Member Spotlight: Dominick DiOrio, Composer and Choral Conductor, Indiana University

Dominick DiOrio is one of the youngest people ever to be hired on the conducting faculty at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He leads the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, a 30-member auditioned ensemble that specializes in music of the last 50 years. Chorus America talked to DiOrio about his own compositions and his passion for finding and performing the music of contemporary composers.

What led you into choral conducting and composing?

My mom taught me piano starting when I was seven. Then in high school I joined the band and the chorus and then started to write my own pieces and do some arranging. I really enjoyed composing so I went to Ithaca College and got a bachelor's degree in composition. While there I met Janet Galván, my first choral conducting mentor. She helped me realize my initial love and passion for choral singing and conducting. It was with her help that I was chosen as a finalist for the ACDA undergraduate conducting competition in 2005 in Los Angeles.

As I went through my undergraduate degree, I focused more and more on conducting. I still composed, but there was something about being on the podium that called to me. I used to get very nervous doing a vocal solo or a piano solo, but with conducting, I felt so at home. Conducting was so natural for me, and I could do so without any nerves or anxiety. I thought "Wow, this is where I want to be."

After Ithaca, I went to Yale to study for a master of music in choral conducting and while there sang with the Schola Cantorum under Simon Carrington and with the Yale Camerata with Marguerite Brooks. Then I taught at Lone Star College for three years, and while in Houston, I also sang professionally in the Houston Chamber Choir. And all the while, I was finishing my doctorate at Yale. I got that degree in the spring of 2012, and was then lucky enough to get hired for the position at Indiana University in August of 2012.

You are a champion of new music being composed today. Do you think the choral music of contemporary composers is sometimes overlooked in favor of, say, the works of Bach and Beethoven?

In the university setting there is a natural and necessary imperative to make sure that students are exposed to the music of composers like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart. But I also want to represent the contemporary side of the choral spectrum, to make sure the students are experiencing new music.

The ensemble I lead is unusual in that there are only a few such college or university ensembles in the country that are dedicated to performing works of the most recent past. I am always looking for new works—hot-off-the-press works that are still in manuscript. I try to develop relationships with specific composers and to get them to bring me their newest scores. So the music I share with the students is really, really new!

One of the things I want my students to learn is that engaging with new music really gives you an opportunity to make cultural connections. If a composer has written a piece that touches on a contemporary issue, when you perform that work, you might want to partner with an organization in the community to help bring that issue forward and in that way you bring a greater layer of resonance to the artistic project.

As an example, last November the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble gave a concert called "War Dreams" that featured music of affliction. We had a piece by Zachary Wadsworth that quotes William Byrd's anthem about the destruction of Jerusalem while simultaneously juxtaposing that with a Walt Whitman poem set to original music by Zach. The work deals very artfully with the nightmares and trauma that can accompany the aftermath of war for those who return from the battlefield. We invited some local veterans to our concert and offered this program in their honor as a way to honor them for their service.

Audience members are really yearning for that kind of connection with those up on the stage.

Absolutely. As musicians, we do ourselves a disservice if we lock ourselves in an ivory tower and talk only to other musicians about what we do. We should be engaging everyone around us and showing them why we are passionate about music and why it is something that can really make a difference in everyone's life. That is important to me as a composer as well. I write a lot of vocal music, and I look for ways that the texts comment on issues of contemporary life.

One of my new works for chorus and marimba, A Dome of Many Coloured Glass, was premiered last year by the Houston Chamber Choir, conducted by Robert Simpson, and was also performed at ACDA in Dallas this March. I call this a cantata-concerto. it has a virtuousic marimba part and a virtuosic choral part. It is 15 minutes long and has been published by G. Schirmer in the Dale Warland series. This piece is based on a text of Amy Lowell, who is a turn-of-the-century imagist poet. She received the Pulitzer Prize posthumously upon her death in 1926. While some poets will take 60 words to describe one idea, she will take six words to paint six ideas. These layered images and words inspired me to dream up a new choral setting with marimba, an instrument with a very colorful timbre. Putting together the chorus and the marimba was the perfect way to bring out these colors in Amy Lowell's poetry.

I have found that this piece really has a great power in connecting with contemporary audiences because of the strong and dramatic way in which I keep the poetry at the forefront of the musical setting. A listener cannot help but be moved by the image of lovers under the stars smelling "gold tulip cups ... heavy with dew" or feel the rush of excitement and snow in the movement depicting a sleigh ride: "Joy, joy, with the vigorous earth, I am one!" My music enhances Lowell's poem and brings the listener along on a captivating and alluring musical journey.

What attracts you to composing for the voice?

Singers are given such a profound responsibility because unlike any other instrument, they must express their music through the spoken word. I love composing for voices because I am drawn into the subtleties of art and phrase and gesture that come with the expression of a poetic text. With a large orchestra you have the possibility of a wide palette of instrumental color, but with the voice you have the ability to shape every vowel, consonant, and phoneme in such a careful way. It is the intricate detail of things that really interests me. I look for those sounds and those subtleties in my own composing and my own work with choruses.

How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

Chorus America has been a wonderful organization for me. I have benefited from singing in choirs that are member organizations. I've been to the annual conferences where you get great face time with choral leaders. And I also took part in three different conductor masterclasses--in 2010 in Houston with Marguerite Brooks and Robert Sund, and two in San Francisco in 2011 with Ragnar Bohlin and Jeffrey Thomas. In those masterclasses, to be able to work with some of the major artists and conductors in our field was just an unparalleled opportunity. At the same time, I had the chance to connect with conductors of my generation and make connections that will lead to new and exciting projects further down the road.

Chorus America has always done this well. The organization provides opportunities for conductors as artists and also as business people. They are one of the few organizations available that concentrates on training conductors for all aspects of the profession.

What are your goals in your new role at Indiana?

This is a very exciting time to be a part of the choral conducting department at the Jacobs School of Music. We've assembled a great team of faculty that have specialties in many areas of the choral field: early music, new music, the choral-orchestral repertoire, opera choruses and opera chorus preparation, and vocal jazz and vocal popular music. I am honored to be a part of such a great roster of faculty colleagues with Betsy Burleigh, William Jon Gray, Walter Huff, and Steve Zegree. So, we are looking to reintroduce ourselves to the choral profession and let everyone know that the Jacobs School of Music is a very special place to come and study if you are interested in a graduate degree in choral conducting!

More specifically in my area: I want to commission a lot of new music by 30-something, up-and-coming composers. I'm looking to create a new body of literature by the most talented emerging composers of today--people like Zachary Wadsworth, Ted Hearne, Nico Muhly, Melissa Dunphy, and Tawnie Olson. At the same time, I do not want to neglect some of the giants in our field: the great Swedish choral composer Sven-David Sandstrom is back this year at Indiana as a visiting professor, so we performed his watershed work "Agnus Dei" written in 1981.

I think it is so important for all choral organizations to engage with the work of living composers. The last thing we want to do is create a museum culture around the music we perform. It is even more important that a conductor chooses the right composers to work with. I look for composers who are not self-conscious, meaning that they are very comfortable in their own voice; they are saying just what they want to say; and they are saying it with a well-crafted technique and an inspirational musicality. If you find that kind of composer and bring them to concerts to talk about their music and why they are passionate about it, it makes such an impression on the listeners and the performers. In doing so, we are helping to foster the creation of tomorrow's next great choral masterpieces.

Related Links

Dominick DiOrio's website

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