Pioneer Press: Argento’s ‘Evensong’ confronts death by celebrating life
By Rob Hubbard
Special to the Pioneer Press, 9/25/2009
Composer Dominick Argento has gained his greatest acclaim by adapting the words of literary giants to music. Virginia Woolf’s diary led him to a Pulitzer Prize, Elizabeth Barrett Browning brought him a Grammy. But when he chose to write a work to memorialize his wife, soprano Carolyn Bailey Argento, all of the words he wished to adapt were unavailable to him.
So he decided the words must be his own. Hence, “Evensong” might be the most intimate work of Argento’s 50-plus-year career. On Friday night, the piece — which was commissioned by Washington, D.C.’s, National Cathedral for its centennial — received its local premiere in Argento’s longtime home city of Minneapolis, courtesy of Philip Brunelle and VocalEssence. And those in attendance at Central Lutheran Church were privy to an exceptionally moving experience, a musical evocation of one man’s lessons as he emerged from the grieving process.
The subtitle of “Evensong” is “Of Love and Angels,” but Argento’s angels aren’t the celestial kind of myth and mystery. His gentle but straightforward message calls for his listeners to be angels to one another, illuminating with love. But dark passages must be traveled to get to that place of light, starting from a haunting opening theme (based upon the notes C-B-A, his late wife’s initials) and the ghostly voice of soprano Maria Jette singing a wordless melody from corners and corridors throughout the church.
Argento employs a structure from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and one of the most admirable qualities of this work is its quest for commonality. It’s like a requiem directed more at the survivors than God, staring unblinkingly at loss and figuring out how to move forward.
This process is assisted by music that doesn’t transport with lovely melodies as much as float meditatively. The VocalEssence Chorus was exceptional, most notably during a setting of the grief-stricken Psalm 102. But whenever it seemed the work was heading toward a dark night of the soul, there was the voice of boy soprano Josiah Beretta to remind listeners of the freshness and promise of youth. And Jette was powerful as she delivered Argento’s core message on the sermon, especially impressive after she spent the first half of the concert soaring to the stratosphere on works by Handel.
Alas, VocalEssence has no plans to repeat this performance. But a recording of the work’s Washington premiere has just been released on CD.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.