“I used to joke that I didn’t unpack my bags for two years,” said Minnesota composer Dominick Argento. “But in those two years I learned to love the Twin Cities.”
A Pennsylvanian by birth, Argento came to Minneapolis six decades ago to teach at the University of Minnesota. It was not a fashionable move. The assumption in those days was that composers needed to live on the coasts, not languishing in flyover territory.
That assumption proved wrong. Against the grain of expectation, Argento carved out a richly successful career as a Minneapolis-based composer. His operas, song cycles and choral works in particular mark him as one of the most prominent American composers of the past century.
At his home in Minneapolis, Argento looked back over his long career — and forward to celebrating his 90th birthday this month.
Q: Several performances of your music are happening in the Twin Cities this month to mark your 90th birthday. Do you still enjoy attending concerts?
A: Yes. I’m a fan of our local organizations. I enjoy the choral groups VocalEssence and The Singers. And I’m very happy with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. They’re one of our amateur orchestras. And they’re doing an opera of mine, “The Boor,” for my birthday.
Q: You retired from composing a couple of years ago, because of hearing difficulties. Do you miss it?
A: Of course I miss it. A lot. At the age of 85, I felt I’d gotten to the point where I knew how to write. I really would have liked to be able to write some of the things I held off on for years — making an opera of Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard,” for instance. I get rather glum sometimes, because I feel I’m wasting my days and being unproductive.
Q: There is considerable social and political division in America at the minute. Do you think that classical music can help, by making social or political statements?
A: I don’t think of music or art that way. For example, does Britten’s “War Requiem” really make a pacifist out of anyone? For me, art is all about beauty and edification. One of the characteristics of humans is that they can understand and appreciate beauty. And I think it’s always been the role of art to satisfy that part of us. A lot of my colleagues really think music can change the world. But for me, music has been about discovering who I am — not for telling other people who they ought to be.
Q: Symphony orchestras are currently under a lot of pressure to stay “relevant,” to find new audiences. How do you see their future?
A: When I think about classical music — and orchestras, particularly — I’m concerned that it’s a dying animal. I think the cost of having a symphony concert performed nowadays is just outrageous. I see a future which is primarily chamber music recitals, things that can be afforded. And there’s a kind of desperation about the things that orchestras are doing now that to me is unseemly. Playing along to movies, for instance.
Q: Can composers do anything to help orchestras survive?
A: Too many composers are writing music that does not take an audience into consideration. We’re getting a lot of music that’s experimental or hoping to be considered iconoclastic. That probably is disappointing audiences. On the other hand, opera is getting better — we have more composers writing operas, and little companies starting up all over the place. But I see that as a singular event. I don’t think that’s the state of music in general.
Q: Have you always written with the audience in mind?
A: The audience is always on my mind. So is the performer I’m writing for. For example, the Schubert Club in St. Paul gave me Dame Janet Baker, Frederica von Stade and Håkan Hagegård. I got to know them as artists. I know the kind of people who regularly go to the Schubert Club. And I think the song cycles I wrote for all three of those singers are among the best things I could do. And I don’t think that’s pandering.
Q: You are now in your 60th year as a Minnesota resident. Would it be fair to say you like it here?
A: I told every composition student I had here for 40 years that after you get your degree, do what a dentist does — look for a community that needs you. Don’t go to a place that has nothing but dentists.
And that’s what happened to me. I came here right out of school, because it was the only job offer I got. But I learned to love what the Twin Cities represents. I love the politics here. I love the hunger for art that I sense in this community. The people, I think, genuinely enjoy the art that they support. I don’t think there’s any fraud going on, or any faking — the people who go to the Friday and Saturday night symphonies are art lovers, they’re not there dressed for society. For me, it’s been a love affair with my community here. I do think of myself as a Minnesota composer.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.