A Choreographer Who Doesn’t Tiptoe Around the Music

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Dance, Music.


The Mostly Mozart Festival, Tanglewood, the Ojai Music Festival—these would be familiar stops on a solo musician’s or conductor’s itinerary. But they are also settings where is a welcome fixture, thanks to his depth and range of musical knowledge, and abiding commitment to the important, irreplaceable role of music within choreography. His company, the Dance Group—which returns to the Mostly Mozart Festival next week—participates regularly in these august music events, and Morris has increasingly taken on an expanding role within their programming.
The Mostly Mozart performances of his 1989 masterwork Dido and Aeneas will feature the illustrious mezzo-soprano (and Metropolitan Opera regular) Stephanie Blythe singing the role of Dido. The musical forces will also include baritone Joshua Jeremiah, sopranos Yulia van Doren and Clarissa Lyons, the Trinity Choir and an expanded MMDG Music Ensemble. Wielding the baton will be Morris himself, who has been conducting his troupe’s Dido performances regularly since 2008, everywhere from California to Moscow. But this will be his first time conducting the work in New York, and his first time appearing as a conductor at Mostly Mozart.
The music world’s embrace of Morris is logical, given his exceptional insight into the scores he selects and his sophisticated familiarity with an incredibly broad spectrum of music.
“It’s because I live in the world of music. Very few choreographers have ever done that, and nearly none do it now. So I’m an anomaly,” he said recently by phone from his Brooklyn headquarters. “Most dance doesn’t participate with music in any serious way. And please quote me because I mean it. I always do a very close reading of the music I work with. You find out more when you’re choreographing it than probably any other way. So I know those things about the score that I learned from analysis in order to choreograph them.”
Morris’ move into conducting began with the Vivaldi score for Gloria; he took charge of the music for that work during the company’s 25th anniversary season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Since then, he has taken on a “heavy-duty conducting schedule,” leading not only Dido but other scores for his dances. “A few months ago, I conducted a full program: Gloria, the Bach motet Jesu, meine Freude and Haydn’s second horn concerto [the score for his 1991 A Lake]. The Bach was pretty daunting, but it all went very well.”
The Mark Morris-Mostly Mozart connection now spans 10 years, with annual troupe appearances including the commissioned premiere of Mozart Dances in 2006. He’s on the faculty of Tanglewood Music Center, where his company performs regularly; last month he spent an additional week working with vocal students.
“I staged scenes from six different operas with about a dozen young vocalists,” he said. “I worked with them on comportment, diction, rhythm and breathing—everything that you have to do in order to sing and get a scene across at the same time. That was wonderful.”
Ojai has named Morris its music director of the 2013 festival, which takes place in June. He is the first dancer/choreographer to hold the position, and will present a focus on American music, particularly Lou Harrison. He’ll be featuring many illustrious musicians who collaborate regularly with his company, which always offers live music of the highest caliber. In naming Morris to the 2013 position, Ojai’s artistic director Thomas W. Morris (not related) cited “his comprehensive knowledge of and passionate belief in music. He frankly knows more music than almost anyone I know. That strong belief forms a central basis for his choreography.”
Mark Morris and Stephanie Blythe first worked together when she took over the role of Orfeo in his Metropolitan Opera production of Orfeo ed Euridice, but he already knew and admired her.
“I loved Stephanie’s work, and I insisted that she be Orfeo in the second run of my production,” he said. “The first time I heard her perform was in the Met’s Julius Caesar, and she was unbelievably great. That’s when I fell in love with her. … I went to Seattle specifically because she was in three of the four Ring operas.
“And we’re friends—which is even better. She had never sung Dido before.”
Blythe first sang the role with MMDG in Berkeley last fall.
The dual role of Dido, ill-fated Queen of Carthage, and the Sorceress—which Morris created so indelibly—is now performed by Amber Star Merkens. When the work was revived in 2006, Morris split the roles, with Merkens performing Dido and Bradon McDonald as the Sorceress. So this will be Merkens’ first New York appearance in the complete role.
Morris’ stark yet vividly dramatic work is now an acknowledged classic and a mainstay of the company’s repertory. While no longer holding center stage as its dual heroines, he is marshaling its musical forces and can recognize its power: “I marvel at how beautifully built it is.”

Dido and Aeneas
Mark Morris Dance Group. Aug. 22 to 25, Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street. www.MostlyMozart.org; times vary, $35 & up.

Mark Morris Dance Group..

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