Because of the university’s large music school, Bloomington is rich in live musical performances. In the season that began in May 2014 and ended on May 9 of this year, the school offered 1,041 concerts, most of them free. The new season began yesterday, and the first concert featured the Cincinnati Boychoir. The event was remarkable in many ways—not the least of which is the fact in at least 20 years—20,000 performances—there has not been one devoted to a choir with boys on the soprano line. (The IU Children’s Choir, with mixed children’s voices, has been the nearest exception.) I’ve always suspected that college students are discouraged when comparing what they can do with what they hear nine and ten year olds doing in some of these choirs, but I’m sure that notion would be challenged by the professionals here.
At any rate, to the pride of the music school’s concert halls (middling size, superb acoustics) came 67 boys (it was reported), a number of men, and an orchestra of 30 to perform Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and the Horizon Symphony by Dominick DiOrio, the latter receiving only its second public performance. The concert was not well publicized, and it occurred a week after graduation when Bloomington is a ghost town. (Imagine half of your city’s residents disappearing for the summer.) Still, the hall was almost two thirds full, not bad in a town where audiences are harder to find than performances.
I am not a professional musician and should not pretend to be a music critic, so I am struggling a bit to describe the concert in words that aren’t just superlatives empty to those who did not get to share the experience. Powerful, energetic, engaged . . . Add any more words of this ilk that you like. They all apply. The Chichester Psalms can get a bad rap for being too theatrical for sacred music. I wouldn’t want all sacred music to sound like this, but Bernstein’s musical idiom is a treasure. He manages a broad sweep from “rousing the dawn” with an alarm that no one could sleep through to an intimate, plaintive treble solo on the 23rd psalm. I’ve never heard this piece live before; watching a hundred musicians working very hard indeed and keeping the audience fully engaged was unforgettable.
The Cincinnati Boychoir and the Chichester Psalms were born in the same year—50 years ago. To celebrate their anniversary, the choir commissioned Dominick DiOrio (assistant professor of choral conducting at the university here) to write a piece that particularly suited the voices of boys and men. The result is a new work that I hope gets a wide audience. The Horizon Symphony, to my ears, combines elements of Bernstein and Britten. The instrumentation follows that of the Chichester Psalms, and the orchestra has a lot of work in the piece, including a timpani solo that no timpanist could hear without wanting to (try to) play. Like Bernstein’s piece, the Horizon Symphony has a broad sweep, more secular, ranging from thunder and lightning to a strange, intimate exchange in which the treble sings the voice of practicality to a man pursuing an impossible dream (a nice switching of expected roles). The choir sang this piece without music and with obvious enthusiasm. How could one not savor lines like:
The livid lightnings flashed in the clouds;
The leaden thunders crashed.
The concert, hardly an hour, was exhausting. The performance, from all involved, was masterful, polished, assertive, and vigorous. It was a joy to hear a treble line sing out with such energy and confidence, equal to the high standards of the performers around them. The artistic director of the Cincinnati Boychoir is Christopher Eanes. He handed off the privilege of conducting this concert to composer Dominick DiOrio. A little bit of his new work can be heard on Youtube. (Search for diorio horizon.) A CD with the complete work is available from CDBABY.