When COVID called a halt to their fall 2020 concerts, the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra found another way to connect with their audiences. On Oct. 11, instead of playing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, they released “The Mahler Project,” a self-produced, hour-long video about Mahler’s life, with selections from the symphony and interviews with experts.
On Sunday, Nov. 22, the date they had set aside for a second concert, the MSO will release a new video, “A Few Words About Argento.”
The MSO and Dominick Argento, a Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning composer who died in February 2019, had a special relationship. The orchestra’s music director, William Schrickel, loves Argento’s music and has programmed it often. Argento enjoyed hearing the MSO play his music. He lived in Minneapolis, and whenever the MSO played one of his pieces, he attended a rehearsal or two and came for the concert. It must have been a bit like having his own personal orchestra.
Now in its 39th year, the MSO is a community orchestra that performs for free throughout the metro area. All of its musicians are volunteers.
Schrickel remembers speaking with Argento after the MSO’s performance of the composer’s “The Bremen Town Musicians” in 2007.
“He said that watching these musicians who were not getting paid, and were playing solely for the love of the music, putting out every ounce of energy they could muster, was so touching to him that it made a strong impression,” he said by phone on Wednesday. “And this was somebody whose music was played by every great orchestra and many of the great opera companies in the world.
“Something about the spirit of the players appealed to him, and somehow he trusted me to prepare the music with the right spirit, and we would play it well enough that he was going to be happy with it.”
When we spoke, Schrickel had just come from a rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra, where he is assistant principal bass. He has played with the orchestra since 1976. He became the MSO’s music director in 2000.
Schrickel recalled one of his earliest meetings with Argento. “It was probably the first or second year after I joined the Minnesota Orchestra. I had a chamber music group, the Minneapolis Artists Ensemble, and we were doing a lot of commissioning.
“I asked him if he was interested in possibly writing a piece for us. He said, ‘Where were all of you people in the 1960s, when I really needed the work?’ I learned later that he had a sort of persona with his humor where he could sound like he was being grumpy.
“His music always spoke to me. We all have composers and types of music that roll off of us and don’t make any impression. But I remember the very first piece of his that I heard. The Minnesota Orchestra commissioned him to write a piece called ‘In Praise of Music’ that [Stanislaw] Skrowaczewski conducted [in 1977]. It was just so beautiful. And I thought, ‘Here’s somebody who really knows how to write for orchestra.’
“The next piece I clearly remember was from 1983, when Neville Marriner commissioned Argento to write the ‘Casa Guidi,’ a song cycle based on letters that Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to her sister. Again, the setting of the words was so beautiful.
“I started to conduct the Metropolitan Symphony in 2000, and I think the first piece of Dominick’s I may have done was ‘Casa Guidi.’ I engaged a wonderful singer here, mezzo-soprano KrisAnne Weiss. Dominick and Carolyn came to the performance, and I had heard through other people that Dominick could be very picky and Carolyn could be especially picky.” [Note: Argento’s wife Carolyn was a singer and his muse.]
“So I was concerned. How were they going to feel about A, hearing our orchestra and B, hearing KrisAnne? And they loved it. That was a great affirming moment for all of us.”
More Argento, please
In 2002, the MSO performed a piece called “Fire” that Argento had written in 1982 for the Fargo Moorhead Symphony. After that, Schrickel said, “I wanted to do more of his work. And I thought, ‘Well, I have the composer right here!’
“Each year or two, I would do one of Dominick’s pieces. I would get together with him and take the score by and ask him all the questions we would all ask any composer if you could sit down and ask them. I felt like I got some insight into the specific pieces. Plus I got to know him as a friend.”
In 2014, during an intermission at Orchestra Hall, Schrickel was told that Argento was in the audience and wanted to see him. “I went out and saw Dominick in about the tenth row. And he said, ‘I just wondered if you and your Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra would be interested in premiering a piece of mine.’
“And I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course!’ The piece was the setting of ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ a famous poem by Shelley, and Dominick had written it in 1957, when he was a graduate student at Eastman. It was played at a private concert at Eastman, but it hadn’t been played since then.
