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ISSUE 117 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/17/2003

One more high note for Argento

By Carl Schroeder
Staff Writer

Friday, October 17, 2003

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento, a preeminent figure in contemporary American opera, was St. Olaf College’s guest of honor on Oct. 9. An array of activities marked the decorated composer’s visit, including an honorary degree ceremony, an open conversation about his musical experience and a faculty concert featuring several of his works.

“It’s fair to say that no single figure in the classical music world has done more to bring international attention to Minnesota than Dr. Argento,” said music department chair Dan Dressen during the morning chapel service honoring Argento, who wrote a dozen operas while teaching at the University of Minnesota from 1958 to 1997.

After being presented with an honorary doctorate from St. Olaf, Argento modestly thanked those who have supported him over the years and reflected on his good fortune. “I have been exceptionally lucky to have been allowed to do the one thing that pleases me most: compose music. Thanks to institutions like St. Olaf College, the art I practice is viewed as an essential part of life,” he said.

The morning chapel service included a performance of two Argento compositions, an organ prelude played by College Regent Philip Brunelle and an excerpt from Argento’s 1963 opera “Masque of Angels,” which was performed by the St. Olaf Chapel Choir.

During the afternoon, the community was invited to an open conversation with Argento in Urness Recital Hall. At the hour-long talk, which was moderated by Music Professor Timothy Mahr, Argento answered questions about his music, experience and philosophies. St. Olaf’s newest degree recipient answered the audience’s inquiries with poise and humor.

When asked about his feelings regarding the teaching of music composition and theory, Argento responded, “I have a theory that you cannot teach music composition.” He went on to explain that he “learned more about character than about composition” from his many distinguished teachers, who include Hugo Weisgall, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovahness and Bernard Rogers.

One audience member asked Argento how he copes with the widespread perception of opera as occupying a marginal role in the contemporary music world. “I don’t ever expect to replace John Tesh,” said Argento, drawing laughs from the crowd. “The music I write is for a particular audience I know is out there.”

“It was great to meet an established composer face-to-face and find out they deal with the same issues we do as student composers,” said Michael Sweeney ’05, a B.M. Theory/Composition major who attended the open forum.

That evening, several St. Olaf faculty members performed compositions by Argento at a well-attended concert in Urness Recital Hall. Pieces on the program included the song cycle “Letters from Composers” for piano and guitar, a two piano arrangement of “Valentino Dances” from Argento’s 1993 opera “The Dream of Valentino,” and the popular “Six Elizabethan Songs” for soprano, flute, oboe, violin, cello and harpsichord.

Argento, who was born in York, Penn., has lived in Minnesota since accepting a teaching position at the University of Minnesota in 1958. In 1975 Argento was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his song cycle “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” which premiered at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall in January of that year. He is married to soprano Carolyn Bailey, whose talents have been called upon for the premieres of many of his works.

When Argento was asked about his most important advice for aspiring musicians and composers, he instructed students to “find a community that needs whatever it is that you do.” In the artistically appreciative and supportive community of Minnesota, Argento has followed his own advice and flourished.

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