Celebrating the Life and Works of Dominick Argento

Celebrating the Life and Works of Dominick Argento

Students shuffle in anticipation as voices simmer to a murmur. A small faculty lounge is adorned with sweets, yet all eyes shift to the true gem standing with a smile in front of the crowded room. Students, faculty, and alumni have gathered for a meet-and-greet with a world famous American composer.

After a brief introduction describing a Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award- winning career, attendees wait for the composer’s first words to the assembled group.

“I like to cook,” announces Dominick Argento. Chuckles ripple across the room, breaking the silence. Students, faculty, and alumni begin to mingle with the coveted composer.

The cookies remain mostly untouched.

“During those moments when I am introduced at such a high level, I like to bring myself to the level of the group with little sayings like that,” Argento tells me later in an interview. “And I do like to cook.”

The University of Maryland presented The Art of Argento: A Celebration of the Composer’s Works last April to honor a lifetime of achievement and to celebrate the composer’s 85th birthday. The celebration’s Artistic Director Linda Mabbs and Leon Major, director of the Maryland Opera Studio, organized the event as an opportunity for students, faculty, and alumni to collaborate together, performing all of this remarkable American composer’s song cycles and three of his operas.

Each day included presentations of Argento’s works written throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. Faculty and students proudly presented all of his song cycles, four of which had instrumental accompaniment. The Maryland Opera Studio also produced three of his operas: Miss Havisham’s Fire, Postcard from Morocco, and A Water Bird Talk.

The week also included several premiere performances of Argento’s music, including a new instrumental arrangement of Miss Manners on Music playfully presented by soprano Carmen Balthrop. Mabbs, accompanied by Timothy McReynolds and a jazz combo, sang Argento’s Cabaret Songs, written especially for the celebration, with elegance and charm. Mezzo-soprano and chair of the Maryland voice faculty, Delores Ziegler, also gave a captivating performance of Casa Guidi with the Art of Argento Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Ingram.

Frederica von Stade, who has recorded and performed much of Argento’s music for mezzo-soprano, finished the week with a stunning performance of A Few Words about Chekhov under Maestro Tim Long. Alumni baritone Andrew McLaughlin replaced the ailing Dominic Cossa masterfully portraying the part of Anton Chekhov alongside von Stade’s touching portrayal of Olga Knipper Chekhov.

The celebration shed light upon the life of an esteemed American composer and provided direction for future generations of singing professionals. Even that first meet-and-greet session in the faculty lounge provided students with an essence of the composer’s qualities.

“You never know what a composer is going to be like,” said sophomore voice major Kellie Motter. “When someone that renowned is so humble, it really says a lot about the character of a successful composer.”

The celebration was not only an extension of gratitude to a great artist, but also a holistic learning experience for students.

“We wanted students to be able to interact with arguably American’s finest living lyric composer,” Mabbs said. Students had the opportunity to study solo, choral, and operatic repertoire with a tangible goal: to present a work to the artist himself and learn from his feedback.

Transformative Music

Argento’s works are not to be taken lightly; many regard his compositions as seemingly atonal and difficult to learn.

“When I first started to learn his song ‘Sleep,’ I was very scared of the melodic structure,” said Motter. “The middle section has an especially modern sound that I was not used to.”

Motter, who started to learn her repertoire a full year in advance, was one of many students who describe the process of learning Argento’s music as

“Once I really learned the music, I began to think of the half steps as dreamy and his slow music as invigorating,” said Motter.

At a masterclass with students, Argento approached his commentary with flexibility and attentiveness to the voice, admitting that he sometimes writes tough lines that may appear to be atonal. He stressed that there is never one perfect way to interpret his music.

“If something sticks out, which is usually something about the text, I will point it out to the performer,” Argento said.

The song “Sleep” is part of his cycle Six Elizabethan Songs. With words by Samuel Daniel, the sonnet depicts sleep as contradictory: a “care-charmer” and yet a “brother to Death.”

Argento said that he strives to echo the meaning in his music. “If my music doesn’t express it, a performer can always look to the text to find the goal of the phrase.”

The composer encouraged Motter to emphasize the word “cease” as the goal in the phrase: “Without the torment of the night’s untruth. Cease, dreams.” In it, the melodic line ascends with a gradual crescendo.

The University Chorale, led by doctoral students Scot Hanna-Weir and Cindy Bauchspies, showcased Argento’s choral work, I Hate and I Love. The text is set to a poem by Catullus, and laments the lost love of a mistress. As the title of the song suggests, the learning process was also transformative.

Once Argento came to rehearsal to listen and to provide feedback, there was a sense of freshness and genuine appreciation for the music, said Hanna-Weir.

“After working on it for so long, I think we were able to perform the work in a very deep and personal way,” Hanna-Weir said. “I was so pleased to see the progression from ‘I hate’ to ‘I love.’”

Alumni baritone Robert Tudor agrees that Argento’s music may be difficult to master, yet worth the effort. In his program notes, he mentions that he waited to work on The Andrée Expedition until he was a doctoral student, when he was studying Argento’s works in depth. At the time of performance, he completely connected with the music.

“The audience is receiving the story; I’m living the story, not taking it in,” said Tudor in his program notes. “It’s life—beautiful, and unapologetically real.”

