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REVIEW: What Is Ours (Navona: NV6484)


Many facets of life in America were challenged, investigated, or recontextualized in the years surrounding the pandemic. What Is Ours: Music for an America in Progress is a product of this environment born from change; originally conceptualized as an extension of NOTUS' performance for the cancelled 2020 World Symposium on Choral Music, this initially-delayed-then-released album is framed and shaped by the themes inherent in life in pandemic-era America.

Dominick DiOrio's repertoire selections for this album both explicitly and implicitly reference the issues brought to bear in the early 2020s. Andrea Ramsey's Stomp on the Fire and Carlos Cordero's Ayúdame speak to the injustices present in modern society. The two works are deftly woven together to create a narrative wending from the despair inherent in Cordero's work (whose text involves repeated cries for mercy including "Mírame, escúchame, estoy enfermo, Ayúdame," which translates to "Look at me, listen to me, I am sick, help me!") to Ramsey's work which is "meant to represent the beautiful diversity of humanity and the strength present when that diversity comes together in unity."

One particularly meaningful work on the album is Moira Smiley's Wire You Here, a work that encapsulates the frustration and sense of disconnectedness many musicians experienced living and working remotely in the height of the pandemic. The vocal ostinatos on the text "wire you here" underscore the simultaneous spoken-word performances by ensemble members who intone their experiences of attending remote classes, looking at screens, and feeling anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future. These layers build until two soloists, a tenor and soprano, sing "I'm reaching across. I'm reaching to you now. What carries me across the abyss of us." The work ends with the spoken statement "I just can't wait for the day that I can be connected with my fellow artists again."

One of NOTUS' particular strengths lies in the representation of commissioned works on the album. John William Griffith II's First Light, Leigha Amick's Night Sky Songs, and DiOrio's own It Takes Your Breath Away and A Chain is Broken were all commissioned for performances by NOTUS, and each performance is outstanding. Of particular note is Roger Roe's phenomenal English horn playing on It Takes Your Breath Away, which is set to a spoken-word reading of the titular poem by Margie McCreless Roe.

DiOrio's version of an America in progress is that of a multicultural nation representing people of diverse backgrounds. In addition to the aforementioned Venezuelan American composer Carlos Cordero, the works of Indian American composer Reena Esmail and African American composer Joel Thompson are represented in Tuttarana and America Will Be!, respectively. Both works are well-performed by NOTUS, and America Will Be! in particular features some fantastic solo work.

NOTUS and DiOrio handle each of these works exceptionally well, taking particular care to exemplify each of the contrasting styles featured in these diverse offerings. I found myself constantly enraptured by the artistry displayed by the musicians in the ensemble, whose brilliant performances accentuate the meaningful narratives constructed in this wonderful set of repertoire. I heartily recommend this touching, thought-provoking, and well-executed album.

-- Corey Sullivan

Florida State University

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What Is Ours
dominick smiling and looking out