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Author: Elaine Strauss. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 15, 2000. All rights reserved.
Jonah, with a Visual Twist: Princeton Pro Musica
Composer Dominick Argento looked at a picture of the
15th-century ceiling painting of the Jonah story from the church in
Harkebarga, Sweden, not far from Stockholm, and was riveted. One panel
of the Albertus Pictor mural shows four men in a small boat throwing
the reluctant prophet overboard; another shows Jonah disgorged after
spending three days in the belly of the whale God sent to swallow
him. Excited, Argento realized that the Jonah being tossed into the
sea was long-haired, unshaven, and fully clothed, while the Jonah
spat out onto dry land was naked, beardless, and bald. It embodied
what Argento called "a blithe disregard for time and space."
"That kind of innocence and whimsy appealed to me," says Argento,
interviewed by telephone from his home in Minneapolis. "I like
that lack of chronology. Jonah’s going in fully clothed and with hair.
Coming out, three days later, everything has been digested by the
whale. He’s bald, he has no beard, and his hands are folded in prayer.
It gave me the idea of putting many things together."
The main source of Argento’s "Jonah" is an anonymous alliterative
14th century English manuscript, which Argento himself translated
into modern English. In addition, he draws on the Biblical account,
Latin liturgical texts, 18th century songs of seafarers, work songs,
and Protestant hymns. "It’s a macaronic text," he says. "There
are a lot of different styles crammed together." Argento wrote
the piece in 1973.
Princeton Pro Musica presents the hour-long oratorio Saturday, March
18, at 8 p.m. at the Princeton Alliance Church in Plainsboro. Frances
Fowler Slade, Pro Musica’s founder and music director, conducts. Tenor
Scott McCoy sings Jonah. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas is the voice of
God; Paul R. Reilly narrates, with chorus members Patricia Conrad
and Raymond Ayers also singing solos.
The new church, at the intersection of Scudders Mills and Schalks
Crossing roads, east of U.S. 1, is the design of architect George
Myers of Princeton. Inaugurated last year, it seats 1,000 and has
multimedia facilities. A visual telling of the Jonah story through
slide projections accompanies the musical version of the story. Stephen
Zorochin has designed the slide show, which is based on medieval portrayals
of the Jonah story from the internationally-known Index of Christian
Art at Princeton University.
Interviewed by telephone from her home in Skillman, Slade says, "This
is the first time we are trying to do something like this. Formerly,
it never occurred to us to do anything but listen. People now are
so visually oriented. Dare I make the allusion to MTV?" PPM’s
last performance of the work, in 1989, was music only.
A 6:45 p.m. symposium at the church precedes the performance. Participants
are the Reverend Richard A. Kunz of All Saints Church, Princeton;
Brooke Lester, a Ph. D. student at Princeton Theological Seminary;
Rabbi David Silverman of the Jewish Center of Princeton; and Lynn
Ransom (same name as the conductor of Voices, but not the same person),
of Princeton’s Index of Christian Art.
"`Jonah’ starts seriously, but within five minutes you’re hearing
sea shanties sung by sailors on the ship." Argento says. "I
don’t mind doing a religious piece, but I’m not keen on solemnity
or pomposity. You make the same point with laughter."
Conscious of the parallel between Jonah’s three days inside the whale,
and the three days between Christ’s death and reincarnation, Argento
draws on a wealth of threes. The piece is scored for three instrumental
groups, each of which has three individual members: a trio of trombones,
a trio of percussionists and a trio of instruments with pedals (organ,
piano, and harp). "In the middle of the piece, when Jonah is on
the ship, and God orders the whale to approach, there is the most
beautiful musical interlude I could have written," Argento says.
"It’s played by three trombones, accompanied by a harp. The three
trombones represent the voice of God."
"There are lots of threes," Argento continues. "At the
end the three trombones play a hymn that’s in three flats; it’s in
triple time, and there are even six-measure phrases — two times
three. There are three kinds of triads [three-note chords]. I look
for connections and links. You don’t have to know this when you listen.
This is what I do for myself. It doesn’t mean a blessed thing to the
In retrospect, I realize that I might have argued with Argento about
the effect of musical construction on the listener. From my observations,
a hidden agenda of the type he describes provides musical coherence
to a piece, even if the listener is not aware of the secret structure.
The "rightness" in the sound of certain passages in Bach and
Beethoven is often due to the fact that material heard with the melody
in its original order is reworked with the tune played backwards,
upside down or inside out. The family resemblance between the two
versions provides unity.
