Ralph Williams talks about Oresteia of Aeschylus
Ralph Williams, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Michigan, gave a lecture on the Oresteia of Aeschylus prior to a UMS Choral Union rehearsal. The UMS Choral Union performs as part of Darius Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus on April 4.
Want to learn more about the project? Read interviews with composer William Bolcom, who studied with Darius Milhaud, Kenneth Kiesler, conductor, Jerry Blackstone, chorus master, and Joseph Gramley, co-director of percussion.
Oresteia of Aeschelys: Interviews
When Hill Auditorium was first built, UMS was the organization that oversaw the School of Music, a situation that held true until the early 1940s, when UMS transferred oversight of the School of Music to the University of Michigan.
To commemorate 100 years of collaboration, we celebrate with a massive orchestral and choral work, Darius Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus, set for vocal soloists, chorus, orchestra, and a battery of percussion instruments, which will be performed in Hill Auditorium on April 4.
UMS: How did you come to study with Darius Milhaud and how did he influence you as a composer? Can you talk about Milhaud’s style of composition and his impact on composition today?
William Bolcom: In 1957 I was a given a scholarship to study with Milhaud at Aspen, then in its first years of the festival. I’d liked his music at a time when he was generally thought of as inferior to Hindemith, then considered by many the Bach of our time. In retrospect I remember liking some early Hindemith pieces and studying his The Craft of Musical Composition, but having played the piano part for several of his solo-instrument sonatas I soon detected something formulaic in his work; that disenchanted me. In Milhaud’s music, even the slightest of his works has freshness and a huge potential emotional range from comic to tragic, an interest in popular music of various provenances, all things that I was already pointed toward, sometimes willy-nilly, and definitely not in sync with American attitudes toward composing at the time.
We seemingly hit it off quickly and I became close with the family, and still am. (One day in 1960 the Mlihauds would invite me to dinner to meet their son Daniel at their Pigalle apartment; a brilliant painter and sculptor, he has become one of my very closest friends and will be here for l’Orestie. We always stay with them when in Paris.) Milhaud obtained a scholarship to Mills College which I took in 1958, pursuing a masters’. The next year I followed him to the Paris Conservatoire on a French government grant and stayed a second year, when I pursued Messiaen’s course in “analyse musicale” (I left in February 1961, having been called by the draft – totally another story.)
In 1958 and for about two decades after, general opinion of Milhaud and his work was not what it has now proved to be over time – it was easy then to dismiss someone who was not a post-Webern serialist like the most famous European composers like Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio (the latter less doctrinaire than the other two, and a friend of Milhaud’s and eventually mine). Milhaud could be very serious but had a strong streak of humor in his work and person, and was delightful company.
So Milhaud’s influence on my music is more of a matter of spirit than technique. He wanted everyone to go his/her own way musically (one of his deepest disappointments is that none of his Mills female students had much of a career, except Anne Kish who died very young) but required a student coming to him to have already a strong technique, which I thankfully had when I came to him. His own work shows remarkable facility and fleetness. His espousal of polytonality was the rage in the early 1920s – have I used it to his extent? no – but as with Schoenberg and twelve-tone, he rarely talked about it, finding other aspects of composition to be more important. His openness was a great example for me in composition and teaching. In many ways we were of one mind, including his eschewing of solemnity but espousal of seriousness, even in humor. This would result in many critics and academic composers not taking him (or me) seriously for a long while.
His impact on composition today is probably more general then technical. Polytonality, his trademark, is considered one technique among many, and unlike the serialists there was never pressure on his part toward any sort of ideological conformism. Perhaps the relative openness and lack of uniformity today can be somewhat ascribed to his example.
UMS: Why do you think UMS and the School of Music chose to perform and record Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus?
WB: I had lobbied quite a bit for l’Orestie to be performed here in the same spirit in which U-M put on my Songs of Innocence and of Experience… (actually twice, first here in 1984 as the second performance – the premiere was in Stuttgart that year – and of course in 2004 [at Hill Auditorium]). I realized the size of the project would be about the same as my Songs…, which may have been inspired by l’Orestie’s example, and I was delighted when it was decided to use it [….] to celebrate Hill Auditorium’s 100th anniversary. It will be performed 9 years to the day of the April 2004 performance of my Songs.
UMS: What were the challenges in performing and recording your large scale Grammy award-winning work Songs of Innocence and of Experience? We know that the process will be similar for the recording of Oresteia.
