HT Jacobi Review: Contemporary Vocal Ensemble

Music review: Vocal ensemble concert music evocative, touching

By Peter JacobiH-T Reviewer |
February 28, 2013

The music was evocative, some of it emotion scarring. Dominick DiOrio, conductor of the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, chose to label the package, “Sun Songs, Canticles for Dusk and Dawn.” The four works in that package, most of a liturgical nature, were sung powerfully and artfully during the ensemble’s Tuesday evening concert in Auer Hall.

DiOrio shrewdly started off with an item brief and ultimately joyous, “God’s Grandeur,” a briskly paced setting by Indiana University composer Don Freund of the Gerald Manley Hopkins poem, “God’s World.” Bruce Neswick was at the organ, adding volume and urgency to a choral line that echoed Hopkins’ message of exuberance about living and being.

The mood switched dramatically as the choir undertook the first of two compositions generated by grief, Herbert Howells’ 1964 “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” based on a text by the Roman Christian poet Prudentius (348-413), as translated by Helen Waddell. Words and music both were meant as solace. Howells wrote his poignant piece specifically to commemorate the death of John F. Kennedy, but the Prudentius text reportedly roiled in Howells’ mind from way earlier, in 1935, when his son died. The a cappella music gently reflects the sadness of words such as these: “Take him, earth, for cherishing, to thy tender breast receive him. Body of a man I bring thee, noble even in its ruin.”

Nature is the subject matter for a Jacobs School of Music Choral Composition Contest winner premiered on Tuesday, “Nightscape,” by the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble’s assistant conductor, Carlo Vincetti Frizzo, who was given the honor of conducting that first performance of his compact work. “Nightscape” was inspired by a poem so titled, written by Britton Shurley, a longtime friend of the composer. The ensemble responded nimbly and eloquently to Frizzo’s ministrations and to radiant music mirroring wind chimes and crickets gossiping, a moon hanging silent and maples aflame.

The program ended with the extensive, 45-minute “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1997 by the eminent Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina for chorus, cello, percussion and celeste. Written as a memorial to her daughter but dedicated to Gubaidulina’s admired friend, Mstislav Rostropovich, the work is as much a concerto for cello as an exercise for chorus. In fact, the singers remain silent for long stretches as the cellist, on this occasion a remarkably gifted Nicholas Mariscal, undergoes and undertakes every sort of technical and interpretive test.

Gubaidulina used words of Francis of Assisi; they praise God but also serve as a prayer for peace following the painful separation brought on by the death of a loved one. The score alternates between calm and heat. As realized by DiOrio’s responsive ensemble, the virtuoso and passionate cello playing of Mariscal, supportive percussionists Bobby Conselatore and Andrew Riley, and Alice Baldwin on celeste, Gubaidulina’s “Canticles” touched this listener’s heart.

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