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 2 of 2

June 10, 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 BDS has been presenting chamber music in an unusual format.

It looks and sounds like a lot of fun, the way they do it. They make it a sound easy.

But the stats tell the real story.

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

Over three weekends this month, the BCDDS 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, the tickets and ticket prices, and everything you 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.

Have you developed a loyal following? Reliable donors and funders? How secure is BDDS as it heads toward its 20th anniversary next summer?

We are incredibly fortunate.  Over the years, we have developed an amazingly loyal following—people who are willing to support us financially AND buy tickets for our concerts.  We’ve had great institutional support, too.  Just to single out one organization, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission has been right with us from the very beginning.  Lynne Eich, the past director of the DCCAC, was fabulously helpful to us in getting started—she taught me how to write a grant!—and the new director, Karen Crossley, has been great too.  We have a board of directors that is second to none—all fabulous people who are willing to get down and dirty for the sake of BDDS.

To be honest, I never imagined we would make it this far.  But here we are, 19 years and going stronger than ever!

Will there be stage sets or installations and surprise guests this year? Things that are different from or the same as previous years?

Yes — Carolyn Kallenborn will be doing a fabric installation in the Playhouse at Overture.  Last year’s was fabulous, and I know this one will be too!  Also, we will have mystery guests and door prizes.

People often ask us why we do these things—isn’t it enough to just play music? In our very early years, we had a poster that said “Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: what Bach would be doing if he were more fun and less dead.”  Later on we had a poster that said “With a little less Yo-Yo Ma and a little more Yo’ Ma Ma.”

That pretty much sums it up.  Too many classical music events are dull, staid affairs.  As an audience member, you’re expected to sit quietly, avoid clapping at the wrong time, and be moved by music that’s presented to you without any clear point of entry.  How can that be an enjoyable experience?

At BDDS, we want to share not just great music but also the love and understanding we have for that great music, the excitement and enthusiasm that it generates in us.  We see it as our job not just to play the right notes at the right time, but to do everything we can to help people have a meaningful aesthetic experience at our concerts.

Sometimes we use humor, sometimes we’re serious; sometimes we have mystery guests and door prizes, sometimes speakers.  When we talk about the music (which we do a lot), we try to focus NOT on the biographical information (“Bach was born is 1685 in a small town…”) but rather on why we think this music is worth listening to today.  What do we as performers get out of this music, and what is it that we hope you as an audience can experience with this music?

Stephanie says: Audiences today need compelling, irresistible reasons to get up out of their comfort zone (“Get up offa that thing!”), purchase tickets, and go out to listen to live music.  Whether it’s classical chamber music or Lady Gaga, our audience has many, many choices.

BDDS strives to make the choice as easy as a summer peach pie.  We aim to give our audience an intimate experience with the music we love the most, one that they could never buy on CD, see on TV, or watch on YouTube.

BDDS involves the audience in a once-in-a-lifetime experience,  and create a welcome addition to their “expressive life”, to use the words of arts commentator Bill Ivey.  We like to “mix it up” in concerts simply because it’s fun to do, and because we can!  It’s our festival!  Thank heavens, at BDDS it’s possible for us to do whatever we like, and what we like is to have fun, keep the atmosphere light, and keep the music hard-core!

I see you will be performing some solo piano music (a Chopin nocturne). This seems like a smart idea to draw audiences. Why did you decide to do it? Is that likely to happen in the future?

Actually, that Chopin Nocturne was an arrangement for flute and piano!  And we changed it to Samuel Barber’s “Canzone.”  One of our board members reminded us that this year is ALSO the Barber Centennial, so we wanted to make at least a small nod in that direction.

How do you compare making music and hearing in different venues like the Overture Playhouse, the opera houses in Stoughton and Mineral Point, and the Taliesin Hillside Theater?

We’re very fortunate to have great venues all around.  Each space has its own fantastic qualities.  The Overture Playhouse is our only fully professional venue (i.e. with stage lighting, a professional stage set up, tech crew, etc.), so there are many things that are only possible in that space.  Art installations, for example.  They couldn’t be lighted or hung in other venues.  Dramatic lighting effects are only possible in the Playhouse.

The sound of the hall is a little drier than ideal, BUT because the audience sits in the round, everyone is very close, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.  And playing in a fully equipped space makes things easier for us—we don’t have to think about anything, we can almost just show up and play!

Taliesin is the most intimate venue—the audience is REALLY close there, and that’s a lot of fun.  Plus, the space itself is so beautiful.  Both of the opera houses have fantastic acoustics—just as good as you could wish for.

Are there new performers the public should know about, or familiar names of returning performers?

Week One, we have KILLER string players: Frank Almond (bel0w)

, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, playing the “Lipinsky” Stradivarius violin that was long lost and basically rediscovered in an attic.  (I’m sure we’ll tell the audience the story in one of the concerts!) It’s likely the violin for which Schumann wrote the Sonata in D minor we’re featuring.  And Joe Johnson, principal cellist of the Milw. Symph. and principal cellist designate for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (let me tell you, that’s a big big big deal).  He’s amazing.  Also Ara Gregorian on viola—I think he has the most beautiful sound of any violist I’ve ever heard.