“Strangely enough, Maria Jette had requested a perusal score from Dominick’s publisher about 15 years earlier. They sent her the actual manuscript and she never sent it back. She said that she had been trying to get all sorts of different conductors to do this piece, but nobody was interested.
“We did it the following fall, and I thought, ‘How many orchestras get to play the world premiere public performance of a work by a Pulitzer-winning, Grammy-winning composer? It was a total gift from the god of music, and Dominick. How did I get so lucky? Because he was not a person who would give off compliments willy-nilly. He was very opinionated, and if there was something he didn’t like, he made it very clear. Yet with me and with the Metropolitan Symphony, he was always extremely kind, enthusiastic and supportive.”
Schrickel said, “I would ask him which [of his pieces] he most wanted to hear, and that’s what we would perform. It was perfect because he got to hear something he wanted to, and he knew there would be a loving preparation of it. We have all these photos of him at our rehearsals, talking with the musicians and coaching the singers. To get to work in proximity to somebody of that stature! I don’t ever expect to be that lucky again.”
What about the future?
“We’re still planning to do his music, and we’re going to keep doing it. It was amazing.”
The video “A Few Words About Argento” will premiere on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 4 p.m. on the MSO’s website. Along with more stories from Schrickel, it will include stories and interviews with Maria Jette, Philip Brunelle, Clara Osowski, Jake Endres and others. If you can’t watch on Sunday, you can watch another time. The video will remain available on the website.
New COVID restrictions will affect the arts
If you haven’t already heard, Gov. Tim Walz announced new COVID restrictions on Wednesday night that will limit social gatherings for the next four weeks.
Bars and restaurants can only offer take-out. Entertainment and fitness venues must close. Amateur sports will pause, and in-person social gatherings with people outside of your household must stop for now. Movie theaters, bowling alleys and museums must close.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art announced yesterday afternoon that it will temporarily close to the public starting Saturday, Nov. 21. It does not anticipate reopening before Jan. 2, 2021. Digital content and virtual events and programming will not be affected. (Yes, “Foot in the Door 5: The Virtual Exhibition” will still be online.) The Walker will be temporarily closed starting Saturday. The British Arrows will still be available.
Crooners, which recently announced a series of original holiday shows through New Year’s Eve and a remodeled indoor mainstage, will suspend operations starting Friday, Nov. 20, and cancel all of its previously scheduled shows through Dec. 18.
V is virtual, L is live and in person – except there won’t be any L events listed here for at least the next four weeks.
V Starts today (Thursday, Nov. 19) online: Walker Art Center: British Arrows Greatest Hits. In lieu of presenting winners from the annual British Arrows Awards Ceremony, which was postponed to 2021, the Walker and the Arrows together curated a Greatest Hits reel of ads spanning 40 years. Here’s our review. Tickets ($12/10) are available beginning at 11 a.m. FMI. On demand through Jan. 4.
V Tonight (Thursday, Nov. 19) on CrowdCast: Jazz Fest Live presents Abebi Stafford. A jazz pianist and composer with a degree in chemical engineering who speaks three languages, Stafford is a Minnesota native who likes to challenge himself. He once gave Kenny Garrett a piano lesson; after hearing him play, Kenny Werner said, “Even his name swings.” Watch for free or make a donation to the Twin Cities Jazz Festival. 7 p.m. FMI and reservation.
V Tonight (Thursday, Nov. 19) online: Walker Art Center: Virtual MN Artists Presents: Alison Bergblom Johnson. The Minnesota-based multidisciplinary artist will lead an evening of online events for and featuring artists with disabilities. All are welcome. 7 p.m.: Livestreamed performances; registration required. 8 p.m.: Virtual networking event for artists with disabilities; registration required. FMI.
V Opens Friday (Nov. 20) in MSP Film’s Virtual Cinema: “Collective (Colectiv).” In 2015, a fire at a club in Bucharest left 27 dead and 180 wounded. When more burn victims start dying from wounds that were not life-threatening, a team of investigative journalists went to work, uncovering vast health care fraud. Directed by Alexander Nanau, this is Romania’s official submission for Best International Film at the 2021 Oscars. FMI and tickets ($12/9). Continues through Dec. 3.