An invitation-only audience gathered in Guild Hall at Plymouth Congregational Church last night to celebrate the eightieth birthday of composer Dominick Argento. I recently complained in the Star Tribune that there were appallingly few events to commemorate that milestone. This soiree, organized by VocalEssence director Philip Brunelle, was exactly what was called for.
The festive evening was a fitting tribute to a man who is essentially Minnesota’s composer-in-residence. He has written for Minnesota Opera, Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, even the Guthrie Theater, to name only the largest organizations. But the evening took on a national, even an international feel with letters of congratulations from composer Conrad Susa, mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, and baritone H å ken Hageg å rd.
As befits Argento’s oeuvre, the program featured primarily vocal music. Offering a retrospective of his career, the selections covered almost fifty years—from 1958 to 2007. Soprano Maria Jette almost encompassed that entire span with her two selections, one of the Six Elizabethan Songs from 1958 and the unaccompanied "Silver," written for her in 2004. She called Argento her "favorite composer” and told the story of how she tricked him into composing for her. Jette’s love for Argento was apparent in her performance, as it was in performances throughout the evening.
What was truly astonishing in the juxtaposition of songs from six decades of work was Argento’s amazing consistency. His unique voice revealed itself early, and he has been true to it throughout his career.
Upon hearing this wide profusion of music, my reaction was to revere Argento all the more. He swam against the stream of his era, eschewing the intellectual and academic avant-garde compositional styles of many of his contemporaries. He is an unabashedly emotional composer, unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and to indulge in rich, old-fashioned lyricism. His goal is always to connect with his audience and to sensitively communicate the essence of the text he is setting, and he is usually successful.
On this occasion, he had some of the best singers in the Twin Cities getting those emotions across. I was impressed by the different generations of musicians who came out. The evening opened with excerpts of his 1968 song cycle, Letters from Composers, performed by tenor Vern Sutton and guitarist Jeffrey Van, who had originally premiered it. On the other hand, baritone Bradley Greenwald was just a child in 1967 when the opera The Shoemaker’s Holiday, from which he sang an excerpt, was premiered. And Sonja Tengblad, just a year-and-a-half out of college, gave one of the most affecting performances in an excerpt from Argento’s youthful opera, Colonel Jonathan the Saint, from 1962.
Brunelle and Sonja Thompson were the accompanists throughout. Brunelle also played a piece for piano four-hands, "For the Angel Israfel (Whose Heart-Strings Are a Lute)," with his son Christopher. Speaking of fathers and sons, Michael Sutton played "Impromptu for Michael Sutton," which Argento wrote for Michael's father Vern’s fiftieth birthday. The evening had many such intimate and personal moments, but then again, Argento’s music often inspires that kind of reaction.
If there was a disappointment to the evening, it was a bit too much formality. The singers simply performed and then got off the stage. Only Jette took time to share some personal reminiscences. I know that several of the singers have very funny Argento stories they could have shared. But that is the merest quibble in the face of so much excellent music-making.
The final work was 2007's Three Sonnets of Plutarch, a masterful song-cycle receiving its U.S. premiere in a stunning performance by Minnesota Opera Resident Artist John Boehr. Not only did the work not betray any signs of the diminishment of age, it revealed Argento at the top of his game. It is as accomplished and passionate as anything he has written. So Happy Birthday, Dom! And when you’re done celebrating, I can only hope you’ll get back to composing. I can’t wait to see what’s next.