This richly rewarding concert featured the world premiere of Martha Uncaged, a five-part suite by James Stephenson based on the life of Martha Graham. Composer Stephenson attended the Music Academy as a trumpet player, and his longtime musical associate and Academy faculty member Paul Merkelo performed as the trumpet soloist. In the opening movement, Graham begins life as a “Caged Lion.” Then, in a breathtaking tarantella called “Denishawn-Breakaway,” Stephenson imagines what it must have been like for Graham to discover her vocation at the Denishawn school of dance in Los Angeles. The message about the impact the right school can have on a great artist was not lost on the Music Academy’s attentive audience. Later movements called on other instruments in the large (14-piece) ensemble to a greater degree, yielding a sonic impression of the mature choreographer amid her dancers.
The Stephenson premiere was preceded by La creation du monde of Darius Milhaud, a ballet scored for chamber orchestra that Milhaud wrote in response to his direct encounters with jazz in Harlem, circa 1922. The focus on reeds and the overall integrity of the concept made this performance one of the highlights of the summer so far. Listening to La creation in 2017, it’s clear that Milhaud heard what was happening in jazz, and that jazz, in the compositions of such later composers as Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck, heard what was happening in Milhaud.
The second half was devoted to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Given that Martha Graham commissioned Copland’s work, pairing it with Stephenson’s Martha Uncaged was mandatory, but if you remember that in the work’s title “Spring” means a primal source rather than a season of the year, its connection to La creation du monde becomes apparent as well. With Jeremy Denk at the piano, the 17 musicians sent the audience home singing that familiar, “simple” Shaker hymn. It’s America’s “Ode to Joy,” and it never goes out of style.