The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Lesson 1 from the 2015 season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: Chamber music transcriptions, arrangements and reductions of large orchestral works deserve a wider hearing. | July 1, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

The Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society finished up its three-week, 24th annual season this past weekend.

The populist chamber music group used local and imported artists to perform six programs over three weekends in three different venues -– all based around the theme of “Guilty as Charged,” which meant emphasizing borrowings and similar transgressionsTalk about a hard-working group of performing artists!

BDDS poster 2015

Over the next week or two, The Ear wants to share some of the lessons that he learned from attending several of the BDS concerts.

Today is Lesson 1: Chamber music transcriptions, arrangements and reductions of large orchestral works deserve a wider hearing so that more people can enjoy those works more often.

I cite two examples from the “Crooked Business” program that BDDS performed at the Stoughton Opera House (below, where I saw and heard it) and at the Hillside Theatre on the Taliesin compound of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Spring Green.

StoughtonOperaHouse,JPG

First, there was the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. BDDS co-founder, co-artist director and house pianist Jeffrey Sykes led the group of 11 players from the keyboard and played with his back to the audience.

(Believe it or not, if The Ear recalls music history correctly, that was the standard performance practice, as was playing with the score, until the legendary piano virtuoso Franz Liszt turned the piano to the side to highlight his dramatic profile and also memorized the music to astonish his audiences.)

The Mozart piano concerto is a great work — you can hear the whole work in its full orchestral version with pianist Mitsuko Uchida in a YouTube video at the bottom. And the arrangement or reduction they used made it seem even more remarkable. That is because the smaller size of the forces allowed one to hear more clearly the interplay of various parts.

BDDS 2015 Mozart C minor piano concerto

Then on the second half of the program came a second example: The Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op 11 (1857) by Johannes Brahms. It was performed with nine players in a reduction by Christopher Nex.

The Ear found the work to be a bit too long and repetitive — the structure of its six movements lacked the tightness of a symphony. But then again, a tuneful serenade is by definition supposed to be lighter and have a looser structure, to spur more relaxed and informal listening and to demand less focused attention.

BDDS 2015 Brahms Serenade 1

Such reductions originated in the desire of amateurs to make house music at a time when professional orchestras and chamber music groups and commercial concerts did not exist in a widespread way.

It is an approach that can and should be revived. To be fair, the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has also done a few of these transcriptions or arrangements, often with the Harvard University Mozart scholar and pianist Robert Levin.

But nonetheless it is largely thanks to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society that listeners can make their way through the 27 piano concertos by Mozart and the 104 symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn -– to say nothing of the many Baroque, Classical, Romantic and modern works that must already exist in similar arrangements or could be rearranged on demand.

To which The Ear simply says: Bravo! Do more of them!

What do you say?

The Ear -– along with BDDS organizers and performers – wants to hear.

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2 Comments »

  1. I strongly agree with your call for these transcriptions/arrangements to be performed more often. The BDDS certainly brought a Mozart Piano Concerto to a wider audience. I was intrigued by how transparent the texture of the Mozart that was presented. We are indeed fortunate to have a musical organization of lke the BDDS as part of our communities.

    Comment by John Beutel — July 1, 2015 @ 8:18 am

  2. Are 9 players (including a piano and a cello) making “house music”? And is a return to that, meaning only the wealthy and the elite with a “house” big enough for 9 players and musical instruments to go with it, the real way to go?

    There’s certainly nothing wrong with working that into the dough of performances, but I think far more public funding of the arts and music is the real alternative. It’s done in Europe where it has worked for decades. That, plus having more music and arts in education, from the grade school level to universities and to the retired. Our population is aging and that, too, is a natural group to appeal to, perhaps more so than the young who are not so keen.

    Comment by fflambeau — July 1, 2015 @ 8:03 am


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