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13 March 2014

REVIEW: NOTUS ready for New York audience

by Peter Jacobi (The Herald Times)

You know the old give-and-take.

Give: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Take: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Well, yes, but in the case of NOTUS, the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, part of the practice happened in Auer Hall Tuesday evening before a Bloomington audience. The final 25 minutes of that concert contained the package of music that conductor Dominick DiOrio and NOTUS will perform for a New York City audience next week during an inaugural concert of a series devoted to new vocal music. That series will be housed in an intimate space within the Carnegie Hall complex called Weill Hall.

If Maestro DiOrio’s band of 24 vocalists sings as it did in Auer, then that familiar give-and-take will hold true once again. Practice will have done it. Innate talent will have helped. And fascinating music, too.

DiOrio packed five compositions into those 25 minutes, each designed to further a sharpened NOTUS goal, which is to perform the music of living composers. On Tuesday, all of the music — the Carnegie Hall portion and the five additional works that filled the hour — had been written in the past seven years. Three are receiving world premieres. So, it was not out of line for the concert to be titled “Hot off the Press, Freshly Minted New Works for Voices.”

Two of the debuts are included in the Carnegie Hall segment: “To the Roaring Wind,” by a widely admired Zachary Wadsworth, and “Virginia: The West,” by IU Jacobs School of Music composer Aaron Travers. Both pieces were commissioned by NOTUS. Wadsworth’s “To the Roaring Wind” doesn’t roar at all but sets quiet words by poet Wallace Stevens into quiet sounds that bridge from breathing and representations of wind to words spoken and sung. Travers was inspired by more muscular language of Walt Whitman and mingles the chorus and solo voices into a feast of shifting textures.

Caroline Shaw’s “Passacaglia” from Partita for 8 Voices, which won her the only Pulitzer so far given to music for a cappella voices, was previously performed by NOTUS last fall, and continued to weave magic. Conductor DiOrio’s “O Virtus Sapientiae,” based on 12th century words and melody of Hildegard von Bingen, contained a magnetic sense of awe and mystery. The concert-ending “Zephyr Rounds” was written for the Yale Glee Club by Robert Vuichard. It sets a Biblical text from John: “The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound but you cannot tell from whence it has come or where it is going.” Indeed, not only the words but the music tells it so.

In the pre-Carnegie Hall segment, one heard Tawnie Olson’s “Scel lum duib,” taken from a 9th century Celtic poem about winter and wind and wild fowl. Harpist Alexandra Mullins provided the instrumental atmosphere and, for it, DiOrio handed the baton to an aware student conductor, Jaeeun Kim. Ted Hearne’s “Agnus Dei,” sensitively led by NOTUS associate conductor Carlo Vincetti Frizzo, proved a haunting mix of harmonies, very old and new. DiOrio’s “Absence,” directed most effectively by graduate student conductor Mason Copeland, sets Amy Lowell’s passionate poem of that name to passionate music.

The top two choices in the NOTUS Student Composition Context won space on the program and plaudits from the audience. Patricia Wallinga, a not-yet-20-year-old Jacobs school undergraduate, took top honors with “Portraits of Wartime,” a quite powerful choral exploration of “The Wind,” “In Battle,” and “Catharsis,” elements in our lives that seem always with us. An anguished cello accompaniment by Nicholas Mariscal underscored highly expressive choral material. Texu Kim’s “Chopsaltok,” with Connor Lidell’s baritone set off against the chorus, captured memories of vendors in Korea making mouths water for rice cake and other goodies; its concluding sound was a mighty slurp.

In sum: “Hot off the Press” brought pleasures and set off no alarms. The music intrigued, for its variety and quality.