February 5, 1990

'A Water Bird Talk' demonstrates Argento's mastery of drama

By Stephen Wigler
Sun Music Critic

The case for Dominick Argento's mastery of dramatic music could not have been made more strongly than It was on Friday In Friedberg Hall at the Peabody Conservatory. The 62-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Peabody alumnus Is news now because of the presence of his opera, "The Aspern Papers," at the Kennedy Center. "Aspem" is a fine grand opera. But In an evening of the composer's music, his alma. mater presented a one-act monodrama, - A Water Bird Talk," which is truly a masterpiece.

The composer himself created the libretto of this work. which Is based on Chekhov*s comic medical treatise, "On the Harmful Effects of Smoking Tobacco." From minor Chekhov, Argento has composed a work that has the impact of major Chekhov: It is simultaneously hilarious and piercingly, almost unbearably, sad. A professor gives a lecture. illustrated with slides on water birds. The real interest of the lecture is the speaker's revelations about the humiliations of his henpecked existence.

The llbretto is brilliant: Each of the birds illustrates an aspect of the spedker's character. The music, scored for an ensemble of 12, is no less Impressive. The section on the Atlantic puffin, for example. Is a satirical march flor horn and timpani. The last section (on the pied-billed grebe), in which the lecturer breaks down as he co mpletely confronts the utter wreck of his life, is an intense and heartbreakIng elegy for oboe and chimes. The music was superbly sung by baritone Donald Collup and well-played by the Peabody Camerata under the direction of Gene Young. The intelligent and affecting staging was by Roger Brunyate.

Less impressive was a setting of Wallace Steven's "Peter quince at the Clavier," a sonatina for mixed chorus and piano that was performed by the Concert Artists of Baltimore under the direction of Edward Polochick. There were two things wrong with this piece. The poems of Stevens, like those of Gerard Manley Hopkins. create their own luscious music. and Argento was clearly overtaxed by having to compete with It. Secondly. 'Peter quince" Is Stevens at his most philosophical and public. and Argento's music is best suited to Illuminating the personal and private corners of human existence.

That great strength was better demonstrated in "Letters From Composers," which were performed by tenor Stanley Cornett and guitarist Barteld Bosma, and "Six Elizabethan Songs," which were sung by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and played by a quintet of Peabody musicians.

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