Review: NOTUS, orchestra provide powerful concert

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer |




Programs prepared by Dominick DiOrio for NOTUS Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, the chamber chorus he directs, are always fascinating and beautifully prepared. Sunday afternoon’s concert, titled “O, Fallen Star, Depictions of Death in Air and String,” proved no exception and drew a large audience to Auer Hall.

That audience remained dramatically silent when conductor DiOrio turned the music on and became just as dramatically vociferous when he turned it off, the listeners responding to what was heard with justifiable praise. The afternoon’s fare consisted of two items of scope: Jennifer Higdon’s 2005 ode, “Dooryard Bloom,” and James MacMillan’s harrowing depiction of the “Seven Last Words from the Cross.”

American composer Higdon’s work reflects Walt Whitman’s “Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the poet’s elegy marking the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. There is sadness in the words and the music. There is anger. There is contemplation. It may be unusual to say for a vocal composition that the instrumental music is more interesting, but so it was to this reviewer’s ears.

For the chamber orchestra, Higdon used an appropriately lyrical yet restrained style that artistically benefits the mournful content. For the vocal line, on the other hand, she reverted to a speech-song method that became popular among composers several decades earlier, around the mid-20th century, in which the musical line often failed to support the verbal content.

The composition’s performance, however, was potent because the vocal soloist, Connor Lidell, so generously lavished the power of his baritone and the conviction in his musicality on what the score asked him to do. So, in fact, did his colleagues. Lidell, the IU Chamber Orchestra and conductor DiOrio gave the music all they could and then some.

With the orchestra reduced to just the strings but with the choral ensemble on stage and Lidell’s presence in the middle of it, Maestro DiOrio turned to MacMillan’s representation of the words attributed in the New Testament to Jesus Christ during his crucifixion.

For each of the sayings — from “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit” — MacMillan, a proud Scot and loyal Catholic, composed a setting expressive of the words Jesus uttered: calming or beseeching or lamenting or forgiving. The whole of the cantata is passionate, whether quietly or deafeningly, and at the start of the sixth movement, “It is finished,” the music turns shattering with three hammer blows that brutally foretell what’s soon to come.

MacMillan’s music is powerful. Sunday’s reading was powerful, fully in sync with how the composer addressed this grief-rousing biblical tragedy. DiOrio knew what he wanted in way of performance and had his musicians, the orchestral and the choral, immersed, so to capture the startling beauties that the composer ascribed to this momentous story.

© Herald Times 2017

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IU choral students meet the challenges of Honegger’s oratorio

Music review: ‘King David’

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer | © HTO

The choral element in this year’s Summer Music round of concerts has been, as often in recent years, limited: to a single concert. This year’s single event was handed to Walter Huff, the Indiana University Opera Theater’s director of choruses and the Jacobs School of Music’s professor of choral conducting.

He chose Arthur Honegger’s 1921 concert oratorio “King David” (“Le roi David”), formally subtitled “Symphonic Psalm for Vocal Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra,” to give his registered summer choral students something both challenging and different to do. The result of Maestro Huff’s choice was heard on Saturday evening by a receptive audience that filled Auer Hall. That result was noteworthy. The good-sized crowd that showed up had an opportunity to hear a work not often, one might even say rarely, available to devotees of choral music in the 21st century. For the singers and supporting instrumental musicians, a string-less band of them, the opportunity was to experience the preparation for and performance of a work most of them probably hadn’t even heard of.

The audience appeared to appreciate their exposure to the oratorio; listeners were coughlessly silent while listening and, when the performance was done, effusively approving. The performers offered a reading marked by generous proportions of energy and enthusiasm.

The Swiss-born Frenchman Honegger (1892-1955) is known for having expressed himself in music of various sorts, spanning the centuries from Bach and the Baroque to the late Romantic effusions of Richard Strauss and Mahler, from the subtleties of Impressionism to bold use of contemporary tricks of the trade. The ingredients came from those Honegger studied, suggesting the eclectic, but the ways in which he packaged his compositions gave the music a personal stamp. So it is with “King David.” The life story of the Biblical David contains adventure enough, and the libretto by Rene Morax covers that life inclusively, from childhood to death, rich fodder for the music to enhance.

Honegger’s score contains a vast array of tonal effects, from moments mysteriously soft to climaxes that were mighty, almost uncomfortably so. Huff kept full control of the 36-member chorus, of the nine soloists taken from within the chorus for extra duty, and of the 18-member orchestra.

