The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society finishes off with another winner | June 30, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

(First, a reminder: Tonight at 7 p.m. the first of six free Concerts on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell will open. The all-classics program features teenage pianist Joseph Hauer from Appleton in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Should you miss the live performance, Wisconsin Pubic Television will broadcast it (WPT will do the same for the next two concerts) on Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m. For more information, see this blog’s postings from last Thursday and Friday and this Monday and Tuesday. And send in your comments and mini-reviews to The Ear.)

So now it has ended — three for three.

No, I’m not talking about the World Cup soccer championship that you unfortunately can’t seem to get away from, even on serious news reports.

I’m referring to this summer’s chamber music concerts by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

The BDDS is ambitious: It did six different novel-related themes (see the poster below) in 12 concerts at four different venues over the past three weekends in June.

I couldn’t make it to all or even most of them. But I did get to hear three different programs in three different performances at two venues.

And I can say I’m three for three because each time, the BDDS concert proved a winner – offering a superbly planned and well executed event that should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about the artistic merits and audience pleasures offered by the BDDS. BDDS is, in a word, first-rate.

The concert I heard last Saturday night at the Overture Center’s Playhouse was called “East of Eden.” (All photos except the poster are by me.)

The premise was that “Eden” was the traditional harmonic and melodic language of Western classical music seemed a stretch, as even BDDS staff admitted, and didn’t really relate to John Steinbeck’s famous novel-turned-movie.

Yet I was just reading a new biography of famed conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (I will review it soon here) and he too referred to the 500 years of Western music from the 16th century through the mid-20th century as a sort of Eden, an artistic Eden that has now been lost. (Giulini was definitely not a fan of contemporary classical music.)

So maybe the Eden metaphor wasn’t such a stretch after all.

Whatever the tie-in’s success, the music certainly worked. It was a great wrapping up of a season, one of the best in years, that will remain unforgettable for me.

The guest artists all proved terrific. Besides the BDDS co-directors flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes, there were cellist Parry Karp and violinist Suzanne Beia, both from the UW Pro Arte Quartet. All are familiar and acclaimed.

But there were others. And where does BDDS find such talent? The imported artists included Heidi Krutzen, an absolutely first-rate harpist from Canada, plus violinist Carmit Zori and violist Yura Lee, both based in New York and both stand-outs for their rich tone and animated, exacting and precise playing.

Still, the focus was on the repertoire, which I would rank in three tiers.

At the top was the concluding piece, Robert Schumann fabulous and famous Piano Quintet (below), used both to close both the series and to mark the composer’s 200th birthday. It was given a precise, balanced and edgy performance with both great lyricism and great dynamism. I particularly liked the clarity of Sykes’ piano part, which didn’t get drowned in pedal or drown out the others in volume. You simply won’t hear a better performance.

In the second tier was the opening piece, a charming and tuneful Canzonetta for flute and piano by Samuel Barber, whose centennial is this year. This arrangement of the slow movement from Barber’s well-known Piano Concerto worked beautifully as a miniature.

Also in the second tier was French composer Albert Roussel’s early 20th-century Serenade for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello (below top), which proved especially alluring and beautiful in its slow movement and which showed Poulenc-like charm in its fast movements; and contemporary Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s “Theseus,” for harp and string quartet (below bottom), which seemed uneven to me at times, but at its best it was compelling music based on a Greek myth.

On the lowest tier was contemporary New Zealand composer Garreth Farr’s “Taheke” (Maori for waterfall) for flute and harp (below). It was a thoroughly pleasant piece, though hardly deep, with the flute carrying the melody and the harp picking out arpeggiated figurations, all to recreate a sense of watery impressionism. Good summer fare.

Also included was a reading from John Steinbeck’s novel “East of Eden” by two members of Forward Theater, Sarah Marty and Jim Buske (below). They chose passages about human creativity as a species marker and about the need of the individual to create for the group to interpret the group, which does not create.


The concert also recognized volunteer Anne Stoelting (below right)with the Big Bang Award and recognized executive director Samantha Crownover (below, in the lovely sari). Clearly, it takes a village to entertain a city.

So I got to hear classic works and new music, all played by top-flight instrumentalists. In addition I got to hear some spoken words  – and that is a great combination I hope BDDS will incorporate every year, through either prose or poetry. (How about using published poems or commissioning some local poets and writers to write occasion-specific or works about music to be read aloud at next summer’s concerts?) Words and music are such a natural pairing, and seem to go together as much as books and CDs do.

Anyway, at the end the audience applauded wildly and gave a standing ovation while the performers took several well deserved bows were taken — for the concert, for the whole series and, I suspect, for the whole philosophy behind the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society ‘s to make great chamber music, old and new, accessible and enjoyable. BDDS’ trademark informal approach to serious art couldn’t have worked better.

So, bravo to all for many weeks of instructive pleasure.

Did you go to any BDDS concerts?

What did you think of this season compared to others?

Do you have a message to leave the BDDS folks?

How do you think they should celebrate their 20th anniversary next summer?

The Ear wants to hear.


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