The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: How the hard work of making music ends up sounding easy and fun. An interview with the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society — Part 1 of 2.

June 9, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

It would hard to think to think of a harder working classical music group than the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

For 19 years now, the BDDS has been presenting chamber music in an unusual format.

It looks and sounds like a lot of fun, the way they do it. In fact, even though they are first-rate in the way they play the music,  they make it all sound easy.

But the stats tell the real story.

It’s a story of intensity and plain old hard work.

Over three three-day weekends this month (from this Friday, June 11, through Sunday, June 27), the BDDS will have a total of 13 performers giving 12 separate performances of six different programs – and that doesn’t even count time-consuming and energy-consuming rehearsals.

BDDS will present works by 25 different composers ranging from the Baroque to the Classical and Romantic to 20th century era, including contemporary composers. And they will perform in Madison, Mineral Point, Spring Green and Stoughton.

One could spend a lot of space and words just on the details. Instead, here is a link to the BDS home website where you can find information about the music, the performers, this history of BDDS, subscription and single ticket prices, and everything you else might want to know:

But The Ear wanted to go wider and deeper into other aspects. So BDDS co-directors (below) pianist Jeffrey Sykes (based in San Francisco) and flutist Stephanie Jutt (based in Madison) recently spoke via e-mail to The Ear about the entire series. Except where noted, Jeffrey is speaking.

The Q&A will be presented and posted in two parts over today and tomorrow with some of the program notes for individual events incorporated as concerts take place.

Besides wordplay, is there a correlation or tie between literature and the music you’ll perform in June, a link between the theme of  “Novel Obsessions” and individual works or program titles? Can you be specific?

Stephanie and I are both obsessive readers – and always have been.  We trade books back and forth — old things, new things, poetry, novels, non-fiction, you name it.  I can 100% count on her for a great book recommendation!  Many composers were also obsessive readers, and they (like us) drew great inspiration from what they read.  So, we thought we would celebrate all things literary with a season based on famous novels.

Turns out that Schumann and Chopin, the two composers we are focusing on this year (they were both born in 1810) were both extremely literary composers—so it fits really well.  They both knew famous writers first-hand, they both were involved with the literary avant-garde of their day, etc.  And Schumann himself was a great writer and critic — he even seriously considered a literary career at one point.

Many (most) of the novels we’ve chosen are “serious” works.  That said, sometimes we use the title in a humorous way. While the novel “The End of the Affair” is serious, we reinterpreted the title and looked at the “affairs” composers have with different genres.

Schumann, for example, was a very obsessive guy, and he would focus on writing exclusively one kind of music for a while, then discard that kind of music and move on to something new.  So, you could say that in 1840 he had an “affair” with songs—we wrote almost nothing but songs that year, nearly 150 of them, many of the greatest songs ever written.  In 1842 he wrote almost nothing but chamber music.  In 1851 his “affair” was with the violin sonata, and the final product of that affair is the Schumann work we feature.

So, often the novels are serious but our interpretation of the title has a little twist to it!  With “A Tale of Two Cities,” for example, we picked music from Paris and London that’s so exciting, your head might just pop off.  (Get it?)

Stephanie says: We are going to have some fun in a new way this summer by inviting actors to read short monologues from the featured books each week.  There are many, many connections between the experience of great literature and great music-making, beginning with the ability of literature to instantly transport you to another land, another time, and to all of the emotion that we attempt to control in our daily lives.

I love the feeling of simply suspending business as usual, and stepping into another life.  This is the quality that kept me reading up in a tree for hours on end as a child, and now, this same impulse inspires our musicians as we learn beautiful, challenging music.  I believe that Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society conveys this sense of joyfulness and discovery to our audience and they give that back to us.

Once again, you seem to be mixing old established repertoire with newer and even contemporary works, of classic established masterpieces and unknown works. Is there a formula or philosophy you generally use?

I wouldn’t say we use a formula, per se, but we certainly do have a philosophy: we’ll program any piece as long as it is compelling.  If audiences are going to entrust us with their precious time, we want to be sure we are presenting material that is worth that time.

There’s a lot of music (new and old) that’s out there that is frankly just bad.  Either it’s milquetoast, or it’s so complicated and convoluted that even performers who have worked on the music have a hard time with it.  Or, perhaps the most common thing of all, it’s perfectly respectable but just doesn’t say a whole lot.