As a whole, the chorus sounded well endowed, capable of meeting whatever the demands of the composer and of the conductor. The soloists, when separated from the full chorus, came forth courageously, some more successfully than others, but all steeped in what Honegger gave them and what Huff asked them to do. The orchestra took possession of the musical ideas Honegger left for a body of instrumentalists to complete; this body did just that in excellent fashion.

Tying all together was a narrator to tell the story that prompted the music. Zachary Coates, a doctoral candidate in the Jacobs School, handled that task superbly, tasking a spoken voice graced with flexibility to interpret the Biblical content and fueled by the heat, the drama in that content. The microphone was powerful enough to collaborate with Coates’ ample voice so everything could be distinctly heard. Bravo to that! But when his voice reached beyond a certain level of loudness, unfortunately, the mic tended to bark, to woof back. It wasn’t the narrator’s fault but that of the electronic instrument called upon to serve. Fortunately, the story still was well told and a critically important factor in the success of the concert.

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Upcoming concert in MAC a sea-worthy trip

By Peter Jacobi


The words of Walt Whitman say: “Behold the sea itself! And on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships: See! where their white sails, bellying in the wind, sparkle the green and blue! See! thy steamers coming and going, steaming in or out of port! See! dusky and undulating, their long pennants of smoke!”

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams turned to those words for the beginning of his “A Sea Symphony,” an hour-long and compelling work you’ll be able to experience Wednesday evening in the Musical Arts Center, as performed by the Indiana University Oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra, led by conductor Betsy Burleigh. Vaughan Williams labored on the symphony for more than six years, and it was he who conducted its premiere at the Leeds Festival in 1910. This was the Brit’s Symphony Number 1, his first, a project that should have been well beyond his means to create, considering he was still in the formative years of his compositional skills.

betsy burleighBut Vaughan Williams dreamed big. It was his desire to rechristen the rich tradition of British choral writing, which he deemed in decline. It was also a way of honoring Walt Whitman, whose poetry he greatly admired. The texts chosen come from Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and “Passage to India.” They obviously inspired him for what, in total, in words and music is a spiritual journey. Vaughan Williams used the vastness and mysteries of the sea as metaphor for the human desire, no matter how difficult, to take journeys of self-discovery.

While most other so-called choral symphonies, such as the Beethoven Ninth, limit choral elements to a single movement, “A Sea Symphony” is a true choral symphony, in that it unites chorus and orchestra from start to finish.

Conductor Burleigh explained why she chose “A Sea Symphony” as this season’s big choral work: “I love it and think it’s not performed often enough. Vaughan Williams paints Whitman’s text beautifully, which deals with the largest of concepts. The sea becomes a metaphor for the unanimity of mankind, our place in the universe and in time, the exhilaration of the now and our journey, the journey of the soul into the unknown. As Hubert Parry [British composer and Vaughan Williams’ contemporary] said of the work, ‘This is big stuff, with some impertinences.’ And somehow, this seems perfect for students, of all ages.”

Burleigh said the symphony “has its technical challenges. The third movement, for instance, although the shortest, demands a lot in terms of precision and ensemble. And the balances are tough to get right. This was his first symphony, and he had recently studied in France with Ravel; the orchestration is lush but thick. I also think the fact that it is a choral symphony, a hybrid genre, makes it hard for people to know quite what to do with it or when to program it.”

Asked what difficulties she faced during the preparation period, Burleigh said: “No matter what the repertoire, I think the greatest challenge and the ultimate goal is to unite everyone in expression. That includes the technical unanimity of rhythm and intonation and such, but it also applies to the larger notion of commitment to what the particular music is trying to say. I made it a point to give all the orchestra members a copy of the poetry so they could have a complete picture from the very beginning of what we were trying to do.

“My aspiration for any concert,” Burleigh continued, “is for it to be a moving experience for the listener, to somehow touch the spirit. I suggest that the audience member reads the poetry and listens for the kaleidoscopic way Vaughan Williams sets it. You’ll hear everything from folk songs and sea chanties to Elgarian pomp, to hints of Ravel, even Wagner, and back to English hymn melodies. The musical ideas are as wide-ranging as the poetry, and they are quite effective.”

