"This cycle is meant as a life-affirming work," said Dominck Argento in 1996 reflecting upon the set of five orchestral songs he had written a decade earlier for the vocal beauty and dramatic presence of Frederica von Stade. To him, she represented the counterpart of the exquisite poet and woman Elizabeth Barrett. Whle walking along a street in Florence not far from the Pitti Palace, Argento discovered the venerable stone house in which the Brownings settled after they eloped to Italy: Casa Guidi, for which the set of songs is named. The subject is the loving companionship between two poets who spent their days writing, conversing, listening to music, and sharing the joy of looking after a son who was born there. These domestic vignettes evoke their relationship. As soon as the composer examined the letters Elizabeth Barrett Browning addressed to her sister from Florence between 1846 and 1859 -- "written in minute scratches no thickher than the hairs on a daisy stalk," said another correspondent, his music came quickly.
Although Dominick Argento has written many works for the collective virtuosity of the symphony orchestra, his single concerted piece is this "Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra," whose three-movement design and structured content reflect concerto tradition, but which is subtitled "Rossini in Paris". Argento explains why he did not call his work a concerto: "The title 'concerto' (and the piece really is a concerto) was deliberately avoided out of respect for - and intimidation by - Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, whose slow movement is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful moments in all of music. The light-hearted tone of the Capriccio was also an effort to eschew any comparison with this masterpiece. The work's subtitle, 'Rossini in Paris,' came about because it was my first commission to compose a virtuosic piece, and that brought to mind Paganini's commission to Berlioz, which resulted in 'Harold in Italy'. Originally I was going to take themes from "Sins of My Old Age," but since that had been done before by Respighi, Britten and others, I opted for the three movements that eventually evolved. These titles are not meant to indicate any programmatic content, but only suggest a mood."
When the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned Dominick Argento to write a large-scale work for its 75th anniversary season, he responded with "In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra," celebrating not only the resplendence of the large virtuso orchestra, but music itself. All the players participate in music that probes the inherent singing quality of instruments.
Described by The New York Times as "one of America's finest artists and singers, "Frederica von Stade remains at the peak of her extraordinary career and continues to be extolled as one of the music world's most beloved figures. Known to family, friends and fans by her nickname "Flica," the mezzo-soprano has enriched the world of classical music for three decades. Miss von Stade's career has taken her to the stages of the world's great opera houses and concert halls.
Musicians: Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; Burt Hara, clarinet, Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Eiji Oue.
Five Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Orchestra:
Letters of Elizabeth Barret Browning to Her Sister
1. Casa Guidi
2. The Italian Cook and the English Maid
3. Robert Browning
4. The Death of Mr. Barret
Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra (Rossini in Paris)
6. Une Rejouissance
7. Une Caresse a ma Femme
8. Un Petit Train du Plaisir
In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra
9. For the Healer, David
10. For the God, Apollo
11. For the Satyr, Pan
12. For the Sorrower, Orpheus
13. For the Angel, Israfel
14. For the Saint, Cecilia
15. For the Child, Mozart