MUSIC REVIEW: NOTUS and Bach

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.

NOTUS

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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