Week Two, we have something about which I’m very excited: The San Francisco Piano Trio featuring Axel Strauss on violin, Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello, and yours truly on piano.  For me, this trio is a very exciting new career development, and I’m proud to be able to have my friends and colleagues in Madison.

Week Three, two fantastic artists from the Pro Musicis Foundation:  Carmit Zori, a killer violinist. and Yura Lee, a killer violist.  Also Heidi Krutzen from Vancouver— she is an incredible harp player.  And Madison’s own cellist Parry Karp (below) and violinist Suzanne Beia.

And of course,  throughout it all, Stephanie and me.

What am I not asking about that you would like to answer? Feel free to interview yourself or discuss things I am not touching on (can always figure out a “question” to set up your “answer.”)

OK, how about this?  Why do we think our concerts are can’t-miss events?

A BDDS event is much more than just a concert.  If it were just a plain, regular concert, there wouldn’t be any reason to come—you could just stay home and listen to CDs.  But the atmosphere we create, the excitement of seeing and hearing these virtuosos perform this music UP CLOSE and personal, the way we help audiences get into the music, the personalities of the artists and the way they get shared with the audience, the art installations, the fun surprises, and not least the experience of sitting in the middle of a completely engaged audience—it all adds up to MUCH more than just a concert.

Ask anyone who has been to our events before: you have to experience it yourself to understand how special it all is.  To use the lingo of the day, it’s a “value-added” experience!

Stephanie says: I believe that all people long for deep meaning and exalted moments in their lives. Through BDDS, I believe that we are in true partnership with our audience to create meaning, and explore the human experience in all of its lofty heights and abysmal depths.

Over the years, we have received many, many great ideas from our audience, tried and true listeners who have become good friends, volunteers and board members, and all of them, part of an amazing adventurous group of music lovers.

It’s not just a concert; it’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite.

What can you tell us about the two programs of this opening weekend?

“The End of the Affair:” Affairs, by their nature, are temporary obsessions, some ending with an affectionately amicable parting and others with serious drama.  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the most famous son of Johann Sebastian Bach, had a lifelong relationship with the flute, and, in the September of his life, a very rewarding fling with the new girl in town, the pianoforte.   The Quartet in D Major for flute, viola and piano—yes, a quartet for three instruments, a complicated affair that we’ll happily explain if you really want to know—is his convivial final dalliance with the piano.

Mendelssohn’s affair with the piano quartet—that extremely versatile combination of violin, viola, cello, and piano—ended at age 16 with the dark and turbulent Piano Quartet in B minor, widely held to be his first masterpiece.

Schumann, an obsessive man if ever there was one, had a series of affairs throughout his life: with songs in 1842, with symphonies in 1843, and with chamber music in 1844.  In 1851 he turned the focus of his desire to the violin and composed two violin sonatas, the last of which is the dramatic Violin Sonata in D minor.

As an exception to the rule of an affair’s temporary nature, Andrew Imbrie put the finishing touches on his coy Serenade for flute, viola, and piano just as his involvement with a young woman named Barbara took a decisive turn toward permanence.  Nice wedding gift, huh?

“Dangerous Liaisons”: The world of chamber music has traditionally been dominated by the German masters—think Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms—and many music festivals are content to leave things right there.  But we find a je ne sais quoi in French music that keeps us coming back for more. We admit that our liaison with French music has become dangerously obsessive: we can’t get enough of it.   Each festival season, we’ve pointedly featured great French and French-inspired chamber music, and this year is no exception.

Telemann fell under the dangerously seductive spell of the French at a time when declaring one’s sympathies with any particular national style carried potentially dangerous political consequences.  The great “Paris” Quartet in D Major for flute, violin, viola, cello, and keyboard was the result.  (Yes, a quartet for five instruments…)

Ravel (below), criticized throughout his life for his indebtedness to Debussy, dedicated his Sonata for violin and cello to the memory of the older master.  Ravel consciously showcases the compositional liaisons between the two artists, as if he were dangerously taunting his critics.

Chopin, Polish by birth and French by choice, composed almost nothing but music for the piano, probably the greatest ever written for the instrument.  He had an on-again, off-again liaison with only one other instrument: the dangerously sensuous cello.  The Introduction and Polonaise brillante for cello and piano is the first fruit of that relationship.

The great Franco-Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps had a solid marriage to the violin, but his relationship with the viola produced several exceptionally beautiful children, including the  Elegy for viola and piano.

And can any music weave a spell more dangerously bewitching that that of Gabriel Fauré (below)? When you hear how the Piano Quartet in C minor carries you in its wake, you’ll understand why we find French music so seductive.

Posted in Classical music

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