WB: I have come to learn from Maestro Kiesler that in the case of l’Orestie a great deal of unearthing had to be done in the Milhaud; the parts were in wretched shape with whole sections missing for example, and there are questions of interpretation not easily resolved by studying the score. The last performance I know of the work was in Berlin in the 1980s.
In my case the Songs had been heavily roaded, and recently, with performances at the Stuttgart Opera, U-M, Grant Park, St. Louis, and the BBC and Pacific Symphonies; Leonard Slatkin had done two of them, which is why I selected him for the performance and recording here in 2004 (so that I feel for Maestro Kiesler, considering his recovery from an injury and so many things to resolve in the Milhaud score itself). UMS had hired a stellar cast of singers, some from previous performances, for the Ann Arbor event.
Many people think that the Naxos recording is of the April 4, 2004, performance; far from it, as equalization and other production problems, such as some people using mics and others not, that necessitated sessions for the following two days after the performance. Our David Lau was the head engineer but the producer was the legendary Tim Handley, who had a Tonmeister degree and the attitude to go with it; it was worth it as he was excellent (and would win one of the 4 Grammys the recording garnered). The whole thing was elegantly planned out, so that no one had to hang around waiting – the engineers would deal with all the choral ensembles in one session for example. The result was that the enthusiasm and freshness in the performance was preserved in the recording; this even fooled Maestro Slatkin, who was surprised to hear no applause at the end of the first edit.
UMS: Do you think the University Orchestra and Choirs will face similar challenges in performing and recording Milhaud’s Oresteia?
WB: I would guess that, for reasons stated above, l’Orestie will pose greater problems for performance and recording than my Songs did, first of all because it hasn’t benefited from carryover singers (as we did) or much recent performance. Too, the work is in French, and a very elevated French requiring the grand style of utterance Claudel required in his plays (recalling the era of Corneille and Racine); I’m hoping for the ultimate in diction work from soloists and chorus. I have great hopes that it will go just fine, but I recognize the enormity of the challenge.
UMS: What is your role in this collaboration between UMS & UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance in the performance and recording of Darius Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus?
Jerry Blackstone: I am the chorus master for this production of the Oresteia. There are approximately 310 singers currently in preparation for this monumental event: 3 from the School of Music, Theatre, & Dance (Chamber Choir, University Choir, Orpheus Singers) plus the UMS Choral Union. I am being assisted by Prof. Eugene Rogers, conductor of the University Choir, George Case, the UMS Choral Union assistant conductor, and eight graduate conducting students who are assisting with the Orpheus Singers and with sectional rehearsals of the Chamber Choir and University Choir.
My job is to ensure that the singers know the notes, rhythms, French text (and there is a great deal of it!), and textual and dramatic content. We want them to be completely comfortable when Maestro Kiesler takes over the musical preparation in a few weeks.
UMS: How was this piece selected for this commemorative performance?
JB: William Bolcom has been encouraging several of us at UMS and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance to consider this work. Mr. Bolcom was a student of Milhaud’s and thinks very highly of the piece. The possibility to present it in its entirety, in a great hall, and then to record it for a major recording label, is remarkable. It truly is a monumental piece and we will always remember this moment in the life of Hill Auditorium.
UMS: What are your hopes for this performance and the recording of the work?
JB: I’m committed to making this music come alive, to communicate the drama and excitement that is so inherent in these important texts to the audience. The recording process will may be tedious and somewhat tension filled, as most recording sessions are, but we’re all committed to a musical moment and recorded product that will tell these stories with all of the power and spark they deserve.
UMS: What is your role in this collaboration between UMS and the School of Music in the performance and recording of Milhaud’s Oresteian Trilogy?
Kenneth Kiesler In a piece like this, the conductor’s role is quite complex and multifaceted. First, I have to learn the music and figure out what it’s all about, and prepare to give every word, every phrase, every sentence its meaning, its subtext.
The other thing is, you know, with all opera (and by the way, [Darius] Milhaud didn’t want to call it an opera and [Paul] Claudel didn’t want to call it an opera. They didn’t like the kind of stand-and-sing detachment of opera singers in those days, they wanted it to be a real theater piece, really invested with the motivations of the characters) is that we have to go back to the words and forget that there is a piece of music temporarily. That for me has been a very labor intensive process.
UMS: In your view, what was the process for selecting the piece for this performance?
KK: The music is incredibly well constructed and absolutely beautiful and powerful. There is absolutely no question that Stravinsky, and particularly the Rite of Spring, had a huge impact on Milhaud. He started Agamemnon in 1913, and most of the work was completed in 1913, which is why we are choosing 2013 and the 100th anniversary of Hill Auditorium for our performance date.
