Even by the impeccable standards of an art form known for extravagant gestures, hyperbole, and grand spectacles, the upcoming performance of Darius Milhaud's Oresteia of Aeschylus - (also known as Oresteian Trilogy) - is a monumental undertaking and a dramatic unveiling of a seldom performed work by one of the 20th century's most experimental composers.
The epic work, presented by the University Musical Society (UMS), will be performed Thursday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Hill Auditorium. "The Oresteian Trilogy is what Milhaud thought was his greatest work," said conductor Kenneth Kiesler, director of university orchestras and professor of conducting. He and Jerry Blackstone, director of choral activities and professor and chair of the conducting department, have worked for months to prepare students for what is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform the rarely heard oratorio.
The sprawling collaborative effort includes more than 450 performers from U-M's School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and UMS Choral Union. Principle singers include Lori Phillips, soprano; Julianna Di Giacomo, soprano; and Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano.
Based on the plays by Aeschylus - the only trilogy in Greek drama to have survived from antiquity - The Oresteian Trilogy is a quintessentially modern piece based on an ancient text. Milhaud was asked to write the music by his friend, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, who translated the drama from Greek to French. Milhaud, considered one of the most prolific and experimental of 20th century composers, was an admirer of jazz and integrated the genre into his work.
Bringing The Oresteian Trilogy to Hill Auditorium has been 10 years in the making, and largely made possible by the relentless drive of William Bolcom, U-M professor emeritus of composition. Bolcom studied under Milhaud in the late 1950s and they remained close until Milhaud's death in 1974. Bolcom first heard "The Trilogy" as a student.
"It knocked me over with its kind of savagery, which is straight out the Aeschylus," he said. Bolcom vowed to someday arrange a performance of the Trilogy, the entirety of which has never been performed in North America and only rarely in Europe.
With the success of the performances and CD of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he was emboldened to have The Oresteian Trilogy performed by the student musicians of U-M's School of Music, Theatre & Dance. (Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience, released by Naxos, won four Grammy Awards in 2006, including Best Classical Performance.)
The Oresteian Trilogy will be performed in French with English supertitles. It will be recorded for international release by Naxos, which marks the first-full-length recording of the Trilogy.
Incorporating whips and hammers into the orchestration, long percussive sections featuring nearly 20 different instruments, and a chorus that's required to groan, whistle, and shriek, The Oresteian Trilogy is challenging for performers, all of whom are on stage for the entire concert. "You're sitting there with all this blood and thunder all around your all the time," said Bolcom. "It's pretty incredible."