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19 April 2015

Music Beat: NOTUS conductor DiOrio challenges choir with musical selections

by Peter Jacobi (Herald Times)

Around town, we have choral directors who often ask their brood to achieve what seems beyond their limits. And that usually results in pleasure for us, the listeners.

For example, off campus, Gerald Sousa consistently does that with the Bloomington Chamber Singers. Latest proof: yesterday’s performance of the Brahms “German Requiem” and John Adams’ “Transmigration of Souls.” That amounted to an awful lot for a community choir to accomplish, but conductor and singers succeeded.

Again for example, on campus at the Jacobs School of Music, Dominick DiOrio is a young lion in the choral department who expects wonders from the Indiana University musicians he directs, those that comprise NOTUS, the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble. He works with more trained and performance-focused talents studying for careers in the music profession. But again, he selects challenging repertoire that pushes his talents to higher levels of achievement. Proof: next Friday’s program in Auer Hall titled “Refracted Requiem” and composed of “major premieres by IU composers.”

We’ll hear three new works and then some from the 29 members of NOTUS, an invited orchestral contingent of 15 players, and a string foursome that calls itself the Well-Tempered Quartet.

DiOrio refers to the program as “a truly memorable event,” and it does sound special. The new compositions to be heard are “A Vietnamese Requiem” by faculty composer P.Q. Phan; a piece by Corey Rubin, “After-Glow,” which won the NOTUS Student Composition Contest; and director DiOrio’s own “Stravinsky Refracted.” And since there’s Stravinsky “refracted,” there needs to be some actual and relatable Stravinsky on the program. There is: his Three Pieces for String Quartet. Finally, the late Steve Zegree will be remembered with the singing of a short a cappella work, Robert Pearsall’s “Lay a garland.”

To include Rubin’s “After-Glow” quite naturally followed its selection as winner of the student contest. “But thereafter,” DiOrio explains, “I built the theme ‘Refracted Requiem’ around the two major commissioned works: P.Q. Phan’s ‘Vietnamese Requiem’ and my own ‘Stravinsky Refracted.’ I borrowed the term ‘refraction’ from physics, of course: the phenomenon that occurs when a wave of light is bent, altering its phase velocity but keeping its frequency (or color) constant. I apply refraction here in a broader sense. P.Q. has written a work in the requiem genre, but it is from a Buddhist and not a Christian tradition. My work is based on Stravinsky’s music and maintains elements of his style, but it is not Stravinsky.”

The composing of Phan’s Requiem was supported by a Short Term Mellon Faculty Fellowship. The composer notes the difference of sources for his departure from the traditional structure of this sacred work and explains also that it was written to be sung in Vietnamese. The music, adds Phan, “is scored for four solo voice types, eight-part chorus, chamber orchestra, and two batteries of percussion. I’ve dedicated the Requiem to the nearly 10 million Vietnamese war victims in the 20th century.”

Rehearsals for Friday’s concert were rigorous, says DiOrio. “I have learned in my three years at IU that every rehearsal period with NOTUS comes with its own unique and distinct challenges because the repertoire is always vastly different. In this particular period, the greatest task has been learning to pronounce and sing in Vietnamese. While the language is tonal — as Mandarin Chinese or Thai — P.Q. has actually written some of the tonal inflections into his melodic lines. So, if we pronounce the correct vowels and consonants and sing the correct notes, the tones in the language take care of themselves.

“He has had much success writing in orchestral and chamber music contexts,” DiOrio explains, “and his writing of the vocal lines for the chorus is sometimes reminiscent of an orchestral texture. This demands the utmost musical independence from the 29 singers of NOTUS, who have to think as a first oboist or a third hornist thinks in an orchestra. It’s been a wonderful growing process.”

Of his own “Stravinsky Refracted,” DiOrio says the inspiration came from an Amy Lowell poem, “Stravinsky’s Three Pieces ‘Grotesques,’ for String Quartet,” which she wrote shortly after hearing the music in concert. Her poem, he notes, “was influenced by the sound qualities and folklorist gestures of Stravinsky’s pieces. I wished to complete the circle and return these words to music. … I use much of the original musical content of Stravinsky’s pieces (motives, pitch content, entire phrases verbatim), but I also add further dimensions of timbral interest and color in scoring for instruments suggested by Lowell’s poem: the drums, organ, and voices in my setting are all suggested by her text.”

Corey Rubin, the student composition winner, is working on a master’s in composition and is also a member of NOTUS. He set “After-Glow” to a poem by English poet and composer Ivor Gurney, who wrote it during his soldiering in World War I, more specifically while he yearned for a reunion with a fellow poet and soldier being held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. “In the music, I trace the author’s path as he moves from the noisy room full of soldiers into the stillness of night, and is eventually transported back home in a fit of rapture.”

Heady stuff, all of it, but I can predict the concert will stir. DiOrio says while he was writing the program notes, he “realized that all of these pieces deal in some way with death, with nostalgia, and with how we remember our life’s experiences. After hearing this music — greatly varied in terms of conception and sound world — I hope that each listener goes out with a new appreciation for the myriad ways in which ritual is used to heighten our own reality. In short: our grief is made more meaningful because of how we grieve.”

Contact Peter Jacobi at pjacobi@heraldt.com.

If you go

WHAT AND WHO: NOTUS, the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, joined by a chamber orchestra and a string quartet, performs a program that includes three world premieres: P.Q. Phan’s “A Vietnamese Requiem,” Corey Rubin’s “After-Glow for mixed chorus a cappella” and Dominick DiOrio’s “Stravinsky Refracted.” NOTUS director DiOrio conducts.

WHEN: Friday evening at 8.

WHERE: Auer Hall on the IU Bloomington campus.

ADMISSION: Free.