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Originally published Friday, May 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Genesis Suite" will soar once more

"'The Genesis Suite' was not successful at its premiere," says Seattle Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Gerard Schwarz. "It probably sounded odd...

Special to The Seattle Times

Classical music preview

"The Genesis Suite"

7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. May 31, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$95 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

Listen to a clip of "Genesis Suite"

"'The Genesis Suite' was not successful at its premiere," says Seattle Symphony Orchestra Musical Director Gerard Schwarz. "It probably sounded odd."

It probably did. "The Genesis Suite," a seven-part musical interpretation of the first 11 chapters of the Bible's Book of Genesis, was performed only once for an audience: at its world premiere on Nov. 18, 1945, at the Wilshire-Ebell Theater in Los Angeles.

The suite was created by seven different composers, including the long-feuding Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schönberg. It demands that audiences accept the coexistence of what sounds like an atmospheric score for a 1940s Hollywood epic alongside more experimental sounds from the leading progressive composers of their day.

Schwarz thinks that might have been a problem for many classical-music lovers 63 years ago, but not now.

"I think it will work better today," Schwarz says. "The old criticism of 'Genesis' is that the styles within it are so different. But now people are more used to that kind of thing."

Schwarz will test that theory Thursday and May 31, when "The Genesis Suite" will be heard, as part of the symphony's "Coming to America" festival, at Benaroya Hall. For only the second time in history, the combined "Genesis" compositions of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Toch, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Alexandre Tansman and Nathaniel Shilkret will be played publicly.

Given its collaborative nature, this historic Seattle production of "Genesis" appropriately involves a very interesting mix of contemporary artists.

Besides Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, the University of Washington Chorale will participate. A pair of Oscar-winning actors, F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus") and Patty Duke ("The Miracle Worker") will be on hand to narrate excerpts from the Book of Genesis.

Then there's Dale Chihuly.

"The new element in this production is visual," says Schwarz.

"It's a fascinating addition because the work is a synthesis of so-called highbrow music and music done in a Hollywood visual way. Dale will unify it all, visually, as if with one voice. Yet his contribution is so varied that in many ways it underscores the varieties of music written by the different composers."

"I worked with Gerry [Schwarz] last year on 'Bluebeard's Castle,' " says Chihuly, referring to the glass set he provided for the Seattle Symphony's 2007 version of the rarely staged Bartok opera. "For 'Genesis,' I've taken a number of my drawings and paintings, and worked with a videographer, who shot them in different ways. They'll be projected onto a stainless steel scrim on stage."

Quite a leap from the origins of "The Genesis Suite."

In the 1940s, Shilkret and Castelnuovo-Tedesco — both film composers — began to explore together the idea of writing music based on the Bible. The pair decided to focus on the Book of Genesis, and invited others to contribute music. As word spread, the other five composers, all immigrants, signed on.

In the early '60s, a fire in Shilkret's home destroyed the only known scores for five of the seven movements. "Genesis" appeared lost. But an intrepid musicologist, James Westby, discovered "short" copies of the scores (i.e., with basic notations, no orchestration) at the U.S. Copyright Office.

With the support of the Milken Archive and its interest in American Jewish music (all the composers, except Stravinsky, were Jews), the missing pieces were augmented by Hollywood orchestrator Pat Russ ("The Happening").

Schwarz then conducted the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in a new recording of "Genesis" in 2000, leading to the promising experiment next week at Benaroya Hall.

"It's a risk," says Schwarz. "But it's also an important moment for us."

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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