Even by the standards of an art form known for extravagant gestures, hyperbole and grand spectacles, the upcoming concert performance of Darius Milhaud’s “Oresteia of Aeschylus” is a monumental undertaking and a dramatic unveiling of a seldom performed work by one of the 20th century’s most experimental composers.
Also known as “The Oresteian Trilogy,” the epic work, presented by the University Musical Society, will be performed April 4 at Hill Auditorium.
“‘The Oresteian Trilogy’ is what Milhaud thought was his greatest work,” said conductor Kenneth Kiesler. “As far as we know, it’s never been performed in the United States or North America.”
The sprawling collaborative effort includes more than 450 performers from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and UMS Choral Union. Principal singers include sopranos Lori Phillips and Julianna Di Giacomo, and mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford.
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, professor emeritus of composition. Bolcom studied under Milhaud in the late 1950s. 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 of Aeschylus,” he said. Recalling the indelible impression upon initially hearing the work, Bolcom said he vowed to someday arrange a performance.
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 SMTD.
“The Oresteian Trilogy” will be performed in French with English supertitles.
The three operas will be recorded for international release by Naxos, which marks the first-full-length recording of “The Oresteian 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.
“The work has a very strong musical personality,” Bolcom said.
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