Given the short shrift faced by choral music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it’s surprising that Dominick Argento has attained the status he has. Argento’s creative output includes a vast array of operas, choral works and song cycles (one of which, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, earned him the Pulitzer Prize in music in 2004), yet a surprisingly small output of orchestral works: a relatively small number of symphonies and concerti, and practically no chamber works.
Play to your talents, then: Boston Modern Orchestra Project recently finds Argento again in his home medium. Scored for small orchestra, chorus and soloists, Argento’s Jonah and the Whale retells the classic tale from the Bible with a surprisingly supple intimacy. Inspired by Albertus Pictor’s medieval rendering of the narrative on the ceiling of the church of Häkeberga in Sweden, Argento also takes his libretto from his own translation of the the 14th century Middle English poem Patience, or Jonah and the Whale (it is notable that in addition to composing the music, Argento single-handedly translated and fashioned the libretto as well). Argento’s rendering of the narrative clips along in the same contorted medieval affect; figures are somehow two-dimensional, lacking in perspective or scale. Emotions are contrived and without nuance, the voice of God stands in the same perspective as that of Jonah’s, while Greek choruses seem to fall to the startling foreground of the scene, watching on in immediate judgment as the drama unfolds at their very feet: the Argento’s oratorio works hard to translate the somewhat boxy conscience of Pictor’s medieval painting.
Clumsy? Yes. It’s this juvenile affect—this fine toeing between opera buffa and seria—that lends Argento’s work its surprising power. Somehow, Jonah and the Whale invokes the innocent gravitas of a bed-time story staged for the concert hall. Less oratorio and more medieval morality play, Argento’s work remains gentle and entertaining in it its delivery, yet surprisingly stark in its moral rendering. Certainly a unique voice in this form of story-telling, it’s worth noting that Argento’s work follows in a long line of English retellings of medieval texts, most famously by Benjamin Britten. This is not to say that Argento’s work is a re-imagining of Britten’s Canticles, Noye’s Fludde, or Cantata Misericordium. Although certainly strongly influenced by the British composer’s created genre of story/oratorio, the thinking and the interpretation of the two composers is very different. While Britten’s thinking, translation, even harmonic language, is very specific to the microscopic cosmos of twentieth century British music, Argento’s work somehow manages to re-invent the genre, employing a distinct, somehow more modern and compelling interpretation when compared to his predecessor’s. Argento’s biblical fable certainly maintains the juvenalia of a story, while incorporating shockingly modern film techniques and tone painting, creating a much more modern, global narrative and scope.
To this end, it’s difficult to interpret the performance—almost necessarily tongue-in-cheek, yet none less accomplished than any of its twentieth century comrades—of Argento’s work. Thomas Oakes is nothing short of an avuncular narrator eloquent and fluent in the formalities of Argento’s libretto, imitating and maintaining the stately pomp of the cantankerous orchestra (here the clumsy English horn, there the squawking organ), stilted chorus (confused and blathering one moment, proudly unified in the next) and sprechstimme of the basso profundo of Daniel Cole’s voice of God. Tenor Daniel Norman, as Jonah, is lyrical and fluid, while maintaining a sense of nervous reverence and confusion, implicit in the biblical story, and certainly extant in Argento’s score. A clean and well-balanced performance of (tonal and rhythmic precision is consistently razor-sharp in the face of Argento’s more than challenging score) a success of ensemble and soloists lies in the interpretation of the work, along with individual and ensemble coherence, as inhabiting the fragile duality of children’s tale and morality oratorio.
But strict definitions of genre aside, even ignoring the undeniable Biblical and religious connotations of Argento’s work, Jonah and the Whale manages a comfort and fluency that somehow remains unresolved in many twentieth century works. Certainly a modern work, Jonah is, by virtue of its inspiration and its texts, very old in its thinking, perspective and structure. Saccharine and cloy at parts, the work also manages supreme insight at others; it is this duality—between old and modern, buffoonery and gravity, youth and maturity—that makes Argento’s work so difficult to understand and interpret. However, it is also these very same aspects that some how make interpretation of Argento’s work strangely accessible and intensely interesting for all members of its audience.
© 2010 Sudeep Agarwala