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Review: Mark Morris’s New Pastoral Says Less Than Its Music

Category: Entertainment,Music

One small gesture, a gentle turn of the wrist so that the palm of the hand — held at waist height — turns upward, answers an iambic figure in the music. It looks marvelously natural and human; and then it returns, returns, returns. And so Mr. Morris’s musicality, not for the first time in his long career, becomes an awkward form of musical analysis. Really, that little flourish of the wrist is a more specifically acting gesture than Schubert’s little iamb; and all those repetitions, by way of pinning recognizably human behavior to musical structure, have the effect of making the music feel far more expressively limited than it actually is.

Schubert’s quintet takes its name from its fourth movement, a set of variations on the melody he had created for his largely blissful song “The Trout” (“Die Forelle”); Mr. Morris makes one variation considerably stormier (in human rather than climatic terms) than its music. Even here, however, he seems to have much less to say than Schubert.

The evening’s program began with “Love Song Waltzes” (1989, Brahms) and “I Don’t Want to Love” (1996, Monteverdi). Again, the musical performances were first-rate. Jennifer Zetlan, Luthien Brackett, Thomas Cooley and Thomas Meglioranza sing the Brahms waltzes handsomely; and the eight musicians for the Monteverdi, led by the always admirable Colin Fowler (here at the harpsichord), were impressive. The soprano Jolle Greenleaf, with remarkable lack of vibrato, conveyed the emotion in the deeply poignant “Lamento della ninfa” (“A Nymph’s Lament”).

Both these works depict loves, heartbreaks and societies. For many, “I Don’t Want to Love” is one of Mr. Morris’s masterpieces, so I’m sorry that I find it much more emphatically artful than its music. But I watch both, as I do “The Trout,” with rapture when it comes to the Morris dancers; they make “Love Song Waltzes,” an enthralling work, look better than ever. It’s uncanny how little Morris style has changed over the decades, and how subtly, disarmingly, truthful it remains. The tension between the moving simplicity of these dancers and their choreography’s emphatically clever sophistication is among the most fascinating performer-creator relationships in the performing arts today.

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