MUSIC REVIEW: NOTUS / At end of school year, programs feature exemplary ensembles
By school year’s end, ensembles in Indiana University’s Jacobs School often have reached exemplary status, from having performed together for all those previous months under the inspired and knowledgeable guidance of their conductor/director/leader.
Cases to prove the point: (1) Thursday evening’s Spring Festival of Woodwinds, Brass and Percussion, a concert that displayed the high quality of playing one can expect and receive from the school’s three bands: the Concert, the Symphonic and the Wind Ensemble, and (2) Friday’s dazzlingly sung, premieres-laden program by NOTUS, the IU Contemporary Vocal Ensemble.
180 musicians and three conductors
The Band Department’s Spring Festival has become an awaited annual event, an occasion when the three concert bands celebrate themselves for what they’ve accomplished. One after the other, the ensembles take to the stage of the Musical Arts Center to exhibit proficiency. This year, the program offered a “Salute to Shostakovich” marking the 40th anniversary of the composer’s death, years during which his stock has risen dramatically to greatness.
As things turned out, the bands did not limit themselves to Shostakovich; the music of other composers blended in, but each band played one or more pieces by the remembered Russian. Conducted by David Woodley, the Concert Band, in whip-lock unison, whipped through an ebullient and catchy Gallop from “The Gadfly Suite,” music written for a film. Conductor Woodley added a solemn but also driving “Dig Down Deep,” written by Timothy Mahr in 2011 to exemplify our need to overcome lethargy and move forward, and two movements from Don Gillis’ clever 1946 “Symphony No. 5½,” one quiet and somewhat melancholic, the other spiffy and jiffy.
Conductor Eric Smedley and the Symphonic Band played two items by Shostakovich. The first was a brief, start-quietly, then raise-the-roof, then end-quietly Prelude in E-Flat Minor, transcribed from piano version to one for winds. The other was the popular “Festive Overture,” played with great gusto. Smedley and company preceded the Shostakovich with a 2015 work, IU student Benjamin Taylor’s “Shattering Infinity,” an impressively structured and rhythmically enticing exercise that deserves a performance life.
Stephen Pratt and the Wind Ensemble prefaced three short pieces by Shostakovich with Willian Bolcom’s “Inventing Flight,” a three-movement paean to “Daedalus and Icarus,” “Leonardo,” and “Wilbur and Orville.” Pratt premiered an adroit band arrangement of the Bolcom by another IU student, Jason Nam. The performance excelled, as did those of the three Shostakovich items: a “Marche sarcastique” taken from incidental music for a production of “Hamlet,” a playful “Tahiti Trot,” based on Vincent Youmans’ classic “Tea for Two,” and a vigorous, Offenbachian “Youth Dance” from the “Native Leningrad Suite.” The performance was terrific.
Conductor Dominick DiOrio focused heavily on three new works by IU composers, to which the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble gave world premieres.
The first and most expansive was a Requiem by faculty composer P.Q. Phan, set to a Buddhist versus Christian text and to be sung in the Vietnamese language. Composer Phan, in program notes, said he chose texts that described death “as peaceful, accepting, natural, and transcending.” For them, he attempted to compose music descriptive of “moving from the most peaceful nothingness to the most beautiful and colorful infinity of non-physical existence.”
The score holds fascinating development and touches that open one’s ears to music that bridges western and Asian, specifically Vietnamese, traditions. The voices of NOTUS and of five soloists blended with 15 instrumentalists to shape shifting tapestries of sound mostly, as intended, calming and strikingly beautiful.
The second premiere was that of “After-Glow” by NOTUS member and bass-baritone Corey Rubin. This far more modest creation, sung a cappella, uses the words of Ivor Gurney, a British poet who — while serving in World War One — wrote about waiting for a friend to be freed from German captivity. With echoes of Bach, one heard mighty crests of tone surrounded by passages of quiet and melancholy. Rubin’s “After-Glow” won the 2015 NOTUS Student Composition Contest.
To introduce the third premiere, DiOrio first brought to the stage The Well-Tempered Quartet, a student string ensemble, to play Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, quirky little pieces poet Amy Lowell admired enough to write a poem about. DiOrio, in turn, was so intrigued by both the music and the poem that he decided to write Stravinsky Refracted, an absolutely refreshing and highly imaginative composition for chorus, string quartet and organ. The words sparkle, set to a score that is flamboyant, clever, humorous, capricious, delightfully listenable. DiOrio is an outstanding choral conductor. He’s an equally outstanding composer. That’s a powerful combination of talents. It will be interesting to see how his already considerable talents develop in the years ahead.
In memory of colleague Steve Zegree, DiOrio in mid-concert had his singers voice “Lay a garland,” a lyrical send-off by 19th century British composer Robert Lucas Pearsall.