Artistically, musically, the concept was spot on: to celebrate two fine Indiana University choruses, the Pro Arte Singers and Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, with and in a program of faith music that also proved the genre is rich in continuity, comfortably spanning the centuries.
Logistically, that program — given Sunday evening in Auer Hall — would have benefited from a revolving stage. The Pro Arte entered first to sing a Bach motet, then gave way to the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble for six pieces. The Pro Arte returned for a second Bach motet. That brought intermission. The Contemporary lads and lassies took the stage post the recess for a couple of items. The Pro Arte took over for a third Bach motet. Still another switch came for a concert-concluding set of two more works offered by the Contemporary choristers. The shifting and the shuffling were all a bit disconcerting and disruptive.
QUESTION: Were the maneuvers worth the effort?
ANSWER: Yes. Absolutely.
What one heard was thrilling, thanks to the music chosen and to performance quality. Pro Arte conductor William Jon Gray had his 34 singers in splendid, impressively expressive form. And a visiting conductor, Simon Carrington, took authoritative charge of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, also 34 voices strong, one of those being the group’s director and usual conductor, Dominick DiOrio, content on this occasion to let the visitor take center stage.
That visitor, the Maestro Carrington, happens not only to have been DiOrio’s professor of choral conducting at Yale, but — among a host of other accomplishments — co-founded The King’s Singers at Cambridge University, a chorus with an international reputation as distinguished as it gets. From what one heard on Sunday, Carrington certainly and most assuredly knows his craft.
Since Carrington’s IU residency has been of limited span, DiOrio must undoubtedly be credited for the critical basic training demanded for this demanding concert. But the guest appears to have put his own interpretive stamp on every selection. The dynamic crests and fades, the nuances placed on words and phrases, the sense of unity and line, the intensity of feeling revealed, the moods achieved bore witness to his gifts for persuasion as a conductor.
Carrington chose to label his part of the program “Atlantic Crossings.” He had the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble pair music new and old, from this side of the ocean to the other: Maine native Colin Britt’s “World, I cannot hold thee close enough,” written in 2011 and based on words from Edna St. Vincent Millay, with an early 17th century “Ave verum corpus” by England’s William Byrd; the American Steven Stucky’s 2002, hushed “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” text by Walt Whitman, with Henry Purcell’s 1695 funeral declaration for Queen Mary, “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts”; an ethereal “Ode to Purcell” by DiOrio with more Purcell, and additional couplings.
For the Pro Arte, Gray chose three eloquent and musically challenging Bach motets: “Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf” (“The Spirit helps our weakness”), “Furchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir” (“Fear not, I am with you”), and the more extended and gorgeously uplifting “Jesu, meine Freude” (“Jesu, my joy”). The Pro Arte Singers — collectively; in four-, five-, and eight-part chorales; in small solo groupings — stirred the heart. Maestro Gray brought forth from them passages mighty and exquisite, building on the energy and nobility of the music, on the power of message, and Gray’s own observable, deeply mined passion for Bach and the Pro Arte. The readings, honest and expertly wrought, exuded emotional power.
The concert was performed in honor Zackary Novak, one of five Jacobs School students who died in a 2006 plane crash while returning to Bloomington from a Bach Chorale rehearsal in Lafayette. Novak had a particular interest in choral music and conducting. One believes he would have approved of what the collaborating ensembles achieved.
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