Mark Morris's Four Best Uses of Baroque Music

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Although Mostly Mozart wraps up its latest festival this week, it still has a number of tricks up its sleeve, chief among them the return of Mark Morris’s Dido and Aeneas (here starring mezzo Stephanie Blythe and baritone Joshua Jeremiah).

The production, conceived in 1989 for the Théâtre Varia in Brussels and originally featuring Morris himself dancing the roles of Dido and the Sorceress, is a highlight among the choreographer’s works. And it shows him in his element, working with both singers and Baroque music. As a fan of earlier periods of music (his Mozart Dances were seen at the festival some years back), Morris once remarked that Baroque composers are a dream to work with because of their “dance rhythms and dance tempi… The basic thing is still human rhythms.”

Couple those human rhythms with very human emotions expressed by human voices and you have a pretty fruitful career. And, as we learned last fall, the Morris-Baroque matchup continues in the Spring of 2014 when he premieres a new production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

With that in mind, below we take a look at our top four Morris works with Baroque vocal music, from semi-opera to madrigals. Read on for our picks and tell us what your favorite Mark Morris performances are in the comments below.

King Arthur (Purcell; 2006)
Dido and Aeneas
isn’t the only Purcell opera to receive the Mark Morris treatment: The choreographer fashioned a take on the composer’s so-called “semi-opera” for English National Opera in 2006 (it was seen at New York City Opera in 2008). It’s not everybody’s cup of Earl Grey, but I think it’s a charming interpretation that places Purcell’s then-contemporary references in a more current context without taking away from the heart of the music. For all the legends being retold here, Morris is still able to locate their humanistic counterpoints.

I Don’t Want to Love (Monteverdi; 1996)
Monteverdi’s straightforward madrigals are a far cry from the vocal ornamentation found in later Baroque composers like Handel or Vivaldi, but in a way that works even better with Morris’s understated choreography for a collection of pieces that includes the eponymous “Non voglio amare,” “Soave libertate,” and “Eccomi pronta ai baci.” Isaac Mizrahi’s diaphanous white costumes add to the emotional nakedness of the work.

Jesu, Meine Freude (Bach, 1993)
Morris is never one to shy away from tongue-in-cheek humor (see, King Arthur, above, which set the opera’s frost scene in a refrigerator freezer). However, the plaintive tone heard here in Bach’s music gives this work a more introspective, serious touch. What’s more, the composer—associated perhaps more than any other with the sacred and spiritual—makes an interesting foil for Morris, who as a choreographer is focused intently on the body. It’s a conflict that forms the central core of this work.

L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Handel; 1988)
It’s no surprise that one of Morris’s earliest landmark works contains a wellspring of touches that are still seen in his pieces today: a fluid fusing between vocal music and dance, a flair for navigating the baroque aesthetic, bold-yet-unpretentious costumes, and movements that come as much from the gut as they do from the head. And, almost 25 years later, the work shows very few signs of aging or wear and continues to be a favorite among first-timers and ardent devotees.