Burleigh used the pronoun “we” instead of “you” in addressing what the listener should, at the end of the concert, walk away with. “I do mean ‘we,’” she noted. “Ideally, there’s a circular energy that flows to and from the stage. In this particular concert, I hope we’ll all be transported a little closer to that magical, metaphysical realm invoked by Whitman’s words and Vaughan Williams’ music.”

An event awaits us on Wednesday. I, for one, want to feel that circular energy conductor Burleigh spoke of. Will I see you there?

And this afternoon…

As you read this, about 25 Indiana University Jacobs School singers are heading to Indianapolis, to the Hilbert Circle Theater, to perform. They’re among the 35 singers who signed up to compete in the 63rd annual Metropolitan Opera National Council Indiana District Auditions.

Those district auditions used to be here on campus, in the Musical Arts Center. Last year, they were moved to Indianapolis, this to provide a more central location for the competitors. At least, that’s the official reason for the move. An alternative theory making the rounds is that our singers, those from IU, might have gained unfair benefit from singing in a familiar environment.

Whatever the reason, the auditions are in Indianapolis. So, if you want to attend, head up there (45 Monument Circle). The singing starts at 1. And with 35 candidates scheduled to perform, you’ll get a whole lot of opera to enjoy. Several of the 35 contestants will be invited to the second of four steps in the competition, the Central Region auditions in Chicago on Nov. 22.

This afternoon’s event is free.

Contact Peter Jacobi at

If you go

WHAT AND WHO: Choral conductor Betsy Burleigh leads the IU Oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra in a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ intriguing and grand Symphony No. 1, called “A Sea Symphony.” The music is set to poems of Walt Whitman.

WHEN: Wednesday evening at 8.

WHERE: Musical Arts Center on the Indiana University Bloomington campus.



© Herald Times 2015

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Jacobs ensembles collaborate for symphony performance

Megan Wilhelm, second-year master's student in the Jacobs School of Music, practices her solo during rehearsal for "Vaughan Williams: 'A Sea Symphony.'" The oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra will perform the piece at 8 p.m. today in the Musical Arts Center.

Megan Wilhelm, second-year master’s student in the Jacobs School of Music, practices her solo during rehearsal for “Vaughan Williams: ‘A Sea Symphony.'” The oratorio Chorus and Concert Orchestra will perform the piece at 8 p.m. today in the Musical Arts Center.

By Brooke McAfee

Rows of almost 200 singers singing in unison, a full orchestra and two soloists will perform Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1)” during today’s concert at the Musical Arts Center.

The Oratorio Chorus and the Concert Orchestra will perform at 8 p.m. with baritone soloist Connor Lidell and soprano soloist Megan Wilhelm.

Betsy Burleigh, the chair of the Jacobs School of Music’s choral conducting department, will conduct the performance.

“It’s a great piece of music in that it’s both musically beautiful, and there’s so much to the text,” Burleigh said. “It’s an inspiring piece to be a part of, and I think it is an easy piece for the singers and the players to relate to.”

The Oratorio Chorus is composed of 191 musicians from three different choirs, including the University Singers, University Chorale and NOTUS, while the Concert Orchestra is composed of 79 musicians.

Having so many people work together in one setting builds a sense of community, Burleigh said.

“A Sea Symphony” is not played often, and this is the first performance of the piece at IU since 1962.

The soloists have taken on parts that would often be given to faculty members or outside professionals at other universities, Burleigh said.

“It’s been great working with them,” Burleigh said. “This is not an easy piece to sing. It’s a very physical piece to sing, and it’s not the sort of thing that any voice can do.”

The symphony is based off of poems from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Burleigh said Vaughan Williams’ music brings the poetry to life in each movement.

The whole piece is a metaphor, Burleigh said, and it addresses topics such as the unity of the human race, our place in the universe and an exuberant sense of the present time.

“The sea is either a backdrop for these metaphors, or the sea itself can be a metaphor for so many of these ideas, this vast, fathomless thing that is wonderful and frightening and immense — all these things that the ocean is,” Burleigh said.

Lidell, a first year master’s student, said the act of putting the symphony together has been an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Vaughan William’s work is romantic and otherworldly, Lidell said.

His solo part is like a character in a show that represents the captain of a ship and is a metaphor for moving forward in life and taking on new challenges, Lidell said.

Lidell said it is different than his usual performances.

