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10 October 2013

REVIEW: Renamed choral group drops in size, not quality

by Peter Jacobi (The Herald Times)

I’m not sure whether the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’s new name should be set down in all caps, NOTUS, or in upper and lower case, Notus. Either way, it refers to the wind of late summer and autumn that brings change and, according to the group’s director, Dominick DiOrio, is meant to signify “something new, something special.”

For now, I’ll choose the upper/lower form and wait for a correction, if such there needs to be. For the look of things, I prefer Notus. What counts is the music performed by this ensemble. Here the definition, a wind that brings change, and DiOrio’s “something new, something special” statement gain significance. Conductor DiOrio is starting his second year as artistic boss of Notus. He’s now reduced the size of the choir from 30 to 24 and proved, with Tuesday evening’s concert in Auer Hall, that smaller, in this case, does not mean aurally thinner but does mean expert control and pliancy.

The new conductor/director has put his personal stamp on Notus. It has taken on a new personality along with a new repertoire. And all of that is to the good. Tuesday’s concert was labeled “Timescapes, Ancient Reflections in Modern Music.” The music chosen gave new raiment to familiar, always-with-us themes and verities.

Among the works performed were two by a distinguished visitor, Caroline Shaw, recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music. One was part of the winning composition, a “Passacaglia” from “Partita for 8 Voices.” On this occasion, with Shaw’s approval and collaboration, the eight voices had been expanded to 24. Having heard a recording of the original version, I can state that tripling personnel caused no distortion of initial intent. The music glorifies the human voice with sounds musical and chanted and spoken. Every sound sung or uttered came forth distinctly and seemed, in total, to celebrate humankind’s unique ability to express feelings and meanings and to take joy in our being able to hear them.

With Notus taking a short rest, a set of visitors, the student-comprised Zora String Quartet, performed Shaw’s “Punctum for String Quartet,” an engrossing and attractive exercise in which the musicians appeared to revel.

There was much more to be heard: the Welsh composer Paul Mealor’s radiant setting for “O vos omnes qui transitis per viam” (“O all you who pass by on the way”), a Good Friday text taken from Lamentations and Psalms; IU composer Sven-David Sandstrom’s contemporary conclusion to Henry Purcell’s left-unfinished “Hear My Prayer, O Lord,” and conductor DiOrio’s own “Stabat mater dolorosa,” a powerful interpretation using words from Walt Whitman, “Ave Maria,” and Emily Dickinson. “This world is not conclusion,” one heard in potent song. “A sequel stands beyond, invisible as music but positive as sound.” Chorus, instrumental ensemble, and a clarion-voiced countertenor, Andrew Rader, made it work.

DiOrio used the hush and fullness of Notus, the Zora Quartet, and harpsichordist Alice Baldwin to realize “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” Dominick Argento’s rhapsodic adaptation of the Robert Browning paean to that 18th century Italian composer. “Northern Lights,” by the Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds, concluded Tuesday’s program, spacious music built on journals capturing the experiences of two Arctic explorers, Charles Francis Hall and Fridtjof Nansen.

The above shows that the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Notus, NOTUS is in fine form.