Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tapping and Clapping — Mozart Dances

One of the special sounds musicians who play for dancers know is the fast tapping of feet on the stage. It’s a remarkable sound, a quick, purposeful thumping that represents great potential energy. At first this “addition” to the score is surprising, but gradually you begin to look forward to it. One of my favorites occurrences is in the third movement of Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" right before the coda. Like a sudden downpour of rain, ballerina toe shoes tap out a message to the musicians: "you are not alone." (We do get lonely down there . . . ) Last season I played the work in concert, and I missed the thumping, terribly.

Tonight was opening night for Mark Morris' "Mozart Dances" and like the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, the music is utterly engaging. Emanuel Ax plays with such poetic lyricism. I was thinking about it tonight on the M104 coming home. What are the qualities that make his playing so remarkable? Wordsworth came to mind. It requires great skill to express something important in simple and eloquent words. This is the genius of Mozart and Manny engages the music on those terms: simple, eloquent, poetic, and profound, with poise and without fuss.

"I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind."

from "lines Written in Early Spring" by Wordsworth

It is easy—either overeagerly or nonchalantly—to mishandle a Mozart phrase. Manny never does. He lets the music exhale and inhale and step out to the audience at its own pace. For me, the highlight of the evening is the slow movement of Mozart’s 11th Piano Concerto, K. 413. (Mozart published a version for fortepiano and string quintet, which I would love Pedja Muzijevic to play at Helicon in 2008-2009.) Manny’s version is so full of honest sentiment and rhetorical refinement, that one easily imagines there are words to this little scena.

Every few years, I end up playing in the pit for a Mark Morris dance. I know a dancer in the company, John Higginbotham, we were at Juilliard together. (I think I was his R.A. in the dorm.) At the dress rehearsal yesterday, I stood on my chair during the bows to see if he was there. Sure enough, John was stage left, tall, handsome, with his easy smile. My bald head rising above the lip of the stage caught his eye. It was great to catch up at the reception tonight. John choreographed a rock opera currently playing at The International New York Fringe Festival. It’s called “Champ: A Space Odyssey.”

He couldn’t say enough nice things about the orchestra. “In fact, tonight on stage, I lost my concentration a couple of times, because the sounds from the pit were so beautiful.” In the pit we worry that an error might cause a dancer to miss a step or worse, trip. We usually don’t think that beauty might be a distraction.

It makes me think of a passage from Horace: “It is not enough that poetry be noble: it should impart delight, and transport the listener as it likes. As people’s faces respond with laughter to those who laugh, so do they cry in response to those who cry. If you want me to cry, you must first cry yourself.” When performing we must keep some distance between the material and our response it. You can’t dance (or play the oboe) if you’re really laughing or really crying. That’s left for the audience. We hope they do both . . .

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