Local composer

by Nichol Nelson

A local charitable foundation tipped its hat this month to an internationally known composer and University professor with an award and a check for $40,000 for his contributions to the Twin Cities arts scene.
Dominick Argento, a Regents’ professor in music, has composed more than 10 operas, created the Minnesota Opera Company and held a full-time teaching position at the University since he arrived here in the late 1950s.
On Sept. 9, Argento received the first McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. The award, created by the McKnight Foundation, gives $40,000 to an artist who has achieved artistic excellence while contributing to the cultural life of Minnesota, said Neal Cuthbert, McKnight’s program officer for the arts.
The McKnight Foundation is a charitable organization that seeks to strengthen communities and families by contributing to the arts, the environment and scientific research.
Cuthbert said Argento was selected for the award because of “his artistic excellence, continuing commitment to his craft, and longtime impact on the arts in Minnesota.”
Cuthbert stressed the importance of Argento’s presence in local arts.
“This award came out of conversations I have had with various artists who credit their achievements to the earlier work of greats like Argento,” he said. “There is a temptation for artists to leave the state and move on to bigger art centers. We wanted to honor those artists who had exceptional careers and chose to stay here.”
Although initially skeptical about Minnesota’s art scene when he arrived here from the East Coast in 1958, he said Minnesota has gained a wealth of culture over the years.
Argento began piano lessons at 16. He served as a cryptographer in the Army during World War II, then earned his bachelor’s and master’s of music degrees at Peabody Conservatory and his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music.
Argento has a long list of achievements: He received the Pulitzer Prize for his opera, “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf”, in 1975 and was named Composer Laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra shortly before his retirement last December. This honorary position was created for Argento and is the first time a composer has been given such an honor by an American orchestra.
Argento has worked with the Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center and other organizations to enlarge the presence of the arts in the Twin Cities.
The Minnesota Opera Company was born out of his efforts to start a local opera company, and Argento’s work in this area was instrumental in his selection for the award, said Sylvia Paine, a McKnight spokeswoman.
Argento was modest when questioned about his honors. He claimed the accolades were a result of his positive attitude toward life.
“When I graduated with my Ph.D. from Eastman, I had a teacher who told me he wasn’t going to worry about me,” recalled Argento. “He knew that instead of thinking that people are doing bad things behind my back, I think that people are doing good things behind my back. And so far I’ve been right.”
Argento said he had “no idea” that the McKnight Award was coming. However, he stressed the importance of his teaching role here at the University.
Argento joined the University School of Music in 1958. He was a faculty member for almost 40 years and watched the school evolve into a nationally recognized institution.
“The school was pretty ordinary when I arrived here, but it has developed into a handsome school. You can get as good of an education here as you can in most conservatories,Delete rest of note *** ” he said.
He is remembered in the School of Music as a respected teacher with strong ties to his students. Argento attributed this to his enjoyment of the profession and his teaching strategy.
“I think a good teacher leads his students out of themselves, rather than putting stuff into them,” he said.
Argento composed professionally during his entire teaching career, a practice that he said made him a better teacher as well as a better artist.
“As I was composing, hints that I learned could be passed to my students,” he said. “And my students taught me, too. There was a kind of synergy between my classes and myself.”