“I’ve done a lot of character roles and a lot of humorous roles, but now I get a chance to explore true musicality,” Lidell said.

The symphony is an hour and 20 minutes of relentless music, Lidell said, and although he gets plenty of breaks, he must keep his composure and musicality throughout the piece.

Wilhelm, a second year master’s student, said she was not familiar with the symphony before she started preparing for the concert, and she thinks the music is incredible.

Wilhelm said she often sings pieces that are sad and depressing, but “A Sea Symphony” is uplifting.

The symphony is a tribute to all things about the sea, Wilhelm said.

“I think it will have a lasting impression on the audience,” Wilhelm said.

© Indiana Daily Student 2015

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Major Premieres for DiOrio: Lincoln Center, eighth blackbird, and more

April is a busy time for choral conducting faculty member Dominick DiOrio: in a
span of two weeks, he has four world premieres of new works for chorus.

Included in that list are a Lincoln Center / Alice Tully Hall
premiere on Friday April 17th with the Ithaca College Choir (“We Dance!”), and a
new work for the University of Richmond Schola Cantorum and Grammy-winning
chamber ensemble eighth blackbird on April 19th, with DiOrio conducting (“An
Equal Humanity”). Other premieres include Macalester College Concert Choir on
April 11th (“You Do Not Walk Alone”) and NOTUS on April 24th (“Stravinsky

More information about these premieres and other
performances are on DiOrio’s website.


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Jacobs School students and faculty featured at ACDA national conference

IMG_2151.smallerThe Jacobs School of Music has a very visible presence at the biennial national conference of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), held in Salt Lake City this year from Feb. 25 to Feb. 28.

The biennial national conference is ACDA’s major programmatic event, and it will host over 7,000 choral directors, music educators, publishers, composers, singers and industry professionals from across the United States and around the world.

The 25 students of NOTUS, the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and their director and assistant professor of music Dominick DiOrio are representing the Jacobs School as the featured ensemble-in-residence for the Composers Track.

NOTUS will participate in two sessions involving new music: the College/University Reading Session on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m. in LDS Assembly Hall, and the Student Composer Masterclass on Thursday, Feb. 26, 12:00 p.m. -1:45 p.m. in the Salt Palace Convention Center (SPCC), Room 253.

The Composers Track is a new initiative of ACDA to further incorporate composers of choral music into their programmatic offerings. NOTUS will have the opportunity to work closely with composers David Conte, Robert Kyr and Steven Sametz through this residency.

Dominick DiOrio

Dominick DiOrio

Choral Department faculty members Steve Zegree and Dominick DiOrio have been invited to give interest sessions on their areas of expertise. DiOrio will give a presentation, “Thirty-Something: New Choral Music by Today’s Hottest Young Composers,” on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 4 p.m. in the SPCC, Room 253 A/B. Zegree will give a presentation, “Vocal Jazz Rehearsal Techniques,” on Friday, Feb. 26, at 9:45 a.m. in the SPCC, Room C/F.

Two other IU faculty members have big roles in the ACDA offerings. Professor of Music Education Patrice Madura Ward-Steinman serves as the national repertoire and standards chair for vocal jazz, and she has coordinated multiple events for attendees involving this music.

Jacobs voice faculty member Sylvia McNair will be the featured soprano at the closing concert, “A Grand Night for Singing,” on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. in the LDS Conference Center.

Two Jacobs School of Music doctoral students in choral conducting are also participating in high-profile events. Second-year doctoral student Maria Hagan is one of eight graduate students selected from a national pool to participate in the ACDA Graduate Student Conducting Competition. She is the first IU conducting student to participate in this contest in over a decade. First-year doctoral student Caleb Lewis is one of three students selected from across the U.S. to participate in a conducting master class with renowned British conductor Simon Halsey.

A first-year M.M. student in voice, Bille Bruley, will be singing with the professional ensemble, South Dakota Chorale, in two concerts on Saturday, Feb. 28, in Abravanel Hall and the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

The IU American Choral Directors Association student chapter will send eight young undergraduate music educators to the conference, one of whom—Jake Gadomski—was also selected to take part in the auditioned College/Community Latin-American Honor Choir with conductor Cristian Grases.

All IU alumni, students and faculty are invited to a reception hosted by associate professor of music and chair of choral conducting, Betsy Burleigh, on Friday, Feb. 27,  6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. in the SPCC, Room 150 C.  Light refreshments will be served.

