The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How should you present chamber music today? Follow the example of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Madison.

June 28, 2011
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A REMINDER: This Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the Summer Choir will present Saint-Saens’ Requiem and other choral work in a free performance. For more information, visit this link: and

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society just turned 20 and just wrapped up three weekends (12 mostly sold-out performances of six programs) of summer concerts to mark its passing from adolescence into early adulthood.

I heard five of the six Bach-themed programs, and have these observations as a summing up.

Mind you, BDDS was always good, even at its beginning. Then they got very good. Now BDDS is nothing short of superb. They deserve the standing ovations and loud admiration they get.

BDDS has flowered into a beautiful maturity. I will long remember its performances of piano trios by Ravel and Brahms, of Barber and J.S. Bach, among other performances.

That got me to thinking about what I and others like so much about their concerts, especially in these challenging times for classical music of TV, the movies and the Internet. After all, I now look forward to concerts by BDDS with an enthusiasm and anticipation that I share for only a few other chamber groups, such as the University of Wisconsin’s Pro Arte String Quartet.

So, here are some things I like about BDDS:

I like the small venues they pick. They choose relatively intimate places – the Playhouse in Overture Center, the Hillside Theatre at Taliesin and the Stoughton Opera House – where chamber music sounds most at home and where audience members can sit close to the music and the music-makers, if they so choose.

I like the eclectic programs they come up with. I don’t think any other group in town knows how to balance diverse composers and contrasting styles from different eras (J.S. Bach and Olivier Messiaen, for example) better than BDDS.

I like that they are risky and take chances. This year they did Bach sonatas and a Brandenburg concerto using a piano. Try finding recordings of those. But they sounded great – even if the piano lid stick should have been lower to damper the piano sound which occasionally overwhelmed the others.

I like the surprises, the odd-ball repertoire they find and perform. This season it was a two-piano version of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and a fugue, arranged largely by BDDS co-founder and pianist Jeffrey Sykes, of a tango by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. Both sizzled and seduced.

I like the way they use technology. This includes a really cool, hi-tech Jumbotron-type screen with a real-time view in the Overture Center’s Playhouse of the keyboard as two pianists (below, Randall Hogkinson in the striped blue shirt and Jeffrey Sykes in the solid blue shirt) played Samuel Barber’s souvenirs.

I like the quality of the players they get. BDDS draws and cultivates the best local talent, including pianist Christopher Taylor, cellist Parry Karp, violinist Suzanne Beia and co-founder flutist Stephanie Jutt. But they also import impressive talent. This season that included standouts such as, among others too numerous to name them all, bass-baritone Timothy Jones from the University of Houston; violinists Carmit Zori from the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society and Erin Keefe of the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society; ; violist Daniel Panner from the Juilliard School; pianist Randall Hodgkinson from the New England Conservatory of Music; and violinist Axel Strauss (below, playing J.S. Bach’s Chaconne) and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I like the BDDS strikes the right balance between art and entertainment. (I’m guessing it is maybe 90 or 95 percent art and the rest entertainment. It is just the right amount of yeast to leaven the bread. Over the years, they have perfected the light touch, the right touch. This year’s highlighted mystery guests, for example, were retired UW Opera director Karlos Moser dressed as J.S. Bach and audio engineer Buzz Kemper (below bottom) as a bluesman singing a sexy and suggestive “I’ll Be Your Bee” blues song. The puns, photo exhibits and door prizes are there, but no longer overdone.

I like that BDDS makes no assumptions and educates you. The performers usually make short but perceptive and helpful introductions to the music. They also program composers who are often treated as similar but who are really quite different. This summer it was Ravel and Debussy – both often lumped together as French Impressionist composers but each very different from the other. One could say the same about programming Bach and Handel, Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms and Schumann.

I like the sense of celebration BDDS exudes. All the players and support staff seem to be having fun, even though it is hard work. They meet the public over birthday cake (Irv’s cakes were the best, by the way) and they are chatty and agreeable, informative and grateful. There’s nothing stodgy about BDDS. I think they should serve cake next year too – to mark their 21st birthday and coming of legal age. Art is meant to be both instructive and enjoyable. It is meant to give pleasure. And that is what BDDS does.

But the then, the secret to BDDS’ success is not gimmicks. It is the hard work of making art and bringing to a public that is too often overwhelmed by entertainment, not serious art. BDDS is the model of a bridge – and it works very well.

Did you attend any of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society concerts?

What did you think?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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