"I've had a good run of almost 70 years of writing music, so I shouldn't have regrets about stopping."
Dominick Argento, widely regarded as the dean of Minnesota composers and indisputably one of the most important opera composers of our time, was explaining to an audience at Ted Mann Concert Hall last week why two years ago, at the age of 86, he stopped composing.
The reason, he said, is that his hearing is impaired. "Anything with vibrations becomes distorted. It sounds wrong," he said. Listening to music, to say nothing of writing it, has become an irritant.
As a result, Argento is calling "Seasons," a richly lyrical choral setting of poems by Pat Solstad that was premiered in Winona in July 2014, his final opus.
The stilling of a composer's voice is hardly a cheerful subject, and yet the evening, the first program in the weeklong, third annual Source Song Festival, celebrated song in its many forms, and specifically Argento's song cycles, "monodramas," as he calls them, settings of letters and diaries, a form he has made his own over the years.
Brian Newhouse of Minnesota Public Radio interviewed Argento onstage, after which guitarist Jeffrey Van and tenor Michael Slattery performed Argento's "Letters from Composers," which Van premiered in 1968 with tenor Vern Sutton. Soprano Maria Jette followed with a sensitive account of "Three Meditations" (2008), and the evening closed with "A Few Words About Chekhov" (1996), performed with admirable intensity by mezzo Adriana Zabala, baritone Jesse Blumberg and pianist Martin Katz.
The festival's finale, Saturday night at the Ordway Concert Hall, offered a staging by the Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard of two of Argento's best-known song cycles, "The Andree Expedition," which Hagegard himself premiered here in 1983, and "From the Diary of Virginia Woolf," which earned Argento the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
Drawing on Michael Cunningham's novel "The Hours," the film version of which was played in the lobby on a video screen, Hagegard turned the work into a duet. Woolf sings as she writes in her diary while a contemporary young woman discovers the diary in a bookstore, becomes immersed in it, experiences some kind of crisis and runs off in despair. The performances were strong — Ann Cravero as an unrelentingly dour and suicidal Woolf, Kate Maroney as the young woman and Erika Switzer the excellent pianist — but the staging didn't add anything. We needed to know something about the young woman other than that she's impressionable.
In contrast, "The Andree Expedition," a depiction of a failed voyage to the North Pole in 1897, took on added dramatic weight and poignancy in a staging that divided the vocal line into three parts, all of them sung with impressive conviction by Blumberg, Tyler Duncan and Alan Dunbar, with Tyler Wottrich the attentive pianist. Photos from the expedition, found some years later along with the bodies of the explorers, were projected onto an upstage screen.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.