Founded in 1959, the American Choral Directors Association is a nonprofit music-education organization whose central purpose is to promote excellence in choral music through performance, composition, publication, research and teaching. In addition, the association strives through arts advocacy to elevate choral music’s position in American society.


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Sunday a good day for Bach, 21st-century music
by Peter Jacobi

At 2:30 Sunday (Jan. 25) afternoon: a Bach cantata. An hour-and-a-half later: 21st century music, some of it vintage 2014. And that’s Bloomington.

The Bach, “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn” (“Tread the Path of Belief”), attracted enough of the Baroque faithful to just about fill St. Thomas Lutheran Church, this for the latest in the continuing Bloomington Bach Cantata Project. The contemporary music was delivered in Auer Hall by NOTUS, the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, and that concert, too, drew a legion of fans.

Wendy Gillespie, director of the cantata project, quipped to friends that she’ll be playing a heavenly harp before local musicians run out of Bach cantatas, so numerous are they. Sunday brought us the 28th in this Bloomington series. It was directed by doctoral candidate Elena Kraineva, who doubled as violist d’amore in the excellent six-person instrumental ensemble that also included Charles Wines, recorder; Sarah Huebsch, oboe; Brady Lanier, viola da gamba; Eric Fisher, violone; and Anastasia Chin, organ.

Bach wrote the cantata for the Weimar palace church the week after Christmas in 1714 to words by the Weimar court poet. His job as concertmaster at the Weimar court called on him to compose new works for the church on a monthly basis. The text asks humankind to “tread the path of belief” and, thereby, avoid the dangers of an evil world. The cantata ends with a vocal duet, a beautiful dialogue between Jesus and the Soul. “Ah, lead me, most beloved, and I will follow you,” sings Soul; “I will give you the crown after trouble and shame,” replies Jesus. Soprano Christina Lynch and bass David Rugger fulfilled the roles with the needed passion and with voices well-tuned for a period reading or, as we’re now asked to label it, a historical performance. They did nobly.


Dominick DiOrio, conductor of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, titled the group’s concert “Fire and Ice, Elemental Songs of Magic and Mystery.” He invited a distinguished sextet of faculty instrumentalists to join the singers: percussionists Kevin Bobo and John Tafoya, pianist Chih-Yi Chen, clarinetist Howard Klug, flautist Kathryn Lukas and organist Christopher Young.

Two of the five works played were receiving premieres. One, by Jacobs School student Phillip Sink, won second prize in the 2014 NOTUS Student Composition Contest and also supplied Maestro DiOrio with the program’s title, “Fire and Ice,” taken from a poem by Robert Frost, “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” most likely by our own wrongdoing. Sink’s music is all vocal, cleverly built on shifts of pitch and harmonic surprises. The choral ensemble handled it famously.

Also premiered was Claude Baker’s “Hor che’l ciel e la terra” (“Now that heaven and earth and wind are still”), inspired by the words of Petrarch and the madrigals of Monteverdi. Baker is chancellor’s professor of composition. He often revels in words and even musical themes of the past. Here, he honored one of Monteverdi’s most outstanding madrigals, set to Petrarch’s sonnet about the vagaries of love. Baker’s choral portion fascinates for its own intriguingly fractured development, sometimes with each of the 24 singers voicing a different line. To that, he added a percussion quartet, “membranes, woods and metals” in his words, to enrich the madrigal’s development.

Jocelyn Hagen’s “soft blink of amber light,” another 2014 work, beckoned us to seek the peace of a natural world. Her calming music is set to a poem of Julia Klatt Singer that asks we “forget about streets with names” and to “follow the fireflies into the thicket.” The tones produced by the ensemble were magical, aided instrumentally by the Lukas flute, Klug clarinet, Bobo marimba, and Chen piano.

Soprano Tabitha Burchett and organist Young joined the chorus for Daniel Knaggs’ “Ave Maria No. 9 Rosa Mystica,” written in 2013 to a text by Amy Lowell, “Absence.” The music hints at that of Messiaen, mystical and ecclesiastic. DiOrio and company treated the piece with loving respect.

The NOTUS concert ended with David Lang’s “the little match girl passion,” written in 2007. This more extended composition relates the sad and familiar story of a child living in poverty with a father that beats her. She goes out into the bitter cold to sell matches but fails to and freezes to death.