This has been in the works since 2004, when William Bolcom first sent Les Eumenides to me to take a look at it. The piece immediately was so huge, I mean the scores stood about two-and-a-half or three feet high, and they were standing on the floor in my studio for a couple of years before I really took a close look at it. In 2008, I started to do more research on the piece, and we’ve been developing the project since around then.
UMS: What are the challenges in leading such a large scale ensemble?
KK: To me, no matter how large the music is, the ideal that we strive for is chamber music. That goal becomes a challenge (though it’s already a challenge for us with any large orchestra) when you add chorus to this kind of music, this many players, soloists, and principal singers increases the intensity of the work. But, I have a lot of experience doing choral orchestra works because it’s a repertoire I’ve always loved. I’ve done some recordings with chorus alone that are on Naxos, and I’ve been the music director of choirs earlier in my career.
Also, in this piece, unfortunately, Milhaud wrote almost no instructions for the chorus and soloists. There’s hardly ever an articulation mark and they are missing dynamics 90% of the time. So everything has to be done from scratch, beginning with what the words mean, what the scene is about, and what the orchestra’s playing.
Additionally, choirs don’t sing in French every day. There aren’t that many pieces in French in the concert oratorio repertoire. They are usually in Latin, or English, or German. That’s an interesting challenge for the singers as well.
UMS: What goals do you hope to achieve by performing and recording this historic and rare work?
KK: Well my highest priority is that the audience and future listeners to the recording fully get that they really have the drama, the story, the contemporary quality that it is us as well, we’re continuing. In terms of the themes of the piece, there’s a lot of bloodshed in this story. It needs to be not just violence that’s talked about but that we understand the causes of it and so we can apply the lessons to our own lives. And also, I hope that Milhaud’s genius is appreciated and that this piece becomes a part of the repertoire.
But, I want to add that what I’ve found fascinating is that we’re still dealing with the themes of this piece today. We’re still dealing, for example, with the relationship with the governed and the governors, with jealousy and revenge and the relationship of men and women, with lessons about excess. Those and many other issues are the same concerns that we wrestle with now, so I think audiences will connect deeply to the piece for this reason.
UMS: What’s your role in this collaboration between UMS and the School of Music in the performance and recording of Darius Milhaud’s Oresteia of Aeschylus?
Joseph Gramley: My role is as co-director of the percussion ensemble from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. This piece is unique in that it utilizes 17 percussionists within the orchestra. This is extremely rare and is actually the most percussionists I’ve ever seen in my experience performing with an orchestra or in an opera. I once played on stage at the Metropolitan opera for Tan Dun’s First Emperor, and we got up to 16 percussionists. So, I now have a new personal best! As co-director of the percussion ensemble, I am charged with coaching and preparing — with my colleague Jonathan Ovalle — those movements of the opera which utilize the larger percussion forces.
UMS: What’s special about the role of percussion in this piece?
JG: It’s interesting because this year in my percussion literature seminar class at the University we are actually also focusing on Milhaud. Milhaud is responsible for having written the very first percussion Concerto — it’s from 1929. He also composed a very interesting and important chamber work entitled La Creation du Monde. Like the operas upcoming, the Concerto and La Creation du Monde both utilize standard Western orchestral percussion instruments and elements of jazz drumset. His orchestration is very interesting insofar as he augments the uses of what would have been considered exotic instruments at that time but are now considered standard.
UMS: What’s been challenging as the rehearsal process has gotten going?
JG: To be honest the sheer logistics of this project have been daunting. The University has been very supportive of the percussion ensemble over the last 50 years, and Michigan has one of the most well-known and important percussion ensembles in the history of the idiom. Besides being a performing entity, this group is also a course at the University — therefore we have a regular class time where all seventeen of us can work together and prepare.
UMS: What are your hopes for this performance?
JG: Of course we want great balance and great sounds within the ensemble — in addition to that, I hope that we communicate the content in a way that the UMS audience receives it with great interest.
UMS: Anything else you’d like to add?
JG: I would personally like to thank my colleague Jonathan Ovalle from the University of Michigan percussion program. I would also like to thank Emily Avers and Paul Feeny from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance ensembles office. They are instrumental in the success of this project. It is indeed a team effort!
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the UMS audience to experience an amazing work. The vocal writing is intense and unique — and the spoken soloist Sophie Delphis is not to be missed!