The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society turns in a perfect chamber music concert. Many more await in June.

June 14, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

For many years – 19, to be precise — the annual chamber music concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society have been considered the highpoint of classical music’s summer season in Madison.

No longer.

The BDDS concerts must now be considered as a highlight on the entire concert season. Period. Winter or summer, it doesn’t matter. BDDS easily stands comparison with the best classical music-making you’ll find in the Madison area.

I write that just having heard the BDDS perform what comes as close to a perfect chamber music concert as I have ever heard.

Give it five stars out of five. Score it 10 out of 10. Use whatever measure you want, it was tops.

The program was “Dangerous Liaisons,” capturing this summer’s theme of literary tie-ins (“Novel Obsessions”) with wordplay and puns (as in affairs with an instrument, such Chopin’s love of the cello.) Other program titles include “End of the Affair” and “Sound and the Fury.” You get the idea and can read a Q&A about the summer season in last week’s postings on this blog.

The programs this year are some of the best ever done by BDDS, though one waits impatiently to see how the group will celebrate its 20th anniversary next summer. No doubt it will be with a very Big Bang.

In any case, here is what listeners at the Playhouse in the Overture Center heard and saw – through my eyes and ears – Saturday night.

The audience (below, all photos except of Faure by me) was big, nearly sold-out, and enthusiastic, offering the players ready reactions and a prolonged standing ovation.

The introduction to the music, provided by the welcoming co-directors pianist Jeffrey Sykes and flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) were kept factual and brief, though witty as ever. The concert benefitted greatly from a bit less shtick and a tad more seriousness.

You will still get door prizes and see surprise guests and see the terrifically visual fabric installation (below) by textile artist Carolyn Kallenborn. This work was, she explained, inspired by the idea of bed sheets and pearls (as from the seduction scenes in “Dangerous Liaisons”). It ingeniously used 160 plastic martini glasses and 16 yards of fabric with colored light projected onto it to create an extremely effective mood-setter.

The surprise guest was actor Gwen Rice (below), of Forward Theater in Madison. She gave a sensitive, confident and convincing recitation of a very fitting passage from the 18th century classic French epistolary novel (“Dangerous Liaisons”) about music and love. The music of the prose fit right in.

But of course, the heart of the concert was the music and the musicians. They were all  highly talented and deeply committed – and so the quality of the music-making was  consistently and impressively superb.

The program started with one of Telemann’s “Paris” Quartets (1730) for flute, violin, viola, cello and piano with a doubled-up bass continuo. What the Baroque score lost in authenticity to modern instruments, this performance more than made up for through musicianship.

The playing was by turns energetic and lyrical and pianist Eli Kalman was especially discreet in the way he used the piano rather than the harpsichord. The Ear actually prefers the piano to the harpsichord for clarity as long as it doesn’t overpower the others – and in Kalman’s hand, the piano balance was just right.

Then came violinist Frank Almond (the always impressive concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and winner of the Paganini Competition, who is a favorite performer of mine) and the outstanding cellist Joseph Johnson in Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Cello and Violin (below).

It’s a rarely heard work, but it provided that extra something I look for in a great concert: Making the acquaintance with a “new” — to me, at least — piece of music that I want to explore.

The Ravel string duo sonata is just such a piece, a fiercely difficult but fiercely musical work that deserves a wider hearing. I have heard it once before, I think, but it was this outstanding performance that got me searching my CD library and then for a recording to pursue it more in-depth.

The first half closed with Chopin’s early (Op. 3) “Introduction and Polonaise Brillante” for Cello and Piano. One again, cellist Johnson was superb in this rarely heard work. And pianist Jeffrey Sykes displayed the ideal Chopin touch and tone. His fleet fingers captured the lightness of the “bel canto:” singing style in Chopin, with its filigree runs and quickly turned ornaments, all making the hard sound effortless and graceful. And from the beginning, of his career, you could hear, Chopin was Chopin.

After intermission and the genial awarding of door prizes (that included dinners and cheese and wine and a copy, of course, “Dangerous Liaisons”), the full-body playing of violist Ara Gregorian turned Henri Vieuxtemps’ second-rate “Elegy” for Viola and Piano into an impressively musical piece with enough drama that the audience roared in approval. Reviving neglected works is something of a specialty of BDDS, and this was a fine example.

Rounding out the evening was a well-established masterpiece: Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1879). Even when he sounds easy, Faure, who was Ravel’s teacher, is hard, very hard, to play. Nothing is easy – not the notes, not the rhythm, not the parts, not the melodies.

Yet Almond, Gregorian, Johnson and Sykes turned in a performance that was by turns excitingly dramatic and songfully lyrical, all with impeccable balance and dynamics. In the audience, I felt at home in the ocean,  washed over with waves of beautiful French sound from a composer (below) I still think tops the list of unjustly neglected composers.

So add it all up and what do you have? A thoroughly engaging and informative evening of mixed media. A program that featured both tried-and-true classics and unknown repertoire. First-rate music-making by first-rate musicians. And an atmosphere of relaxed fun and entertainment as a frame for those who perform great art greatly.

If there is more you can ask from a concert, I don’t know what it is.

BDDS has four more themed programs in eight more concerts in Madison, Mineral Point, Stoughton and Spring Green over the next two weekends in June. If you are a fan of great chamber music performed beautifully, you should catch at least one or more of them.

Here is a link to the BDDS website with information about venues, dates, programs, performers and tickets:

And don’t forget: You too can be a critic.

Send your own reactions to a BDDS concert for inclusion as a comment or maybe even a guest post.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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