Lang sets the story in 15 parts, retelling the tale from different angles and in music that grips. A variety of percussion accompanies the voices. The voices heard on Sunday afternoon gave the music the glow of a Bach Passion, but in sounds both timeless and contemporary.

© Herald Times 2015

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Dominick DiOrio to compose piece for Cincinnati Boychoir

Cincinnati Boychoir receives $10,000 grant for 50th anniversary

By Janelle Gelfand


Grant earmarked for new choral piece to highlight 50th anniversary season

Cincinnati Boychoir serves about 200 youth

Cincinnati Boychoir serves about 200 youth

The Cincinnati Boychoir has received a $10,000 grant from the William O. Purdy, Jr. Fund of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, the choir announced on Monday. The grant will make possible the commissioning and performance of a work in honor of the Boychoir’s 50th anniversary season.

The new choral piece, “A Horizon Symphony,” with texts of Walt Whitman and Stephan Crane, is being commissioned from Dominick DiOrio, a composer and assistant professor of choral conducting at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University.

The boys will work with DiOrio throughout the process, learning first-hand about the experience of creating a new work.

The piece is aimed to be a companion work to  Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” which calls for large orchestra. Both will be presented in concert March 7 and 8 at Christ Church Cathedral, Downtown.

Dominick DiOrio.

Dominick DiOrio.

The Cincinnati Boychoir, which is led by Christopher Eanes, is one of the premiere professional boy choirs in the United States, and the newest resident company at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, Downtown. Among its anniversary events, the choir will make its first trip to Australia in July.

Cincinnati Boychoir has about 200 young members from more than 90 schools in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana.

William O. Purdy, Jr., an enthusiastic patron of the arts, established his foundation in 1988 and died a decade later. He was Senior Vice President of American Money Management Corporation, a subsidiary of American Financial Group, until he retired in 1995.


© 2014


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Music review: ‘War Requiem’

Audience heartily applauds performance of ‘War Requiem’

By Peter Jacobi


It was concert night Tuesday for a riveting performance in the Musical Arts Center of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” 96 years to the day since Wilfred Owen was killed and one week short of when the armistice to end World War I was signed.

The words of poet and soldier Owen inspired pacifist and conscientious objector Britten when, a war later, he sat down to compose his remarkable, emotionally devastating version of the Requiem Mass. After the writing was finished, Britten would place on the title page these words of Owen: “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is the pity. All a poet can do is warn.”

The work’s premiere came after war’s end at a significant dedication ceremony for the newly constructed Coventry Cathedral, placed right next to the bombed out shell of the old church. For the British people, a new Coventry meant setting things right and looking forward. For Britten, the commission to write the “War Requiem” became a meaningful way to express his beliefs in country and explain his faith and opposition to war.

To seal his message about the brutal uselessness of war, Britten blended words of the long-established Latin Mass with Wilfred Owen’s anguished and angry poetry. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle,” he asks. “Only the monstrous anger of the guns,” he answers.

The Latin portions are handled by the large main chorus, a solo soprano and the orchestra. Here, that was the Oratorio Chorus, effectively trained by Betsy Burleigh; a fine soprano Megan Wilhelm, willing to unleash unreservedly the power of her voice, and the Indiana University Philharmonic, led superbly by the master of the whole, guest conductor Michael Palmer, who is entitled to considerable praise for the whole of what one experienced.

Owen’s pleas for peace and sanity, written in English, gave two male soloists — tenor Christopher Sokolowski and baritone Erik Krohg — challenges they nobly met. A chamber ensemble of 12 musicians accompanied them, adding another element to the scope of performers. All of the above filled to capacity the stage of the MAC. Then, placed in the top balcony, the 23-member Children’s Chamber Choir, with an organ to occasionally support, sent their voices from aloft, voicing prayers for the departed in Latin, as from a distance but with potent restraint. Brent Gault contributed the training for the children, who sounded radiant.

It’s no mystery, hearing the “War Requiem” again, that an inspired genius, Benjamin Britten, wrote a 20th century masterpiece. It’s a bit of a mystery how IU’s Jacobs School continually tackles major works, such as this one-of-a-kind Requiem Mass, and brings them to fruition in grand manner. Tuesday’s performance was stunning and fully deserved the extended and roars-filled standing ovation from an audience that just about filled the house. One left the theater not only deeply moved but grateful for what we’re so fortunate to have: outstanding musical performances not on one or a few nights, but time and again.


