Bright Angelic Mills

A Darius Milhaud celebration highlights Mills College's 150th birthday party.

Mills College has stood at the forefront of contemporary music for more than sixty years. Such world-renowned composers as Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley, Darius Milhaud, Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith, Maggie Payne, Chris Brown, and Alvin Curran have all served on the faculty. Lou Harrison and John Cage worked in the Mills Dance Department before they gained worldwide recognition for their cutting-edge music.

Sunday at 3 p.m., as part of Mills’ sesquicentennial celebration, the music department (510-430-2334) presents a free concert in honor of Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), who served on the Mills music faculty from 1941-1971. The program features the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the superb Abel-Steinberg Duo, conducted by Jean-Louis LeRoux. After the concert, a party and reception will honor the first English translation of Claude Rostand’s book of Darius Milhaud interviews.

According to LeRoux — who became Milhaud’s assistant in the early 1960s, succeeded Milhaud as conductor of the Mills Touring Ensemble, and later cofounded what is now the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players — “Milhaud was a central figure in contemporary music since the 1920s. He was also greatly respected as a teacher, because he had a very open mind.” While Milhaud remained a traditionalist in his own writing, he was open to the musical experimentation of the ’60s, once conducting a work in which an upright piano was burned onstage, with music made as the strings exploded.

LeRoux’s program will show different aspects of Milhaud’s writing. Two works, the witty “Aspen Serenade,” and “Segoviana,” a short work written for the great guitarist, date from 1967, when Milhaud was 75; both represent his late complex, polytonal, contrapuntal style. At the other end of the spectrum lies the composition Milhaud considered his best early work, the Sonata Op. 3.

“I think of the music as a very exuberant and youthful farewell to being a student,” says pianist Julie Steinberg, who with violinist David Abel serves on the Mills adjunct faculty. “Instead, you hear the lingua franca of late French romanticism, especially the influence of Fauré, with the Milhaud that we know emerging between the lines.”

Adds Abel, “He hadn’t yet found the voice that we recognize as Milhaud.”

Milhaud’s most famous composition, “La Création du Monde,” forms the centerpiece of the concert. Written in 1923 after the composer visited the United States and first heard the black jazz of Harlem, it features the style we most associate with Milhaud: jazzy, polytonal, and polyrhythmic, with sudden harmonic shifts, multiple events happening simultaneously, and, according to Abel, harmonies that do not seem to belong together.

Mills celebrates its music legacy in many ways. The college’s Milhaud Chair in Music supports Joelle Leandre, a Paris-based bassist improviser and composer who worked with Cage and Scelsi. Their Dewing Piano Series, which features a virtuoso pianist performing solo classical and romantic compositions, will present the famed Angela Hewitt in recital next February. And Mills just presented a concert by its current Jean Macduff Vaux Composer-in-Residence, Cecil Taylor, the renowned piano improviser whose sound world bridges new music and jazz.

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