Donald York, a prodigious conductor and composer whose inventive scores as the longtime musical director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company matched Mr. Taylor’s eclectic choreography, died on June 3 in Temecula, Calif. He was 73.
The cause was a brain aneurysm, said John Tomlinson, executive director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Mr. Taylor, whose innovative, exuberant and often poetic work made him one of the world’s greatest choreographers, as Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times wrote in his obituary in 2018, worked collaboratively with a team of artists that included Alex Katz, whose unusual sets amplified Mr. Taylor’s sometimes impish sensibilities; Santo Loquasto, who also designed sets as well as costumes; William Ivey Long, the costume designer; and Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer.
Mr. York, a child prodigy who at age 8 performed in a jazz trio (the other members were adults), was a perfect match for Mr. Taylor’s diverse and expansive repertoire.
“Paul Taylor was an artist who just happened to be a choreographer,” said Mindy Aloff, the dance critic and author of “Dance in America: A Reader’s Anthology.” “His connection to high art and popular and vernacular art was very fluid, and that’s how Don fit in, with his classical and jazz background.
“He liked to put surprises, like Easter eggs, into his scores, so you might hear a touch of Ravel or another reminder of the classical canon, in a piece like ‘Last Look,’” a dark and melancholy work that was first performed in 1985.
Mr. York also understood dancers — that what was “going on in the pit,” as Mr. Tomlinson said, “was part of a communication with the dancers and the music. It was a conversation.”
“Don told me he was a rock ’n’ roll musician at heart working in a classical medium,” he added. “I could hear that in his own scores and in his conducting. He made Bach sound fresh and contemporary.”
Lila York, Mr. York’s first wife, and a longtime dancer for the company, introduced him to Mr. Taylor in 1974, the beginning of what was the ensemble’s most prolific period. The two men collaborated for more than a half century.
Mr. Taylor let Mr. York have his way musically. Ms. York described Mr. York’s writing as “‘musical in the same way that Paul Taylor’s dances were organic to the body.”
“You never felt you were fighting the score,” she said, “but rather realizing it by giving it a physical form.”
He wrote the score for “Diggity” with Ms. York in mind. The dance, first performed in 1978, is one of the company’s more lighthearted, upbeat works, with witty and absurdist sections for which Mr. York sampled all sorts of rhythms, from Latin mambos to a takeoff of Aaron Copland.
“I had a solo in that work that was challenging on many levels,” Ms. York said. “It was a joy to perform it. Don’s work had so much humanity. It was not abstract in any way. As a dancer there was so much to respond to.”
A Paul Taylor work was often dark, but it also might be a piece of comedic mayhem, which fit Mr. York’s sunny, jazzy impulses.
For the company’s premiere of its 1986 season, Mr. Taylor rolled out “Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala” (From Soup to Nuts), a sendup of his own greatest hits; the music was composed by P.D.Q. Bach, the fictional avatar of the satirical composer Peter Schickele, with Mr. York conducting.
In her review for The Times, Anna Kisselgoff described the score as containing “wheezing sounds, pop tunes and the occasional mean whack with a drumstick that bursts through the classical structures struggling to stay intact at the bottom of the pit.”
At one point Mr. York waved his baton and conducted an absolutely silent orchestra.
Donald Griffith York was born on June 19, 1947, in Watertown, N.Y. His mother, Magdalene (Murphy) York, was an organist and choir director; his father, Orel York, was a history teacher who later worked as an instructor for the F.B.I.
Donald grew up in Delmar, a suburb of Albany. He had perfect pitch, and was composing music on the piano by the time he was 7. As a teenager he attended a summer program at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. He earned a bachelor’s degree in composition from Juilliard in 1969.
After graduating, he played in a few contemporary bands, including a synthesizer group called The First Moog Quartet, and for the pop duo Hall and Oates before joining Paul Taylor in the mid-70s. He also conducted for the New York City Ballet and for Broadway musicals, including Bette Midler’s “Clams on the Half Shell Revue,” her mid-70s lampoon of Broadway show tunes. And he composed choral works and song poems.
Mr. York moved to Southern California in the early 1990s. He is survived by his companion, Debbie Prutsman, a performer and educator; his wife, Anne York, a graphic artist from whom he was separated; three stepchildren, Nick, Tasha and Andrew Bogdanski, and a brother, Richard. He and Ms. York divorced in 1985.
Mr. York was a nocturnal composer. It was his habit to go to bed at 7 p.m., wake up between 1 and 2 a.m., make a pot of coffee and get to work. He called those hours his “mad time,” said Ms. Prutsman, adding that he would typically finish by dawn.
Mr. York retired on November 17, 2019, taking his last bow at the final performance of the Paul Taylor Company’s season at Lincoln Center. His last concert composition, for the American Brass Quintet, will be performed this July at the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he had studied as a teenager. At his death, Mr. York was writing an operatic musical about a child prodigy called “Gifted.”
The post Donald York, Musical Director of Paul Taylor Company, Dies at 73 appeared first on New York Times.