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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mark Morris's Choral Fantasies

Photo: Mark Morris, by Amber Star Merkens
Choreographer Mark Morris loves music. He talks about it constantly. He’s won awards for its advocacy. And he has a web radio show devoted to things he wants you to hear. He’s even quipped that “the Mark Morris Dance Group is a music organization.” Why so? Because “every dance ever,” Morris insists, “is because of the music.”

But specifically live music.“Why do I use live music?,” Morris asks, putting economic questions aside. “I would turn that question around and ask why would you use recorded music. Why am I the freak? Live music is music. The fact that recorded music has become so acceptable is unacceptable to me. If you have to use recorded music, then don't do the piece.”

Even if the piece demands a 60-person orchestra, a virtuosic piano soloist, and full chorus.

Beethoven’s tour-de-force Fantasy in C minor, Op.80—to which Morris’ dancers will perform the world premiere of A Choral Fantasy Thursday night—requires no less. The logistical nightmare of fitting all of those musicians in the pit would alone make the work an unlikely musical choice for a choreographer. But there’s also the issue of its enormous personality, which has historical precedent for, well, stealing the show.

The work premiered in 1808, on a benefit concert Beethoven held to raise money for himself when he had none. That he was somewhat desperate to maximize his return is evident in the colossal, four-hour program that resulted. On the docket was nothing less than his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (both premieres!), the magisterial Fourth Piano Concerto (a Vienna premiere), portions of the Mass in C, the scena and aria from Ah! Perfido, Op.65, and a smattering of improvisations by Beethoven on the piano. How powerful a presence did he consider his C minor Fantasy? It was the encore, written especially for the concert—the Atlas holding up another Atlas, who’d already held up the world.

Speaking of ambition, it has been argued that the Fantasy was something of a study for an even bigger work: the Ninth Symphony, that other of Beethoven’s gargantuan masterpieces culminating in a triumphant choral hymn to universal brotherhood. You can hear the relationship in the two themes, one in some ways the inversion of the other:

Excerpt, Fantasy in C minor, Op.80

Excerpt, Symphony No.9, Op.125, Fourth Movement

In any event, getting to see such a gifted choreographer work with such musical forces is a rare opportunity. We've woefully neglected to talk about dance proper, but suffice it to say that if “every dance is because of the music” as Morris says, then the ostensible reason we need dance in the first place is because it reveals something in that music (and, clearly, in itself) that the music couldn’t reveal alone. That Morris’ musical choices are ambitious speaks to just how much his dances have to say.  

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