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Milhaud’s Complete L’Orestie d’Eschyle on CD

Milhaud’s Complete L’Orestie d’Eschyle on CDFor the first time since it was completed in 1922, Darius Milhaud’s monumental operatic trilogy, L’Orestie d’Eschyle (Oresteia of Aeschylus), has been recorded and will be released by the Naxos label on September 9.

The epic work is the second production to emerge from the GRAMMY®-winning collaboration of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the University Musical Society.

Performances on the CD are delivered by:

  • The University Symphony Orchestra of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD);
  • A 320-voice choir comprising the University Musical Society (UMS) Choral Union and SMTD’s Chamber Choir and Orpheus Singers;
  • The SMTD Percussion Ensemble (under the direction of Joseph Gramley and Jonathan Ovalle, SMTD professors of percussion);
  • A cast of nine professional vocal soloists.

The performance is conducted by Kenneth Kiesler, U-M’s Director of University Orchestras and Music Director of the University Symphony Orchestra; the choirs were directed by Jerry Blackstone, U-M’s Director of University Choirs and Music Director of the UMS Choral Union, and Eugene Rogers, Associate Director of Choirs and conductor of the University Choir. The recording engineer was Jason Corey, associate professor and chair of SMTD’s Department of Performing Arts Technology.

The recording is the result of the first North American performance of the entire work and is believed to be the first anywhere in the world since 1963. The University Musical Society (UMS), one of the country’s leading presenters, located on the University of Michigan campus, produced the mammoth work for the live concert and recording in April 2013 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Hill Auditorium, the renowned U-M concert hall. The last time UMS and SMTD collaborated on a recording was in 2004 with William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience that went on to win four GRAMMY® Awards in 2006 (Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Contemporary Composition, Best Classical Album and Producer of the Year).

Performance of Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus at Hill Auditorum, April 2013. Photo by Mark Gjukich Photography, courtesy of UMS.

Based on the plays by Aeschylus—one of the few trilogies from Greek drama to survive from antiquity—The Oresteian Trilogy is a quintessentially modern piece based on an ancient text. It relates the bloody chain of murder and revenge within the royal family of Argos through three movements: L’Agamemnon, Les Choéphores and Les Euménides.

Part of the great French musical tradition, Darius Milhaud was an important avant-garde figure in early 20th-century Paris. The Oresteia of Aeschylus trilogy arose from his lifelong interest in Greek mythology and drama, inspired by the expressive, syncopated rhythms of Paul Claudel’s poetic translation of the texts from Greek to French. In addition to innovative rhythmic elements, the trilogy exhibits complex harmonic techniques, particularly polytonality, which Milhaud believed gave him more varied ways of expressing sweetness in addition to violence.

William Bolcom, U-M professor emeritus of composition, was instrumental in bringing the work to U-M.  He was a student of Milhaud’s in the 1950s and remained a close friend until the composer’s death in 1974. When Bolcom was introduced to the Trilogy, he knew he was encountering something remarkable: “It absolutely knocked me over,” said Bolcom. “It has a certain kind of savagery, which is straight out of the Aeschylus.” Bolcom vowed to himself that he would someday arrange for a performance of the work. With the success of the performances and CD of his Songs of Innocence and of Experience, he was emboldened to have the work performed by the student musicians of U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, whose orchestras, choirs and bands are renowned for their excellence.

The Trilogy is a piece of music-theatre so sonically brilliant and innovative, so striking and dramatic, that it reaches out and makes a visceral, palpable impact,” said conductor Kenneth Kiesler.

Musicologist and Milhaud scholar Frank Langlois noted the project gave Milhaud “free rein to his rhythmic experiments as well as to his lyrical and dramatic temperament.” 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 offered an exciting challenge for the student performers. “It’s very theatrical, very colorful music,” said Jerry Blackstone. “ It does not keep you at arms length; it draws you in.”


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