© Herald Times 2014

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Betsy Burleigh’s Mendelssohn Choir lauded for Carnegie Hall performance

Preview: It’s Beethoven and Brahms for Mendelssohn Choir

By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


When the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra for a concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall this spring, the chorus showed it was not simply an accompanying ensemble but also a partner in the PSO’s music-making process. That the evening began with an a cappella performance of Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” — with choir members singing alone — speaks to that relationship.

Michael Pettersen joins others from the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh as they rehearse at the Benedum Center for the program "Faith & Fate."

Michael Pettersen joins others from the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh as they rehearse at the Benedum Center for the program “Faith & Fate.”

“They totally surpassed their previous level and set a whole new standard,” said Robert Moir, the PSO’s senior vice president of artistic planning and audience engagement.

The Mendelssohn is riding the success of that experience, which occurred during the hall’s lauded Spring for Music Festival, to a concert on Sunday featuring works by Beethoven and Brahms. The choir’s music director, Betsy Burleigh, will conduct the chorus and the PSO in the performance.

The Mendelssohn offered the best choral performance in four years at Spring for Music, in the view of Mary Lou Falcone, one of the festival’s founders. The chorus’s tradition of excellence was established under former music director Robert Page, Ms. Falcone said, and it has been maintained under the leadership of Ms. Burleigh, who came on in 2006.

“It was an extraordinary performance of great subtlety, great musicality and simply great singing,” said Ms. Falcone, who said she thinks the Mendelssohn is one of the top three choruses in the country.

Most singers of the 110-member-strong chorus are volunteers, with 20 paid singers. Roughly half are 40 or younger. The majority of them don’t have day jobs in music — among their ranks are a software engineer, a barista, a casino dealer, nurses, students, teachers, retirees and lawyers.

“The Pittsburgh Symphony is made up of extremely highly trained musicians who come from all over the world … the Mendelssohn Choir is made up of everyday Pittsburghers who just practiced, practiced, practiced and made it to Carnegie Hall and did the city proud,” the PSO’s Mr. Moir said.

“Other than that, these people are just classical music nerds,” he said.

At a recent choir rehearsal, “there seemed to be an unspoken acknowledgment that we had indeed raised the performance bar to a new level in New York,” said chorus member Larry Wright. “By the end of our retreat and first rehearsal of the fall season, it was obvious that the choir had reached out to grab that bar set in New York and had already begun pulling ourselves to a new level for this coming year.”

Sunday’s concert, titled “Faith & Fate,” features Brahms’ “Schicksalslied” (“Song of Fate”) and Beethoven’s Mass in C major. Several choir members will be soloists.

“The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the Mendelssohn Choir’s primary artistic partner. Usually this means that the Mendelssohn Choir that performs with the PSO as a ‘guest artist.’ What makes [this weekend’s] concert so thrilling for us is that the tables are being turned; we are producing the concert, and the PSO is performing for the Mendelssohn as its orchestra under Betsy’s baton,” said chorus executive director Mary Ann Lapinski. “This ‘role reversal’ speaks to the mutual respect that the PSO and MCP have for each other’s artistic excellence and vision.”

“We’re having dinner in our house this time,” Ms. Burleigh said.

While Ms. Burleigh selected the Beethoven based on the size of the chorus and orchestra and on the concert space (East Liberty Presbyterian Church), she was later surprised to learn the Mendelssohn has never performed the work in full.

The Mass’s Kyrie opens with the basses briefly singing alone, “and then it all begins. There are just some lovely intimate touches that are very moving,” Ms. Burleigh said. It also bookends well with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which the ensembles will perform together in June. “I like that symmetry,” she said.

“Faith & Fate” also provides another concert opportunity and revenue stream for the chorus, which had been tapped for PSO performances of “Daphnis et Chloe” and film music from “Gladiator” that were canceled, Ms. Lapinski said.


The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh
Program: “Faith& Fate: Beethoven’s Mass in C and Brahms’ ”Schiksalslied“ with music director Betsy Burleigh and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Where: East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 S. Highland Ave.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $10-$30, free for children under 12, or 1-888-71-TICKETS.


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