Stephanie and I work very hard to find music that is challenging AND accessible, music that actually has something to say.  Whether it’s new or old is kind of a secondary concern.  And you can be assured that anything we program has passed the Steph and Jeff test!  That said, we are both very engaged in the new music scene, and we’re always on the lookout for interesting, compelling new works.

There are a number of other factors that go into our programming: achieving a balance of styles, utilizing the artistic personnel we have in any given week, costs…  Putting together a music festival is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, except (a) you don’t have a picture to go by and (b) the pieces keep changing their shape, size, and color.  You only know what you have when you’ve finally put everything together.

There seems to be a good amount of Schumann and Chopin. Is this is to mark the Chopin and Schumann years? How did you go about choosing the specific works?

Yes, this is because of the Schumann and Chopin anniversaries, and as I mentioned, they were both extremely literary composers.

Schumann was literally a writer, but much of Chopin’s music is influenced strongly by literary forms (most notably his Ballades).  He seemed to have a gift for a truly literary/dramatic sense of timing, tension, and intensity.  Chopin (below) didn’t write a lot of chamber music, but we’re featuring two of his great pieces, both for cello and piano:  the Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, op. 3 (on “Dangerous Liaisons”), and the Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 65 (“A Tale of Two Cities”).  The first is seductively engaging—this liaison of cello and piano is dangerous because it’s so beautiful, you never want it to end.  The second, the Cello Sonata, is one of the greatest cello sonatas ever written, an epic work that’s so exciting you can lose your head over it.

For the Schumann (below) works, we feature the Violin Sonata in D minor, his last, on “The End of the Affair,” as I mentioned above.  For “The Sound and the Fury” we feature the 1st Violin Sonata in A minor—a dark, turbulent work that ends in a blaze of fury.  For “Brave New World” we feature Schumann’s first piano trio—his first attempt (and brilliantly successful attempt at that) at a form made great by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.  It’s a work that opens up a brave new world of musical expression.

Then for “East of Eden” we feature Schumann’s best-known chamber work, the piano quintet.  It is the first great piano quintet, as close to perfect as a piece can be, and it was taken as an almost unreachable ideal (the “Eden” part of things) by all composers of quintets that followed.  Again, look at the little document from our program booklet at the end of this — it explains this connection more thoroughly.

In this bad economy and competitive arts environment, what is the state of BDDS after so many years? Financially? Artistically? What are your plans for the future?

Stephanie, Samantha, and I are very proud that in 19 years of existence, we’ve always ended in the black, never once in the red.

Times are tough, no question, and we have to count every dollar.  That said, as an organization you have a lot of choice in how you handle these tough times.  You can say, in effect, “I don’t care that times are tough—we’re going to do what we want to do regardless!” We all know organizations that have done precisely that, and look where it got them.  You can say, “Times are tough, so we’re just going to tread water and make completely safe choices until we have the money to be creative.”  That’s a quick way to bore and ultimately lose your audience.

Or you can say, as we have done, “Times are tough, but let’s take these financial limitations as a creative challenge. Let’s design a season that is small but power-packed, something that is anything BUT safe.  Let’s have a small number of artists (keeping costs down) but get absolutely everything we can out of them while we’re here.  Let’s find ways to be interesting and original and creative and fun that DON’T cost a fortune.”

In some ways, I welcome these down times—it forces us to look to the essentials of what we do.  It forces us to be creative, to think outside the box.  We’ve NEVER been exactly rolling in the dough—don’t get me wrong, we have incredible support from so many sources—but we’ve never been able to toss money around in a casual fashion.  So we had to develop the habit of creativity very early on!

Stephanie says: Sure, we’ve had to make some changes but being flexible has always been part of our identity – most artists I know face challenges every day of the week, every year, some monetary, some artistic.  The trick is to be able to “make do” and turn a challenging situation into something beautiful, something positive.  With the help of our fantastic board, we’ve been able to come up with all kinds of money saving ideas.

For example, this year for the first time, we are lucky to have cars donated for artists’ use during the festival thanks to the generosity of several listeners.   When you put a few ideas together, cook a few more meals at home, use the library, and keep the ensembles in moderate sizes (you won’t be seeing Appalachian Spring this year!), it all comes together.  We haven’t had to compromise one bit in the quality or the quantity of our concerts and our executive director Samantha runs a lean, mean financial machine!

Tomorrow: New and returning performers, future plans, different venues, notes for the  two opening programs

Posted in Classical music

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