Ask Seattle musician and professor Quinton Morris what he’s working on at the moment, and his answer spans thousands of miles and several centuries.
Ask virtuoso violinist Quinton Morris what he’s working on at the moment, and his answer spans thousands of miles and several centuries.
In Seattle, where he lives, Morris will appear Feb. 24 at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), where he will perform and participate in a panel discussion about the Kehinde Wiley exhibit at Seattle Art Museum.
Then there’s his globe-trotting, immersive project “Breakthrough,” about the 18th-century composer-violinist (and onetime roommate of Mozart) Joseph Bologne, also known as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Morris’ “Breakthrough” itinerary, which does not yet include Seattle, will take him to China, Tanzania, Thailand and Australia, among other places.
‘Complex Exchange’: A panel discussion about Kehinde Wiley at Northwest African American Museum
7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Northwest African American Museum, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle; free, RSVP requested (206-518-6000 or naamnw.org).
A documentary film of that tour is being shot, while a separate “Breakthrough” film — part of the concert experience — is making its way into the U.S. film-festival circuit.
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Then there’s Morris’ day job at Seattle University, where he serves as director of chamber and instrumental music, is an associate professor of violin and chamber music, and has an associate appointment in the Global African Studies program.
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NAAM, in a program-partnership with Seattle Art Museum, is presenting “Complex Exchange,” a conversation among Morris, STEM educator Zithri Saleem and writer-artist Barbara Earl Thomas about SAM’s exhibition of Wiley paintings, which present people of color (wearing contemporary attire) in the context of upper-class European portraiture.
The discussion will also cover works from the Kelly Collection of African American Art, now on view at NAAM.
Morris, fittingly, will play (with accompanist Alastair Edmonstone) William Grant Still’s 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, which was inspired by paintings from the Harlem Renaissance. Still, who wrote 150 compositions, was the first African American to conduct a major symphony orchestra (the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and write an opera (“Troubled Island”) performed by a major company (the New York City Opera).
“He was one of the most prolific of 20th-century composers,” says Morris, “and the dean of African-American composers.”
Morris, 38, is especially in demand right now for his “Breakthrough” concert-and-film presentations. He plays several compositions by Saint-Georges and talks about him to audiences.
But the novel element is a short movie, also called “Breakthrough,” in which Morris himself plays Saint-Georges, the Guadeloupe-born son of a wealthy, white planter and an African slave.
Set in modern dress — no powdered wigs — “Breakthrough” dramatizes artistic and personal touchstones in Saint-Georges’ life.
Boasting impressive cinematography and outstanding sound, “Breakthrough” includes fact-based scenes of Saint-Georges playing duets with Marie Antoinette (Molly Tomhaven), and notes his career achievements, athleticism, anti-slavery activism and penchant for sleeping with married women.
Despite Saint-Georges’ enormous success as music director of the orchestra Concert des Amateurs — praised at the time as the finest in Europe — racial discrimination blocked his appointment to direct the Paris Opera.
“He wasn’t just the first black composer to write symphonic music and operas and sonatas in France in the 18th century,” Morris says. “He’s much more, someone we can relate to.”
“Breakthrough” was shot in some dazzling locations, including the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre. The latter recently hosted a well-received screening of the film, accompanied by Morris’ concert.
Morris moved from Chicago to Renton in 1992 and began playing in the Seattle Youth Symphony. He went on to study pre-law but switched to music, earning his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin.
In 2007, Morris was asked to take the reins of Seattle University’s nascent music school. He designed the bachelor of music degree and curriculum, and recruited music faculty and students.
“My mom told me to stick to the violin because it would take me far,” he says. “She was right. I encourage my students to do the same.”