One heard first the “Musica celestis” of Aaron Jay Kernis, a piece of about a dozen minutes’ length, yet packed with perfumed atmosphere. It is scored for strings, those provided here by an alert and lovely-tuned Indiana University Chamber Orchestra.
Then came the piece de resistance, Steve Reich’s “The Desert Music,” stretched powerfully across three quarters of an hour and requiring the whole of a chamber orchestra plus a dozen or so brass musicians spread around the front and sides of Auer’s balcony level, and the voices of NOTUS, all engaged in explosions and sweeps and whispers and pounding fortissimos that must have left all performers physically whipped, while draining any listener truly involved in the experience. This audience, in sum and total, certainly appeared to be. I was.
DiOrio has a special gift for interpreting and directing this music. He is, as his official job title explains, an IU Jacobs School faculty choral conductor. He is also, really, an effective conductor, meaning of orchestral music, too. And on top of that, he is a versatile composer, thereby bringing to the podium a sensitivity for the creations of his fellow contemporary composers.
Granted, that can have disadvantages caused by jealousy or narrowness of view, but in DiOrio’s case it is quite the opposite: an open and welcoming embrace of what his creative brothers and sisters are striving to accomplish. And he has the ability to persuade his performers to follow him so that the reading one hears in concert has potency, honesty and authenticity. He thereby has become an effective apostle for his devotion, the contemporary in music.
The Kernis work, revealing the composer’s care for musical works of previous eras, evokes both peace and melancholy, a blend perhaps meant to express a personal search for calm in his surround and sadness over the world’s disturbing jabs always threatening to tear it apart. ”Musica celestis” was written initially for string quartet but expanded into an orchestral format shortly after the original was written in 1990. DiOrio and the orchestra played the music with expansive grace.
Steve Reich has provided copious explanatory notes about the shape of notes in his score, his musical and technical intentions for the piece. That’s meat for conductors, performing musicians, musicologists, engineers who contribute the electronic enhancements built into the score. For me, however, a single paragraph of reflection is important. In it, he tells us that he loves the poetry of William Carlos Williams, whose words he uses as text and helps shape the message.
Within a Williams poem, “The Orchestra,” written after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, throbs the humanistic and philosophical point, in these words: “Say to them, Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realize his wishes. Now that he can realize them, he must either change them or perish.” Reich’s music bellows and intones fear and anger and love for life and hopelessness about realities and hope for possibilities. As a package, so brilliantly accomplished by Maestro DiOrio and his fine, stage-filling colleagues, “The Desert Music” was stunning, no less, and quite an achievement as a work of art and in presentation.
The Night Before
Ask me not how or why, but the evening before became, for me, a moving from Auer Hall to the Musical Arts Center to hear portions of two events.
Of the first, a concert given in memory of Rostislsv and Luba Edlina Dubinsky, I heard some of Mendelssohn’s gorgeously nostalgic and pianistically magical “Songs without Words,” and the plaintive Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor.
Both were well chosen, as performed by musicians for whom the remembered honorees were terribly important: their teachers here in the Jacobs School. Pianist Corey Smythe, who comes visiting regularly to teach in the summer’s Piano Academy and always takes time for a recital appearance or two, the object of thanks was Luba Edlina Dubinsky, the lovely pianist and person who died this past October. Smythe’s interpretation of selected items from the Mendelssohn trove was love-laden for his teacher and thrilling for one’s listening ears. Smythe is a keyboard master one enjoys listening to for technical prowess and interpretive finesse.
The Brahms was performed for violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, who died in 1997 and left his mark not only by teaching students that instrument but the art of the string quartet. One of those quartets remained a team as the Lafayette and remains an active ensemble that welcomed an invitation to honor their mentor. Joining them for the Brahms was the eminent faculty clarinetist, James Campbell.
Together, they produced a radiant reading of the Clarinet Quintet, its score brimming not only with sadness but with sections of rapture and joy. The Campbell clarinet we’ve known to be of utmost effectiveness and it was again. The Lafayette foursome proved the soundness of their instruction here and the innate talents they’ve used professionally since. One heard beautifully integrated teamwork.
At the Musical Arts Center, I heard Thomas Wilkins conduct Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, the composer’s final composition. “It must have been my last spark,” Rachmaninoff said of it. And a terrific salute to the orchestra (specifically to the Philadelphia Orchestra) it is, often with its own melancholy but also at various times pulsing and bright and danceable and, finally, haunting. On the score’s final page, Rachmaninoff wrote, “I thank Thee, Lord!”
Wilkins always brings a bracing mix of relaxation and tension to his readings. He did so on Wednesday, while showing what his talented young Concert Orchestra is capable of, when coaxed and inspired.