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Argento’s ‘Evensong’ to open VocalEssence season Friday

Dominick Argento, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, is heading toward his 82nd birthday in October with a busy schedule of major performances in his adopted state.

On Friday, VocalEssence opens its 41st season by giving the Midwest premiere of Argento’s highly personal choral work, “Evensong: Of Love and Angels,” which was first performed last year at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Argento calls it his most personal work, since it was written in memory of his wife of 51 years, soprano Carolyn Bailey,
who died in 2006.

And then in November, the Minnesota Opera — the descendant of the company Argento helped create — will reprise one of the operas it commissioned from him 25 years ago: “Casanova’s Homecoming.”

This work has an altogether different tone, both bawdy and wry. When the New York City Opera produced it in the late 1980s, the directors decided to project the libretto above the stage in supertitles, even though the work was sung in English. Reason: They wanted to be certain that the audience would get all the jokes.

In the mid-1960s, Argento was one of the founders of the Center Opera Company, which originally performed under the auspices of the Walker Art Center and often used the old Guthrie Theater stage next door. In its first 10 years, the Center Opera premiered more than three-dozen new operas before becoming the Minnesota Opera and changing much of its primary focus to the standard repertoire.

But it performed a good number of Argento’s 14 operas, including “Masque of Angels” (1963), “Postcard from Morocco” (1971 and again in 1972), “The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe” (1975), “Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night” (1980), “The Boor,” (written in 1957, performed 1983), and “The Aspern Papers” (1990).

Argento has an equally strong connection with VocalEssence — in part because he was one of founder Philip Brunelle’s teachers when Brunelle was attending the University of Minnesota. In 1973, when Brunelle’s group was called the Plymouth Music Series, it stretched to commission its first work — Argento’s “Jonah and the Whale.” VocalEssence has since commissioned Argento four more times, including “A Thanksgiving to God, for His House” (1979), “Spirituals and Swedish Chorales (1994), “Sanctus” (2002) and “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” which was performed just last spring.

The work that won the Pulitzer Prize for Argento in 1975 was “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf,” commissioned by St. Paul’s Schubert Club. Small wonder that Newsweek Magazine once referred to the Twin Cities as “Argento’s town.”

You have just one chance to hear “Evensong,” which is being performed at Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis at 8 p.m. Friday. Argento will participate in a before-concert talk at 7 p.m.

The program also includes two short works by Handel that commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death (the 300th anniversary of his birth was in 1985, just for the record). Soprano Maria Jette will be the soloist in Handel’s “Laudate Pueri” and the VocalEssence singers also will thunder a version of the British coronation work, “Zadok the Priest,” which was written for the 1727 crowning of George II and has been performed at every coronation since.

“Evensong: Of Love and Angels.” Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m., Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. For tickets ($23.50 to $43.50) and information, go here. And to learn more about the Minnesota Opera’s season, which opens on Sept. 26 with Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” go here.

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