Argento chalks up his penchant for covertness in his
musical compositions to his having been a cryptographer in the army,
and adds, "I read English mysteries. I like to solve puzzles.
I liked creating puzzles in my compositions." His voice has an
uncanny resemblance to Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle
editor and the puzzlemaster on National Public Radio’s Weekend Sunday
Argento was born in York, Pennsylvania, in 1927, the oldest of three
children in a family that he says was not musical. His sister teaches
English literature. His brother is a computer programmer.
Drafted in 1945, Argento was found to have an aptitude for cryptography,
and was sent to Africa. There he took music lessons and heard his
first opera, "Rigoletto," which was put on with ragtag forces
by Italian refugees who had fled to Eritrea, formerly an Italian colony.
After his army service Argento entered Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory
as a piano major. At the end of his first year, his harmony teacher,
Nicolas Nabokov, steered him in the direction of composition. Following
his graduation in 1951 Argento studied composition with Luigi Dallapiccola
while in Florence on a Fulbright grant. His other mentors include
Hugo Weisgall and Henry Cowell at Peabody. The appeal of Florence
has made it the destination for Argento’s six sabbaticals and for
40 summer stays.
Argento learned Italian on a sink-or-swim basis during a one-month
course at the University of Perugia on his first visit to Italy. "I
had a wonderful professor," he says. "He was a 90-year-old
man with white hair and two mistresses. He never spoke a word of English.
We finally figured out that he was telling us there are five basic
questions: What is it called? What shape does it have? What color
is it? What purpose does it serve? And what does it cost? If you can
ask these and understand the answers, you’ve got a good hold on the
Returning to the United States, Argento studied for a master’s degree
at Peabody, where he met his future wife, soprano Carolyn Bailey.
To her he attributes his interest in the human voice. "She’s such
a wonderful singer. I wrote a concerto for soprano as my Ph.D. thesis
[at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music]. She convinced me what the
voice could do. The voice is a representation of humanity. All the
instruments do essentially the same thing. They sing. But the voice
can do words at the same time."
Argento taught theory and composition at Eastman, and in 1958 he joined
the faculty of the department of music at the University of Minnesota,
where he taught until 1997.
The bulk of Argento’s output reflects his interest in the voice and
in texts. His more than a dozen operas have been performed in the
United States and in Europe. His opera "Postcard from Morocco,"
directed by Albert Takazauckas, (U.S. 1, July 7, 1999) transported
Opera Festival of New Jersey audiences last summer to a surreal, tropical
environment where questions of personal identity, presented in dramatic
vocal form, gripped an enthusiastic audience.
His song cycles are almost as numerous as his operas. He received
a Pulitzer prize in 1975 for his song cycle "From the Diary of
Virginia Woolf." Argento is also sought out as an instrumental
composer. He is now composer laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra,
a lifetime appointment.
Argento’s most recent work is a song cycle for Miss Manners, the syndicated
newspaper columnist. "She and her husband live in Washington,
D.C., and are great opera lovers," Argento explains. "She
told her husband that I was her favorite living composer, and he asked
me to write a song cycle secretly for her 60th birthday. At first
I declined; it seemed like a flaky idea. But he was persistent. He
sent me columns, and a book. I found words like `opera,’ and `ballet’
in the index; she wrote about how to behave at musical events."
Argento ended up writing a seven-song cycle, which Phyllis Pancella,
Miss Manners’ favorite singer, performed at the Cosmos Club for the
birthday celebration. Not yet published, the piece is nevertheless
in demand, as Pancella continues to perform it, and word gets around.
Argento is currently working on a piece commissioned for the dedicatory
service of a new basilica in Orleans, on Cape Cod, in June. He has
had to cancel some commissions because of time he lost in a chain
of heart operations in the fall, which he readily talks about. Healthy
now, Argento says, "I probably talk about them more than people
want to hear. It’s the idea that you survived and beat the system.
I was in Florida last week; that was the final punctuation point."
Argento’s plate of obligations is relatively lean just now. "I
have the luxury of looking around at the moment," he says. "I’m
still recovering; you could say I was lying fallow."
Curiously, this man of words and music happens to choose a visual
term — looking around — to describe his state. But maybe it’s
not so strange. It was something visual that led him to write "Jonah."
And, without discussing it with Argento, conductor Slade has put the
visual back into Argento’s "Jonah" for her current multimedia
production of the work.
— Elaine Strauss
Alliance Church, Scudders Mill and Schalks Crossing Roads, 609-683-5122.
A multi-media performance with pre-concert panel presentation at 6:45
p.m. Single admissions $30; group rate $10. Saturday, March 18,
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