The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Singers steal the outstanding opening show from instrumentalists of Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society

June 13, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based Bach and Dancing Society opened its 20th anniversary season this past Friday night with a Very Big Bang at the beautifully restored Stoughton Opera House (below).

Much of it was exactly what you’d expect: Some unusual repertoire and a lot of outstanding playing.

But this time the singers stole the show, so to speak, from the instrumentalists who usually dominate BDDS programs.

Not that the instrumentalists, both local and imported, weren’t impressive and up to the usual BDDS standard of excellence in various works by J.S. Bach, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Haydn.

But it would be hard not to name bass-baritone Timothy Jones as the show-stopper. He performed contemporary songs – all written specifically for him by American composer Derek Bermel (below) – and after each one the audience broke out in applause.

Jones (below) is a full-bodied singer who literally throws himself energetically into each song, bringing out the humor and the zest of the lyrics. He sure can communicate. But his is also a voice to be reckoned with, a strong, beautiful  and rich voice with outstanding diction. One hopes that he returns – the sooner, the better. I, for one, would love to hear him in Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Faure as well as the contemporary repertoire to which he does such justice.

The other singer, tenor Gregory Schmidt (below), who has performed with the Madison Opera and at the Met and who studied at the UW, sang “On Wenlock Edge,” six songs by Vaughan Williams set to poems by A.E. Houseman.

He has a stiffer, more formal singer in stage presence and presentation, as the songs, all pretty much laments, demand. But his strong voice and outstanding diction also held its own against the pianist and string quartet that the songs are scored for. He too deserves an encore appearance.

A four-movement Bach sonata, drawn from The Undisputed Master’s late work, “The Musical Offering,” opened the concert (below). It proved a wonderful example of how modern instruments (cello, flute and violin) can sound well-balanced and transparent in Baroque music. Sometimes the complex fugues in that particular work sound to me like Bach (below) solving quadratic equations with notes. But not this time. There was life way beyond mathematics in this music and this particular performance of it. 

The concert ended on another unexpected high note: One of those “house music” transcriptions of a major work – Haydn’s Symphony No. 101, “The Clock,” arranged by the impresario Solomon who took Haydn (below) to London twice for triumphant tours.

Recently, the Madison area has been hearing quite a few of these transcriptions at the Token Creek Music Festival, especially Mozart and Beethoven piano concerts reduced and re-scored for chamber ensembles, thanks to Harvard professor and pianist Robert Levin (below), who will perform another one (K. 537, “The Coronation Concerto” of Mozart) this summer.

It is an interesting example of a rarely heard arrangement or transcriptions that we should hear more often. Reducing an orchestra of up to a hundred to just six players (below) – a string quartet with flutist Stephanie Jutt and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra harpsichordist Layton James – helped the listener grasp the work’s transparency as well as its Haydnesque verve and wit. Such arrangements make big works accessible and affordable to perform. They are discoveries just waiting to be heard. Bring’em on, I say. There must be many, many more of them out there to revive.

At the end came the free birthday cake (below top), served in the lobby of the opera house.  As you wait before or during the concert, you can look at the colorful walls (below bottom) with fleur de lys stenciling, the rich curtain fabrics and the beautiful woodwork (which can be hard to sit on and creaky) and box seats as well as a balcony.

All is all, this opening concert was a feast for both eyes and ears, well worth the half-hour drive from Madison.

Over 20 years, the BDDS has refined its formula — including funny door prizes (below top, BDD co-founders flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes give away a miniature bust of Bach), gobs of puns and amusing mystery guests (this time the mystery guest, below bottom, danced sultrily to Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots”) – to the point where it works flawlessly, like a smooth and well-oiled machine.

Little wonder that BDDS now fills a niche, and such an enjoyable one, that literally no other chamber ensemble in Madison – or perhaps the Midwest — can match it at what it does in the way it does it.

BDDS works hard for its success, but like most virtuosos it makes the hard look easy, even effortless. At a time when many classical music presenters and ensembles are worried, BDDS shows that, done a certain way, classical music can be easy to connect with.

Happy Birthday, BDDS – and The Ear offers a toast to 20 more years, as well as to the almost a dozen remaining concerts that will be performed by June 26. They are really shaping us as not-to-be-missed events.

For more information about programs, venues and tickets, visit:

Posted in Classical music

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