Mark Morris’s acclaimed trilogy Mozart Dances returns to Mostly Mozart from August 24 to 27, a decade after it was first performed at the festival. Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director Louis Langrée, conductor of the premiere and 2016 performances, spoke with the choreographer by phone about revisiting the masterpiece, Morris’s rare musicality, and potential future collaborations.
Louis Langrée: What’s it like to be revisiting Mozart Dances?
Mark Morris: We’ve done it several times over the years, and I love these pieces very much. Some of the dancers have changed. I’ve done them with a lot of different pianists, a couple of different conductors. We very rarely do all three of the pieces on the same program, which was of course, how it was designed. We can tour the F major and the Double Sonata pieces because there’s a wonderful string quartet arrangement of K.413, so we do that with chamber music, and it’s worked stunningly. We can do those two pieces and a different finale if we don’t have a full orchestra to do the B flat.
LL: I remember very clearly the first time Manny [Ax] and I went to see you before Mozart Dances. We were quite surprised by your tempi. If we were doing the pieces in a concert, we would absolutely take different tempi, but when we spoke about it months after the performances, we both said the same thing: We discovered so much beauty in your way of taking the time to sculpt every phase, being sensitive to every modulation and every part of the accompaniment. And that if we were to do it again in concert, we would do it at Mark’s tempo.
MM: That’s wonderful. With setting a dance to music, it’s something as boring and rigid as just the pulse within a bar. At a certain point, you can’t do beats—you have to do it by bar or by two-bar phrases, meaning you have to dance more slowly to quick music. You can’t dance as fast as the music, so it has to slow down very slightly in order for us to be as busy as the music is. I know I get a little excruciating tempo-wise, but it’s not to make it last longer.
LL: So far, my only experience with you as a conductor was with Mozart Dances. But when I saw your choreography for the Schumann Piano Quintet, I went so much deeper into the music. Your choreography makes us more sensitive to the music. It’s not that you take care of what we see, and I, as a conductor, take care of what we hear. You “get” the beauty, the specificity, the character, the shape, the structure of the music. It’s so rare.
MM: I wish it weren’t, but you know, I’d be out of a job. But the Schumann, which is a dance that I call V—that was when I met Manny Ax. I’d met him en passant with Yo-Yo Ma over the years, but he came to a show at Jacob’s Pillow and saw a performance of that piece. He doesn’t know about dancing, which, you know, I don’t either. Compared to music, dance is a very tiny thing. But he saw the Schumann and, for good or bad, he said, “I’ll never hear it the same way again.” I don’t want my choreography to be like the soundtrack to a movie. I don’t want it to be like, “This is the only possible way to understand this,” but I work pretty deep on stuff, and it shows. And of course, my dancers are fabulous musicians in their own right.
LL: You also make the audience into fabulous musicians. We rediscover or go deeper into a piece but also, through that experience, go deeper into our own sensibilities and sensitivity, and by surprise.
MM: And I don’t feel like I’m translating from one medium into another. As you know, because you work in opera, it’s hard for audiences to watch and listen at the same time. So when you’re just listening to chamber music, you might come up with something visual in your mind, but it’s never going to be the exact dance that I would make up or that somebody else would make up. It’s not a dance that’s hidden in the music that just needs to be revealed. I want a dance to be understood without translating it into words.
LL: You’re a conductor as well as a choreographer. When do you like to be conducting in the pit and when do you not?
MM: I like conducting when I’m confident that I will do a really good job, and that’s why I have such a tiny repertory. It’s fun, and I get a good enough response that I’m not running away from it. But believe me, your job is in no danger.
LL: I would love to see you conducting.
MM: Oh, you haven’t?
LL: No! And people have told me that it’s amazing.
MM: The good part is that I finish at the same time as the orchestra, which I think is very important.
LL: [Laughs] Any favorite Mostly Mozart Festival memories?
MM: I’m not good at memory lane. I’m lucky enough to go to whatever I want when my schedule allows it. And I’m sad when I miss things. But you know, the stuff that happens in the Kaplan, the Little Night Music stuff, is always fabulous. And [Lincoln Center Ehrenkranz Artistic Director] Jane Moss is obviously a genius. I always want to emphasize that.
LL: What’s it like to choreograph to Mozart’s music?
MM: Balanchine only choreographed a few pieces to Mozart. He’s the one who really did music that hadn’t been written to be danced to specifically. And of course, Balanchine is the god of the entire pantheon and everyone worships him every second—I do, and he’s dead. He basically said that you couldn’t choreograph to Mozart, and I disagree with that. So some people, no matter how a dance turns out with Mozart’s music, can’t accept the fact that anybody would dare touch it because it’s so sacred. I think that is a little bit—uh, what’s the word?—pomposo. To me, it’s, “Let’s try it, sounds great.” I really hear the concertos—not just the piano concertos—operatically. Although it’s not specific text, the emotional storyline is gripping and thrilling just like Così fan tutte is, or any of Mozart’s genius operas. Every opera, except maybe Mitridate. I’m not so sure about that.
LL: No, me neither. [Laughs]
MM: He was a wonderful child, but he wasn’t a genius yet.
LL: He was a genius with Idomeneo.
MM: Yeah, that’s for sure.
LL: You have the seeds, and then suddenly the explosion of genius. Wouldn’t you like to choreograph the Requiem or the C-minor Mass?
MM: Oh my God. Well, they’re gigantic of course, and I love them—the mass in particular. Of course I would, but that’s complicated. Is that a request? Are you asking me on a date for that? Nothing is out of the question entirely, certainly. That would be wonderful.
LL: Well, if you choreograph it and you’re desperate and find no conductor, you have my telephone number now.
MM: Well of course, and I’ll see you soon. And that will be fabulous.
LL: Yes. I can’t wait!