Over a 60-year career that has brought him ovations from opera audiences worldwide, Minnesota composer Dominick Argento has continued to turn out witty, erudite art songs inspired by the letters and diaries of writers and composers he admires.
It was his song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf” that won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1974.
Writing music for prose is “maybe” even harder than composing it for poetry, the 88-year-old dean of Minnesota music said recently. “But it’s a challenge I’ve enjoyed. There are more subtleties in letters and memoirs. And I think music is beautifully suited to deal with the more subtle and rarefied emotions.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
Fans will have a chance to hear Argento’s prizewinning songs Aug. 8-13 as part of the third annual Source Song Festival. Staged at venues in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the festival will include public interviews with Argento and recitals with international artists who have performed or premiered his compositions.
“Dominick is the patriarch of vocal music here in the Twin Cities and the teacher of two people we’ve previously celebrated, Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus, so we felt that this is his year,” said mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski, co-founder of the festival with pianist Mark Bilyeu.
Argento’s big day
Gov. Mark Dayton has declared Aug. 8 to be Dominick Argento Day in Minnesota.
“I hope that means I get to ride on buses for free!” an obviously delighted Argento joked recently.
He was granted the honor in response to letters and petitions from cultural organizations throughout the region, including Minnesota Opera, which premiered Argento’s 1984 opera “Casanova’s Homecoming”; Walker Art Center; the Schubert Club; VocalEssence, and others.
A prolific producer of operas, choral and orchestral works, Argento is even better known for his contributions to the rarefied art-song format.
“An art song is a musical genre that’s basically just text, piano and voice,” Osowski said. “It’s really poetry and music in a very distilled form, so it’s super-accessible and intimate, reaching people with simple words and sometimes not so simple music.”
The words to “Casa Guidi,” Argento’s frequently performed 1983 song cycle, come from letters penned by English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He also has written music for correspondence by novelist Anton Chekhov, composers Frederic Chopin and Giacomo Puccini, and poetry by E.E. Cummings, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, among others.
“Letters are appealing primarily because they’re in prose and don’t come with a built-in rhythmic scheme,” Argento said. “The better poetry has a rhythm that you vary at your own risk, but prose you can set yourself.”
Argento is a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, where he taught music theory and composition from 1958 until his retirement in 1997. His 14 operas have been performed throughout the country, including at the New York City Opera and Kennedy Center, and locally by Minnesota Opera.
The plot of his two-act opera “The Aspern Papers” was loosely adapted from an 1888 novella by Henry James. Commissioned by the Dallas Opera Company, it starred superstar mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade — a friend of Argento’s — in the 1998 premiere, which was telecast on PBS’ “Great Performances” series.
His erudite sense of humor shows in the witty repartee of “Casanova’s Homecoming” and the sometimes eccentric topics of the song cycles. The latter include “A Water Bird Talk,” which mashes the Chekhov essay “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco” with bits from John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” His “Miss Manners on Music” made droll songs from the newspaper advice columns of Judith Martin.
The opening Source Song concert, Aug. 8 at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall, will feature interviews with Argento, Swedish baritone Hakan Hagegard, Twin Cities soprano Maria Jette, guitarist Jeffrey Van, pianist Martin Katz and others who previously premiered his work. Live performances of Argento’s music will follow.
Concerts on the following four days will have no Argento pieces but will highlight other composers of the genre. An Aug. 9 event at MacPhail Center for Music features French baritone Francois Le Roux and Canadian pianist Olivier Godin in a French-themed recital of work by Saint-Saens, Fauré, Debussy, Poulenc and others.
On Aug. 10, action moves to the American Swedish Institute, where Libby Larsen and Hagegard will present Swedish music and Larsen’s new cycle, “The Birth Project.”
On Aug. 11 Hagegard will conduct a public master class at MacPhail featuring competition-winning voice and piano students in recitals of Scandinavian songs. The Aug. 12 concerts, also at MacPhail, will showcase work by Minnesota composers.
The festival will conclude Aug. 13 with an Argento double bill at Ordway Center in St. Paul. The program will pair the Virginia Woolf piece with “The Andrée Expedition,” his 1980 cycle based on journal and diary entries that Swedish balloonists Salomon Andrée and Nils Strindberg penned as they and a third explorer tried, unsuccessfully, to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon in 1897.
Osowski said, “ ‘Andrée Expedition’ productions typically have just one singer and one pianist, but on Saturday, Hakan Hagegard, who has premiered many Argento pieces, will stage it with three different baritones playing three different explorers, plus a pianist and Hakan as narrator. He’s also staging the Virginia Woolf piece with a piano and two singers rather than one.”