The New Jersey Capital Philharmonic closes its season on Saturday, May 9, with the concert “Espana.”
While the event’s theme evokes the spirit of Spain — with an actual Spanish dance component — it also celebrates Trenton with the inclusion of “The Capital of the World” ballet suite by Trenton-born American composer George Antheil.
Born in 1900, the son of a shoe salesman, Antheil’s talent and brashness took him to 1920-era Paris, where he electrified audiences with his avant-garde and machine celebrating music and was front and center in the modernist arts movement.
In Paris he and novelist James Joyce worked on an opera that used Joyce’s groundbreaking book “Ulysses” for the libretto (only a portion was completed). He was accompanied in concerts by the drum playing of influential expatriate American poet and critic Ezra Pound, who also wrote a book about Antheil and his music. He roomed over former Princeton resident Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, a magnet for artists and where Antheil met and became friends with Ernest Hemingway. And he rubbed elbows with Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein.
Yet one of his most important collaborations was with visual artist Fernand Leger. Together they planned a cinematic and tonal evocation of modernism that became a film and score called “Ballet Mecanique.”
Antheil’s most sensational work to date, “Ballet Mecanique” included player pianos, alarm clocks, and an airplane propeller and brought Antheil infamy and celebrity, reflected in the title of his autobiography “Bad Boy of Music.”
After a move to Germany, where he created a jazz opera (five years before Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess), his work for actual dancers began with a seemingly unlikely source: poet William Butler Yeats.
Notes New York-based dance writer Lynn Garafola in her Ballet Review article “George Antheil and the Dance”: “A chance encounter with William Butler Yeats in the summer of 1928 led to (Antheil’s) first ballet opera, ‘Fighting the Waves,’ actually one of the poet’s ‘plays for dancers.’ Produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theater, it was choreographed by the future matriarch of British ballet, the Irish-born Ninette de Valois. Yeats, she recalled, ‘had always felt the call of movement in relation to his writings, and he felt the same draw towards music. For him it was the call of the rhythm of the body, and the musicality of words, the search for a fusion in a unified expression of his dance dramas, symbolic in the oneness of the mystery that surrounded his great vision.’”
Like others in Europe during the rise of Nazism, Antheil returned to the United States in the 1930s and created works that mixed styles and theories for concert halls, film, and theater. Dance became an important part of his output, and he created ballets for major choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
“The Capital of the World” is a later Antheil piece, one that is modern yet less strident than “Ballet Mecanique.” Its origin connects Antheil back to Paris and Hemingway.
In the mid 1940s, after tiring of film work, writing a book about the war and a syndicated lonely-hearts newspaper column, and co-creating with actress Hedy Lamarr a remote control torpedo, Antheil wanted to return to writing for the theater and contacted Sergei Denham, the manager of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where Balanchine was being appointed resident choreographer.
Though there was willingness on both sides to create a work, nothing happened for several years. Then in 1950 Denham approached Antheil about a ballet that would take years to develop and become the composer’s last dance piece, “The Capital of the World.”
As Garafola writes, “The idea (for the ballet) was born over a lunch in honor of Ernest Hemingway at a palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal. Somehow the discussion turned to ballet and Hemingway’s short story ‘The Capital of the World,’ which has as its climax a macabre scene in which two Spanish boys, waiters in a pension for second-rate matadors, play bullfight with a chair that has two razor-sharp meat knives strapped to its legs. All agreed it would make an exciting ballet and should be done at the Met.”
Hemingway asked a friend to work on the scenario. Antheil in turn communicated with Hemingway and produced the score within a year. Then it languished until it was sent to noted dance choreographer Eugene Loring at Ballet Theater (later to become American Ballet Theater).
“Once Loring had agreed to choreograph the ballet, everything fell into place: the Omnibus (television) premiere in early December, the gala (Metropolitan Opera House) premiere just after Christmas. In what was very possibly a ballet first, the Ford Foundation’s TV Workshop was underwriting the production,” writes Garafola.
Music critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Herald that “The Capital of the World” painted the composer “as a master [of] the choreographic musical theater. Rarely have I heard music for dancing with so much real energy in it. It is no mere accompaniment for dancing: it generates physical activity on the stage, moves the dancers around. It is colorful, too, bright and dark and full of the contrasts that are Spain. Its tunes are broad and strong; its harmonic structure is clashingly dissonant; its orchestration is picturesque, emphatic, powerfully underlined, a master’s score. Antheil’s score is the most original, striking, and powerful American ballet score with which I am acquainted.”
NJCPO conductor Daniel Spalding — who recorded a performance of Antheil’s famous “Ballet Mecanique” for Naxos Records — is doing more than just performing the work as a concert. He is also bringing the dance element to the stage by contracting East Coast flamenco dancer Liliana Ruiz to accompany Antheil’s work.
Flamenco music and dance is rooted in ancient Mediterranean cultures, and artists say it emerged from Andalusian gypsies and has elements of Indian dance, Jewish chants, and African rhythms.
Ruiz’s background reflects an appropriate mix of solid tradition and openness to various influences. Now based in Philadelphia, she was born in Mexico City and began her dance studies at age 6, training in ballet, Spanish dance, and flamenco. She performed at the Auditorio Nacional and other venues in Mexico City. In 2000 she moved to the East Coast and performed with the New York Express and in concerts with various orchestras, including the Philadelphia Pops.
She seems the right additional instrument to be featured in the program that includes Emmanuel Chabrier’s “ Espana Rhapsody,” Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso” (Morning Song of the Jester), “Manuel de Falla’s “Suite from the Three-Cornered Hat,” and, of course, the work by a native son — and world artist — “The Capital of the World Suite.”
New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, “Espana,” War Memorial Building, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Saturday, May 9, 8 p.m. $25 to $65. 609-218-5011 or www.capitalphilharmonic.org.