The Intimacy of Text

Argento is undoubtedly dedicated to interpreting text, yet what sets him apart is the uniqueness of the text he chooses.

“I prefer to write songs set to prose rather than poetry because I believe that poetry is written to be public, while prose is more private and personal,” said Argento. “This establishes an intimacy with the audience at the start.”

Perhaps the best representation of his love for prose is in each of his song cycles, all of which were performed by voice faculty, students, and alumni.

From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was the first cycle performed at the festival. Soprano Michelle Rice, accompanied by Rita Sloan on piano, portrayed the turmoil of Virginia Woolf’s life through her personal diary entries. The choice of text along with the exposing music was groundwork for a beautiful performance.

Both students and faculty performed selections from Six Elizabethan Songs and Casa Guidi. The first cycle is set to poetry that presents the joys and anguish of life and love. Casa Guidi is set to letters written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning depicting domestic life in Florence with her husband Robert Browning.

The 13-song cycle The Andrée Expedition is set to a compilation of journals and letters of three explorers who disappeared for 33 years after heading to the North Pole in a balloon. These recovered manuscripts are the drive for an equally intriguing and mysterious melody.

Empathy for Troubled Characters

Argento certainly brings intimacy to character development in a way that allows students and audiences to empathize with tormented characters. This was evident in Argento’s three operas presented during the week by the Maryland Opera Studio.

Miss Havisham’s Fire, Argento’s favorite of his operas, highlights the minor character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ classic Great Expectations. The story probes the ensuing death of the title character as she allows the rejection of her lover on her wedding day to consume her life.

The haunting tone of the opera and several stunning fits of insanity seem to depict Havisham as the nasty, bitter character Dickens wrote her to be. Yet, Argento wrote the part in a way that invites the audience to have empathy for such a struggling character.

“I don’t consider Havisham a dark character because she was only mean out of an intense hurt,” said Mabbs, who played the title role. “I find her very sympathetic.”

The composer himself admits he has an affinity for studying characters with troubled lives. Postcard from Morocco, performed entirely by students of the Maryland Opera Studio, focuses on character development. In a more uplifting, artistic way, the opera prompts the audience to ponder personal motivations in life.

Performances of Argento’s work earlier in the week also demonstrated his knack for portraying troubled characters. Diary of Virginia Woolf reveals another troubled character—the story of a distressed woman through diary entries. Ethereal and elegant melodies depict complex emotions of the character.

“It is truly amazing that Argento can write music with text from authors with such tormented lives while he is not tormented himself,” said Ziegler. “It takes a very self-aware and introspective composer to achieve that intimacy.”

As singers, it is easy to believe that we must perform a song “correctly” according to a composer. Background research on text, historical awareness, and studying the music itself can all lead to success—yet Argento believes that true art lies in the sincerity of the interpretation.

“I used to dream of recordings of my music being played all over the world, but I realize that I never listen to my recordings more than once because they never change,” said Argento. “What I love about live performances is that each interpretation is different.”

A Homecoming

Having such a high-caliber celebration at the University of Maryland was a type of humbling homecoming for Argento. The composer had no previous connection with the university’s School of Music, yet he is a graduate of nearby Peabody Conservatory. And his birthplace of York, Penn. is just 83 miles north of the University of Maryland.

“It would never have occurred to me that the impetus had been altruistic: that sponsorship of such a celebration would come from so highly regarded an institution with which I had no affiliation whatsoever, and that there would be so many performances by members of its School of Music’s distinguished faculty, most of whom I had never met or know only as names,” wrote Argento in a blog entry. “That, however, happens to be the case and it is beyond me to express my gratitude adequately.”

Christine Browne-Munz, a freshman vocal major, came to the School of Music all the way from Canada because of its reputation and in order to study with Delores Ziegler. The celebration affirmed her decision to go to Maryland.

“The standard here is incredibly high, and I think the students are talented enough and work hard enough to rise to the occasion,” said Browne-Munz.

This celebration was the ultimate collaboration of music school ideals, as it encouraged exploration of new music and combined musicians from all ages and walks of life to make music together. It shed light on Argento’s works specifically, yet also exposed other areas of his repertoire that might have otherwise been unknown to students.

Argento’s outspoken love for cooking did prompt Browne-Munz to search elsewhere for new material. The composer said that while cooking hasn’t inspired any of his personal compositions, the song cycle La Bonne Cuisine by Leonard Bernstein is perfect for other dedicated cooks. An avid cook herself, Browne-Munz plans to add the Bernstein cycle as well as some Argento pieces to her repertoire.

“This labor of love has not only been a way for us to thank Argento for the many musical gifts he has presented to those of us who love the human voice, but it also has been our hope to introduce the remarkable vocal works of this incomparable composer,” said Mabbs. “Dominick Argento is truly an American Original.”

For more on the University of Maryland’s Opera Studio, see the September 2010 issue of Classical Singer, available in the online archives at www.classicalsinger.com

Lisa Driscoll

Lisa Driscoll is a sophomore journalism and vocal performance double major at the University of Maryland. Her writing appears in several school publications and in her blog online at makemusicspeak.tumblr.com. Having formerly represented her home state of Colorado in the High School Classical Singer Competition, she hopes to continue to tell a story through song and prose.