Review

Star Tribune: Composer’s most personal composition is also among his best

By Michael Anthony
Star Tribune, 9-29-2009

After the death of his wife of 51 years, Dominick Argento believed his career as a composer was over. But the Washington Cathedral Choral Society persuaded the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer to write a piece in honor of the Baltimore-born soprano, Carolyn Bailey Argento, and the resulting work, “Evensong: “Of Love and Angels,” received its premiere at Washington National Cathedral in March, 2008. Friday night, in the opening concert of VocalEssence’s 41st season, Philip Brunelle gave the work its Midwest premiere in a stunning performance at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis.

Argento, who has lived in Minneapolis since 1958 and will be 82 in October, described “Evensong” at a pre-concert talk Friday night as his “most personal piece” of music. “I guess this work means more to me than anything else I’ve ever written,” he said.

More than just a companion, his wife had been his constant adviser, critic and muse, he said. He figured, too, that this would be his last major work. Since completing “Evensong” in September, 2007, he has, in fact, written a few things, including a set of cabaret songs, but he isn’t taking any more commissions, he said, because he feared he wouldn’t live long enough to complete them.

Carolyn Argento, who died in February, 2006, is almost a living presence in “Evensong,” which must count as one of her husband’s most lyrical and radiant compositions. Her lifelong fascination with angels is reflected in the story of the healing angel from the Book of John that forms the central Sermon of the work as well as the angel’s prayer, a beguiling lullaby for boy soprano near the end. Even Carolyn’s initials, C-B-A, appear as notes of the scale, a kind of musical icon that opens and closes the 45-minute work and that also reappears in various guises at key points. Scored for soloists, chorus and orchestra, “Evensong” is intended as an evening prayer service aimed at delivering a message of faith in the power of love to heal those “afraid to face the darkness” as well as to comfort the survivors. For the text, Argento skillfully added his own words to quotes from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Brunelle, who has conducted many of Argento’s works, several of which he has commissioned, led an attentive performance that was both emotive and scrupulous in its attention to the details of Argento’s score. His larger chorus and his smaller group, the Ensemble Singers, delivered resonant, nuanced singing, and his soloists performed in exemplary fashion: narrator Katherine Ferrand and two remarkable singers — boy soprano Josiah Beretta and soprano Maria Jette. At the end, Brunelle left the podium, walked to where Argento was seated, and the two embraced, as the audience cheered.

Though this was surely Argento’s evening, Jette should get some kind of grace-under-pressure award for bringing expressive warmth to the demanding Sermon section of “Evensong” but also, in the first half, for delivering with equal skill — and immaculate trills — the intricate coloratura of Handel’s “Laudate pueri (Psalm 113).”

Michael Anthony was the Star Tribune’s music critic for many years. Kirk House is publishing his book, “Osmo Vanska: Orchestra Builder.”