Renowned composer Libby Larsen was in a meeting this spring at the American Composers Forum, the influential St. Paul-based national organization she co-founded 41 years ago, when officers from the McKnight Foundation burst in.
They presented her with a letter, which she nervously opened. It said that Larsen is the 2016 recipient of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award — considered the state’s highest cultural honor — for her decades of prolific creativity.
“I was speechless, which, for anyone who knows me, is a rare happenstance,” said Larsen, 65, in an e-mail from Virginia, where she’s also director of the John Duffy Institute for New Opera.
Twin Cities composer Dominick Argento, who taught Larsen at the University of Minnesota, believes the $50,000 prize is well-earned.
“Her work is varied, important and has been a touchstone for orchestras here and across the country,” said Argento, himself a winner of the award. “And in creating the American Composers Forum with [the late] Stephen Paulus, she’s made a really incalculable contribution to the field.”
Other past winners include poet Robert Bly, theater founders Lou Bellamy and Bain Boehlke, and sculptor Judy Onofrio.
Larsen has been praised both for the volume and the variety of her works. She has composed more than 500 pieces, from intimate chamber music to orchestral works. She also has created more than a dozen operas, from “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus” to “Every Man Jack,” based on the life of writer Jack London.
There are more than 50 CDs of her work, including the Grammy-winning album “The Art of Arleen Auger” in 1994.
“What I love about Libby is that she’s wickedly smart, both as an artist and as someone who started a strong organization,” said Cynthia Gehrig, retired president of the Jerome Foundation, on whose board Larsen served for nine years. “She has this enthusiasm, this leadership quality, where she can bring people along with her. She’s a strong advocate for art, and for principles.”
A critic once wrote that Larsen’s music “gleams.” It has “substance, wit, color, exuberance and a decidedly characteristic sound composed of freshly sprung rhythms, freely tonal harmony and bright orchestration.”
Argento said that even if he did not know Larsen, he could divine her personality from her music, which he characterized by its “sunniness.”
Even so, Larsen is not keen to link her music to her personality.
“I generally do not approach composition as an extension of myself,” she said. “If I did, after experiencing my operas ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Every Man Jack,’ you might wonder.” Instead, she enters “into what feels like a deep collaboration with the artistry of the writer,” aiming for “music that reflects the text and enhances it.”
Those texts have ranged from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets From the Portuguese” to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Born in Wilmington, Del., Larsen grew up in Chicago and settled in Minnesota, though she travels the world to perform, teach and do other work. She and her husband, attorney James Reece, have one child, Wynne, who also is an attorney.
“There’s a taproot here, of my family and the Northlander way of being, that is centering,” Larsen said of Minnesota. “To be recognized in the community where we — my family and I — have invested our lives for so many years is an honor I can’t describe in words. But I will in music!”