PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
January 31, 2006

The Symphony's Big Bang

by Jim Newsom

The history of classical music is filled with instances where the premiere of a new, adventurous work that will later become a standard of the repertoire caused a scandal at its premiere. Such was the situation when Darius Milhaud’s ballet, La Creation du Monde (The Creation of the World), opened in Paris in October, 1923. Appearing a year before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, it was one of the first serious pieces of music to borrow from the newly emerging African-American concoction called jazz. The Eurocentric Parisian upper crust wasn’t ready for it.

Darius Milhaud was one of the most prolific of 20th century composers. Drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources, he produced an impressive body of work that employed and advanced many of the musical tricks that marked his era’s classical music, in particular the use of polytonality and the utilization of folk and jazz themes as source material. Creation is his best known composition, and it is the centerpiece of Thursday’s “Symphony Night Live” at the Granby Theater. The Virginia Symphony will play it, Todd Rosenlieb’s troupe will dance his vision of it, and there’ll be plenty of wine, hors d’oeuvres from Sirena Cucina Italiana, and a toast to Mozart’s 250th birthday by the Virginia Opera. The Symphony also has a few other treats up its sleeve, including a fully orchestrated version of “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.”

Milhaud wrote his Creation after hearing jazz for the first time in London in 1920 and visiting Harlem two years later. The music enthralled him, and he returned to Paris burning with the desire to write a lengthy, jazz-inspired piece. The opportunity came when Les Ballets Suedois asked him for a score. Using the same instrumentation he’d heard in the clubs of Harlem, he drew his subject matter from African myths regarding the earth’s beginnings. The set designer based his scenery and costumes on African art, and the dance moved from darkness to the emergence of the African gods of creation and ultimately to the beginnings of human life.

I first heard La Creation du Monde in the summer of 1974 when I was music director of my college radio station. Going through the shelves to weed out extra copies of albums, I discovered a duplicate of a Nonesuch recording with Kurt Weill’s Suite from the Threepenny Opera (including “Mack the Knife”) on one side, and Creation on the other. I knew that jazz pianist Dave Brubeck had studied with Milhaud, had been greatly influenced by him, and had in fact named his oldest son Darius, but that’s all I knew. Still, it was enough to pique my interest.

When I played the record, it was love at first listen. I immediately connected with the jazz timbres, the sensual blue notes of the orchestration, the syncopated rhythms, the melodic subtlety, the cacophonous crescendos, the gentle resolution. I didn’t know what the story was supposed to be, but frankly it didn’t matter. The music itself was sufficient.

There used to be a television show that featured European circuses and parts of this ballet reminded me of the music I had heard there. As it progresses, the jazz influences unfold, swaddling the composition in alternating dissonance and dark-hued warmth, richly incandescent bluesiness and the placid beauty of an unspoiled pre-civilization landscape. About ten and a half minutes in, a lone clarinet sails atop a rhythmically repetitive orchestral underpinning that sounds like a funky improvisation. The music evokes the emergence of the world out of nothingness, even without visual aids or a libretto.

Having never seen La Creation du Monde presented as the ballet it was written to be, I am expectant and excited, eager to see how Todd Rosenlieb interprets this masterful work. Sure, the wine and food will be nice, but this is one night where the biggest bang will come from the music and dance that are its focal point.

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