The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: When you go to one concert by Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, you always end up wanting to hear more.

June 19, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

It never fails to happen.

Every summer, I hear my first concert by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and I am so impressed and enthralled that I want to hear many more than I originally planned on.

For over two decades, BDDS has been a summertime fixture on Madison’s ever-expanding classical music scene. So I don’t know why that happens. I think it  has something to do with memory and interference, with so many other things and other concerts that take place over the intervening fall, winter and spring before BDDS revs up again.

I am not alone. After the final standing ovation (below) was over  at Saturday night’s concert in The Playhouse of the Overture Center, I heard a lot of other people saying the same thing.

Gotta go to more.

The theme of this concert was “Corpse Reviver” —  a New Orleans mixed drink designed to help cure a hangover that fits it with this summer’s overall theme of Mixology to mark BDDS’ coming of legal age and turning 21.

It might sound too cute. But it works, as BDDS themes usually do. On posters and programs is a great graphic of the Old Lutheran himself as  Bartender Bach (below) that was created by the Distillery Design Studio.

And there was music that also fit the description of the cocktail, works that started dark and hung over, so to speak, and ended up light and revived. It had to do with finishing a minor key work by Mozart in a major key, or adding a famous hymn-like chorale with the theme of redemption to the finale of a work by Mendelssohn.

And much of the usual show business transpired.

True, the crowd unfortunately seemed a bit smaller than in past years, perhaps because the free Cello Choir concert was going on down on the UW-Madison campus.

This summer, BDDS has booked more concerts downtown at The Playhouse. That’s a smart move in the long run, The Ear thinks. It’s the right space for chamber music  — good size (300 or so), good acoustics (bright), good space (for sets and seats).

But one can hope more listeners come. They certainly should.

Most other things about BDDS, happily, have stayed the same — including the ability to deliver chamber music, both well-known and neglected, with energy, conviction and consummate skill.

Hosts pianist Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt , who are also the co-directors and co-founders of BDDS, were gracious and humorous, and put the audience at ease right away.

Beautifully ingenious but inexpensive installations (below) were created by UW-Madison artists Carolyn Kallenborn and Michael Villequette. The mood changed back and forth a lot as the color of the lights projected on them changed. Take a look.

There was an unannounced Mystery Guest – in this case the terrific three-woman Madison Hoop Team, which twirled illuminated hula hoops in the dark and brought festiveness to the serious but never sombre occasion.

Door prizes, some quite valuable, got handed out. 

But most of all, there was, as always, great music played greatly.

True, the concert opened with the “Song of Linos” (1944) by the French composer Andre Jolivet. It is a virtuosic piece designed to be a final exam for flute students at the Paris Conservatory.

It featured impressive and clearly difficult playing by both the flute and the piano, by Jutt and Sykes (below). But the music just never caught fire. When people call things “academic” and mean it disparagingly, this is what they are talking about. The work was all technique, with no discernible heart or soul, at least not for this listener. The performance seemed first-rate; better, in fact, than the music merits. And yes, Jutt, who is the principal flutist of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the UW-Madison, passed the test — with honors.

But then came one of those wonderful old-fashioned house music reductions of orchestral works – symphonies and concertos — that I love chamber music groups to rediscover and revive. Last year I asked for more and this year I got more. Thank you, BDDS.

In this case it was Johann Nepomuk Hummel‘s chamber version of Mozart’s sublimely beautiful Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. It featured pianist Sykes along with, flutist Jutt, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau –- the last two from San Francisco where they perform with pianist Sykes as the San Francisco Trio.

But the heavy lifting was done by Sykes, who played both orchestra and piano parts, with embellished ornamentation and thematic variations by Hummel, who actually heard Mozart perform these works and knew first-hand how Wolfgang often wrote down just the skeleton and saved his astonishing improvisations for last-minute inspiration.

Have simple arpeggios and scales ever sounded more beautiful or more musical than in Mozart’s hands? And his gift for composing aria-like melodies for the piano and strings remains unparalleled. Plus, the small forces lent the work an intimacy as well as a clarity and transparency. All is all, it was both a revelatory and moving experience.

Then came intermission, when you could buy a genuine Corpse Reviver and brink it back into the Playhouse in an adult sippy cup so as not to spill it.

The program finished with a certified masterpiece that featured no transcriptions, arrangements or substitutions: Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor.

It was a ravishing performance. Sykes – who got no time to rest during this entire program — possesses a wonderfully light and fluid touch, just right for the lambent Mendelssohn. But the entire trio (below) blended together and gave the work an irresistible energy and lyricism, drama and drive.

I missed the opening “White Russian” program on Friday night and Sunday afternoon – but here is a glowing review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

This summer BDDS is playing six programs in three locations – The Playhouse, the Hillside Theatre at Frank  Lloyd Wright’s home and studio Taliesin in Spring Green, and at the Stoughton Opera House – plus a concert at the Green Lake Festival on Thursday, June 28. Four  programs over the next two weeks remain. This coming weekend features the “cocktail” concerts “B&B” (music by Bartok, Beethoven, Brahms and Kenji Bunch) and “Manhattan” (music by Bernstein, Barber, Rorem and Piazzolla).

So, yes, The Ear will be going to more BDDS concerts than he planned on.

You should too. 

Here is a link to the BDDS homepage and a complete schedule of works and performances with biographies of performers and ticket information:

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