Writing for an unaccompanied solo singer is something not many composers try. It’s music stripped to its absolute basics, and there’s nowhere to hide should your inspiration falter.
The late Dominick Argento was one composer who didn’t shirk from the challenge. His setting of the Walter de la Mare poem “Silver” sat at the heart of Tuesday’s memorial concert for Argento, and it was radiantly sung by soprano Maria Jette, who worked with him on many occasions. Her caress of the lithely expressive vocal line was twinned with precise calibration of its punctilious word setting.
Tuesday’s program at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall was curated by Philip Brunelle, a longtime friend and collaborator of Argento. It mixed music with reminiscences of those who knew and loved the Pennsylvania-born composer, who moved to Minneapolis in 1958 for a job at the U and lived here until his death at age 91 on Feb. 20.
Brunelle’s VocalEssence Ensemble Singers opened with a lilting, blithe account of Argento’s “The Devon Maid,” a setting of a John Keats poem.
Argento’s telepathic sensitivity to verbal nuance was movingly illustrated by the ensemble’s 11 male voices in the achingly poignant “Farewell This World” from the composer’s Te Deum. That piece almost became the last work of Argento’s to be published, as Rick Walters of Hal Leonard Music remembered in a tribute to his erstwhile teacher. But Argento mischievously informed Walters that he wished to avoid any suggestion of morbidity, and that further, less melodramatic titles would follow.
Other speakers recalled Argento’s wicked sense of humor, and the symbiotic relationship he had with his beloved wife, Carolyn.
Tenor Vern Sutton remembered sweating over a Brahms concerto Argento made him analyze as a prospective student, and the composer’s enthusiasm for his grandmother’s Sicilian lasagna.
Walters recalled the dartboard in Argento’s study, with the face of the unfortunate Charles Gounod at its center (Argento heartily disliked the Frenchman’s opera “Faust”).
Schubert Club artistic director Barry Kempton relayed the choice Argento dictum, “A bad review might spoil breakfast, but never lunch.”
Inevitably, it was Argento’s music which in the end spoke loudest. Violinist Michael Sutton performed a sweetly lyrical Impromptu, Vern Sutton romped through the jocular “J.S. Bach (to the Town Council),” and the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra played a rousing “Reverie: Reflections on a Hymn Tune” led by William Schrickel.
Two moments perhaps mesmerized most — boy soprano Sam Nelson’s limpidly clear performance of the “Prayer/Lullaby” from Argento’s “Evensong: Of Love and Angels,” and Jette’s haunting interpretation of the melancholy “Hymn” from “Six Elizabethan Songs.”
A mere four months have passed since Argento’s death, but his generous, witty, deeply humane music is already beginning to give its gift to posterity.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.