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Argento: Letters from Composers Charms Audience

by Peter Perret

October 15, 2009, Winston-Salem, NC: Tenor Glenn Siebert and guitarist Gerald Klickstein collaborated in this magnificent chamber concert in the equally magnificent Watson Recital Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The concert also showcased the musicianship of four additional faculty members and the voice of a fellow in the UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute.

The theme of the concert was derived from the principal work performed, Letters from Composers, by American-born Dominick Argento, who spent half a century teaching composition at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Written in 1968 for U of M faculty members Jeffrey Van and Vern Sutton, the work comprises seven songs for high voice (preferably tenor) and guitar. Instead of choosing his texts from the more traditional world of poetry, the composer envisaged something different.

In Catalogue Raisonné As Memoir; A Composer's Life, Argento writes, "Since I felt that the pairing of solo voice and guitar was such an intimate combination, I wanted an equally intimate text to set. Finding that most poetry seems to be created for public discourse, I began to consider more private forms of writing: letters, journals, diaries, and so on. I have always enjoyed reading the letters of artists, even where the subject was personal and not about their art: reading an artist's own account of his health, anxieties, joys, and sorrows often sheds significant light on his art. In this case I deliberately chose letters from composers I am particularly fond of, ranging from Bach to Debussy, and only letters not dealing with music but revealing something about them as human beings."

Mozart protests (over an Alberti bass figure) to his father the rejection of a petition to terminate one job for another; Debussy laments his illness and World War I, accompanied almost exclusively by harmonics on the guitar; and Bach petitions his protector in Leipzig to pay him for a long overdue out-of-town wedding. Chopin writes to a friend about the deplorable conditions of his room — shaped like a great coffin — in the monastery in Valldemosa, on the island of Mallorca, where he stayed with Georges Sand. Schubert complains to a friend of joyless and friendless days; Puccini gripes about city life and his loathing of Paris; and finally, Schumann writes vaingloriously of his love to his fiancée, Clara. So much for the texts — interesting, intriguing and occasionally amusing.

The concert was enriched by the insertion of seven short compositions composed by the letter-writers at about the same time period as their letters. So, the opening song in this evening's performance uses a text by Mozart and was seamlessly followed by the Mozart Variations, K.359 — "Hélas! J'ai perdu mon amant" — played by Joseph Genualdi, violin, and Robert Rocco, piano.

Argento uses the voice primarily to "get the text across" and, in a secondary way, to give personality and characterization to the letter writer. Notable were the pomp with which Argento caused Bach to address his patron, matched by the self-importance of his signature; and the "s'en-foût"-ism of Debussy. The guitar occasionally parodies the musical style of some letter-writers and, once, Argento actually quotes a phrase from the Schubert Lied, "Gretchen am Spinnrade." This text, by Goethe — "Meine Ruh' ist hin und mein Herz ist schwer" ("My peace is gone and my heart is heavy") — is sung in the original German.

In the style of English tenors (Gerald English comes to mind), the tenor voice of Glenn Siebert is warm and pure and comes with the cleanest diction of any singer in my memory. He succeeded admirably in bringing each composer to life with sincerity and humor. The concert ended on the sweetest note of the evening, a high "A," sung pianissimo as Schumann quotes his fiancée, "Take me...."

In the virtuoso hands of Gerald Klickstein the guitar was at times coaxing, petulant, arrogant, or derisive, but independent of the voice and rarely just an accompaniment. There is such a wealth of subtle writing that at times I wished he were more present — maybe even seated at the front of the stage.

Genualdi has a warm tone, and he played with simplicity the Theme and Variations in G minor by Mozart. Robert Rocco then played the "Elégie" (1915) by Debussy, in the same mood of despair as the letter he wrote to his friend. After Bach's complaint to his patron, flutist Tadeu Coelho (pronounced KWELL-yo) played the Adagio from the Sonata in G minor, S.1020, with fluidity and warmth, accompanied by Rocco (now at the harpsichord). The Prélude No. 4 from the 24 Préludes, Op. 28, by Chopin, with Rocco back at the piano, was one of the highlights of the evening, with its plaintive repeated notes over constantly changing harmonies.

The Lied, "Abendstern" ("Evening Star"), brought the rich, dark and expressive mezzo-soprano voice of Janine Hawley to the stage in a song Schubert is believed to have composed the very same day as the letter Argento set to music. The voice of soprano Jodi Burns, a Fletcher fellow, singing Musetta's famous aria, "Quando m'en vo," from Act II of La Bohème, was almost too dramatic and powerful for the delicate and refined acoustics of Watson Hall, although her antics and stage presence were delightful. And preceding the final Argento song, yeoman of the evening Robert Rocco played Schumann's "Romanze," Op. 28, No. 1, whose constantly churning triplet rhythms threaten to obscure the fluency of the song-like melody.

The large audience, pent-up and silent for the whole evening, erupted with whoops and cheers and a genuine spontaneous standing ovation!  It was, indeed, an evening to remember.

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