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University of Maryland Celebrates Dominick Argento With Week-Long Series

April 19, 2012

The March 30 opening night of a new series honoring Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento offered an approach to opera that was accessible to a variety of audiences. Beautifully crafted sounds combined with familiar plots, moving scenes, and humor helped new listeners understand the performance. And it didn’t hurt that it was all in English.

The Art of Argento, a series presented April 20-29 by the University of Maryland School of Music, will look back at Argento’s career by combining student and faculty performances to cover a vast range of works by the artist. The American composer will soon celebrate his 85th birthday. “His music called out for us to do it,” said Linda Mabbs, artistic director of the series and a University of Maryland College Park professor. “There is no one who sets the English language better for singing. It is not so much the words, but the way he combines themes.” Argento won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. He also won a Grammy in 2004 for Von Stade’s recording of his song cycle Casa Guidi.

Mabbs said she and professor Leon Major decided that Argento’s work was the perfect fit for their current ensemble of students. The special series also coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The series includes a wide variety of concerts, recitals, and discussions. “In a way it’s a real retrospective of my career,” Argento said in a recent phone interview. Argento added that the collection of works was “like having your whole life laid out in front of you.”

Argento composed some of the works in the series in Baltimore. And while he has never taught or attended a class at College Park, he says going there will be like a homecoming; he was born in York, Pa., close to the Maryland border, and has fond memories of visiting Baltimore as a child. Argento received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Peabody Conservatory, and also worked several summers with the Hilltop Opera Company in Baltimore. It was during his time in Baltimore that he first became interested in composition.

Highlights from the series include an open masterclass with soprano Frederica Von Stade and the world premiere of Cabaret Songs, written by Argento specifically for this celebration. The series will conclude with fully staged productions of Postcard From Morocco and Miss Havisham’s Fire and a performance of A Few Words About Chekhov.

The series is a momentous occasion for confirmed opera-lovers as well as neophytes. Argento’s songs take themes many people are familiar with (including Miss Havisham’s Fire, about the Great Expectations character) and translates them into music. His use of humor adds lighthearted moments to his work, which turn just as easily to moments of profound emotion for the characters. There are several preshow discussions of the work, and many of the events are free.

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