The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: How well has Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society fared over 20 years?

June 8, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend marks the opening of the two-week season (June 10-26) of 12 concerts that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society will hold in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Co-founders pianist Jeffrey Sykes and flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) recently answered questions for The Well-Tempered Ear.  Over the next three days, that interview will be posted.

For more information about the BDDS season – programs, times and places, reservations – visit:

What kind of shape financially, artistically and audience-wise is BDDS in after 20 years?


JEFFREY: I’m very proud to say that over our 20 seasons, we have ALWAYS ended in the black financially.  (I feel confident we will do the same this season—but of course we won’t really know until the season is over!) That’s no small achievement.  Co-founder and flutist Stephanie Jutt, executive director Samantha Crownover (below in a sari) and I have worked very hard with our board on both sides of the financial equation: securing financial support AND containing costs.

In terms of securing financial support, we’re doing great.  Our income from public funds is down significantly, but we’ve managed to find very generous private support that makes up the difference.

One of our greatest successes has been our “Fan the Flames” program in which donors sponsor specific artists, specific pieces, or specific programs.  Aside from helping with the finances, the sponsorship program creates a direct personal connection between the artists and our patrons.  It helps create the feeling of “society” that we are all about.  If any of your readers are interested in knowing more about Fan the Flames, please feel free to contact us.

On the cost containing side of the equation, we’ve been serious about this from the start.  Stephanie and I (below) determined that we couldn’t spend more than we had — but that we would never let this be an excuse for boring programming.

In fact, I’d say one of the greatest boons to our creativity has been the limited budget.  We are forced to think long and hard about everything we program.  How many people does this piece require?  Are there other pieces we can consider that would use the same people? We have money to hire three guest artists—what can we do that would be exciting and fun?  Wow, we’re going to have eight guest artists this second week.  Maybe we should plan for fewer guests in weeks one and three.  This concert here includes dancers; maybe we’ll make these other concerts a little more simple.

Again, our limited budget has made us think outside the box.  Luckily with chamber music, “small and shapely” is the name of the game!  We can put together a fantastic program with just three people if we need to—we’ve done it on many occasions.  It IS nice to be able to splurge once in a while, though!

Steph chimes in: Small and shapely indeed!!!  This is the perfect description of a successful chamber music festival – we are able to roll with the punches financially because our medium is so flexible.  There’s no end to the repertoire of any shape and size, so it’s clearly easier than orchestras and opera companies, who have so many fixed costs.  We have the luxury to shave a bit here, pad a bit there, and emerge with the right numbers.  I remember very clearly when Bill Kraus, one of our first board members, was presented with our budget.  Bill said, “You can make the budget any amount you want – the real question is, how are you going to GET it”?  We’ve never forgotten that sage advice and try to always GET IT before we SPEND IT.  That’s the secret to our success in a nutshell.


Jeffrey: I think we’re in the best shape we’ve been artistically.  We have a core of “regular” guest artists who are just fantastic, and we’re always finding new and exciting artists to mix things up and keep us on our toes.

We’ve developed a strong relationship with the Pro Musicis Foundation in New York, and every year we get a Pro Musicis artist to be part of our series.  In terms of our programming, I think we get better and better. Our audience is very loyal and trusting after 20 seasons, and they are willing to go out on a limb with us.  That means we can make very adventurous programming choices.  That said, when we make adventurous choices, we also like to include choices that are more familiar.

We’re also very committed to creating an environment that encourages the audience to have an authentic emotional experience with the music.  One thing we have learned over 20 years: If we set up a piece of music correctly and give audience members the tools they need to connect with a piece of music, they can go just about anywhere with us.

It’s all in the set-up.  One of our latest catchphrases is “engagement before information.”  If we stand up in front of an audience and blab on and on about Bach’s use of double counterpoint and the intricate sonata form of this Beethoven trio, we’ve set up the audience to listen intellectually.  But it’s the EMOTIONAL and SPIRITUAL power of music that makes people want to listen.  We need to help people connect to that emotional and spiritual world, and then their engagement will lead them to want to know more.

All of the “crazy” things we do—and we’ve had some crazy ones in 20 seasons—are designed to foster that kind of engagement.  Over the years, we’ve gotten more and more sophisticated in how we think about this.

Stephanie chimes in: The language of music is something that appeals to the deepest and most human aspects of civilization. People today are desperate for some kind of “real” experience – some kind of antidote for the wear-and-tear of life.  Seeing and hearing great chamber music up-close, the way we present it at BDDS, in an atmosphere of fun and informality, makes it immensely attractive to our audience.  They know we listen to them, and they love to listen to us.


Jeffrey: Our audience is AWESOME.  Over the years, we’ve gotten to know many members of our audience—when we look out from the stage there are a LOT of familiar faces out there. (There are also always new faces — that’s equally important!)

This personal connection is not only smart marketing, it’s really fun for us.  When we get up on stage to play, we feel like we’re playing for friends and family.  We’re playing for people we know and care about—and that changes the atmosphere of a concert completely.  Audience members coming for the first time feel like they’re joining a welcoming party.

Over 20 seasons we’ve built up a great deal of trust with our audience (below, a packed house last summer in the Overture Center’s Playhouse), and they are willing to go with us into uncharted territory.  They trust that if we program a challenging piece, it’s because there’s hope of a significant emotional or spiritual payoff—and they know we will give them tools to get that payoff.

I’ll also say that our audience isn’t shy about letting us know what they think.  Things that work, things that don’t—we love hearing from them.  Their input makes our programming better, and they often give us great ideas for the future.

Stephanie chimes in: “Give ‘em what they want” is an old adage that we only partially adhere to – lots of times we have to figure that an audience doesn’t KNOW what it wants, and we have to share with them what WE think is exciting, provocative and distinctive.  I mean, that’s what they’re paying us for!  At the same time, the treasured masterpieces of the repertoire are always close at hand, and we always pepper the new with the old.  It’s what I would call “kind of adventurous programming” – in short, there’s something for everyone, so the audience is more willing to go far afield with us and really be challenged.

Tomorrow: Why make Bach the center of the BDDS programs this summer?

Posted in Classical music

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