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“A Few Words About Chekhov” program notes

Dominick Argento (b. 1927) is the Composer Laureate of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. He lives in Minneapolis and taught composition at the University of Minnesota for 40 years. He was the first recipient of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award, given in recognition of his lifelong contribution to the arts in Minnesota. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 for From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, a song cycle written for Dame Janet Baker, and he received a Grammy Award in 2004 for Casa Guidi, a work which Clara Osowski, this afternoon’s mezzo soprano soloist, performed last season with William Schrickel and the MSO. Argento’s Ode to the West Wind was premiered by soprano Maria Jette and the MSO under Schrickel’s direction in October of 2014.

Argento’s A Few Words About Chekhov was commissioned by The Schubert Club and premiered at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts on October 12, 1996. The cycle comprises seven songs written for mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade and baritone Håkan Hagegård (partnered at the premiere by pianist Martin Katz) and incorporates texts drawn from letters written by Russian playwright Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov (1860-1904) to his wife, actress Olga Knipper (1868-1959) along with excerpts from Knipper’s 1924 essay, A Few Words About Chekhov. The composer orchestrated the piano accompaniment in 2002, and the piece was performed in its new setting in 2003 by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Andreas Delfs.

The 38-year-old Chekhov (who had been practicing medicine as his principal profession since the age of 24 and writing as a free-lancer since his late teens) met the 30-year-old Knipper, the Russian-born daughter of German parents and an original member of Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater, in 1898 when she starred in a Moscow revival of Chekhov’s The Seagull. The playwright, who first exhibited symptoms of tuberculosis 14 years earlier, adored Moscow and all its artistic trappings, but he had been forced by his “bacillus” to move to Yalta, a warm-weather city situated on the Crimean Peninsula of the Black Sea, 800 miles from Moscow. Living so far from one another, Anton and Olga courted primarily by writing letters, and they married in 1901. They strove to see each other as often as possible until Chekhov’s death in 1904 from TB.

Argento’s song cycle artfully traces the arc of Olga and Anton’s warm, intimate relationship, from first meeting through the trials of being forced to live far apart to Chekhov’s premature death at a German health spa at the age of 44, and it does so by the artful juxtaposition of the thoughts, hopes, dreams, observations and feelings of each member of the couple for the other. Though their words only occasionally overlap, their loving spirits are perfectly entwined.

                                                                                 ©William Schrickel 2016