The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society offers an clever program that mixes outstanding performances of “primitivistic” modern music with rarely heard cabaret songs | June 19, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

This review is by guest contributor Kyle Johnson (below), who also took the performance photographs. As a pianist since elementary school, Kyle Johnson has devoted most of his life to music. Born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, he is now a doctoral candidate in piano performance at the UW-Madison, where he studies with Christopher Taylor and specializes in modern and contemporary music. He participates in many festivals and events around the U.S. and Europe. Recently, he co-founded the Madison-based ensemble Sound Out Loud, an interactive contemporary music ensemble. For more information, visit:

By Kyle Johnson

If the rule of real estate is “location, location, location,” perhaps the rule for concert planning is “programming, programming, programming.”

Until the finale of Friday night’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society performance, the directors lived up to that mantra.

The first half of the program was primarily devoted to greats of the modernist chamber music repertoire: Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and the Contrasts by Bela Bartok (1881-1945).

For the former, Emily Birsan, a Chicago-based soprano who was educated at the UW-Madison, provided a dynamic, sensuous rendition even in the score’s most economical, lithe moments.

At the end of the work, Ravel’s inclusion of piccolo (played by Stephanie Jutt) and cello harmonics (played by Jean-Michel Fonteneau at a much higher than the fingered pitch) created an evocatively primitive effect, as the songs detail life in newly colonized Madagascar

The final line of the piece, “The evening breeze rises; the moon begins to shine through the trees of the mountain. Go, and prepare the meal,” received nervous chuckles from several audience members.

(You can hear the Ravel songs performed by Christa Ludwig in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The effect was also a transition to the Contrasts (1938), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano that was commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman. As the title aptly describes, the three-movement work cycles between jovial, intense and playful moods.

Most striking in this rendition — played by Axel Strauss on violin, Alan Kay on clarinet and Christopher Taylor on piano (below) — was the second movement, entitled “Relaxation.” Moments of hushed and moody tones created an atmosphere that historians have referred to as Bartok’s “night music.” 

The audience responded with excitement, applauding through two curtain calls, to the climactic and frenzied close of the piece.

The theme this year is “Alphabet Soup” for the 26 letters marking the BDDS’ 26th anniversary. So after intermission, BDDS directors Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sikes introduced the audience to Madison’s four-time Spelling Bee Champion, Martius Bautista).

The soon-to-be eighth-grader at Edgewood Campus School tested his spelling of a variety of musical terms like crescendo (growing louder) and sforzando (marked emphasis) while Jeffrey Sykes played the theme from Jeopardy on the keyboard. Bautista (below) was successful and, when given a paper crown, turned to place it on the head of Samantha Crownover, who is celebrating her 20th year as executive director of the BDDS.

Sykes and Birsan served the audience a collection of cabaret songs by English composer Benjamin Britten, American composer William Bolcom and Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The only thing missing from this portion of the program was chinking wine glasses and swirling smoke.

The programming of cabaret songs with the musical “primitivism” of Ravel and Bartok was a clever idea, and one that had similar roots at a recent concert at the UW-Madison, in which the Chansons madécasses were paired with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (while some consider Pierrot a feat of highbrow expressionism, a strong case can be made for its cabaret nature – however grotesque and dark it may be).

Anyone weary of Arnold Schoenberg’s oftentimes deterring development of 12-tone and atonal music need only look as far as his own cabaret songs, which are as melodious and lush as music heard in the great black-and-white musicals of early film.

The programming of the final work, Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87 (1880-1882) – played by the San Francisco Trio (below) — was problematic in a number of ways.

The monolithic nature of the work – a staple of high Romanticism you can hear in the YouTube video at the bottom – seemed off-putting, after the intimacy of works such as the Ravel songs, the Bartok Contrasts, and especially the cabaret numbers.

In a perfect world, Friday evening’s concert would have foregone an intermission and ended with the cabaret hodgepodge. The quirky and understated close would have certainly left the audience charmed and ever-enticed to attend the remainder of BDDS’s programs – the final weekend, of which, runs June 23-25.

For more information about the concluding BDDS weekend and its dates, times, venues, programs and performers, go to:


  1. How I wish the lights were kept on so that those who wanted to follow the text of Emily Birsan’s songs, so beautifully sung, could do this.


    Comment by Lynn — June 19, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

  2. I shouldn’t be surprised by how consistent this review is with how Kyle generally speaks about music. My first impression of the man came when he so eloquently reflected on the famous Boulez quote about burning the history books and rejecting tradition.

    I was not at the concert, but this writing is fun to read. I would imagine Kyle is somewhat content with the little bit of “controversy” stirred up in the comments. It’s opinions, folks.


    Comment by aneciabennett — June 19, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    • I’m not certain what point you are making in your second paragraph. Of course we are debating opinion – you just happen to agree with Mr. Johnson, while some of us do not. Does the fact that the instigator of the discussion might enjoy a lively debate make the discussion less valuable? Discussion of these issues is deeply important to the arts community in Madison (or in any city). As classical musicians attempting to make a living in our chosen field, we constantly struggle with the many factors that go into programming concerts: What do we want to play? What does the audience want to hear? How can we garner personal satisfaction from our craft and also pay the rent? It is never simply a matter of personal taste.


      Comment by ivy — June 19, 2017 @ 11:27 am

      • Ivy- Please don’t put words into my mouth. I was not at the concert, therefore I’m not in a place of agreeing or disagreeing. I simply find the perspective interesting & different from the few reviews I’ve read in some free publications in Madison. Maybe part of a larger conversation: but to me, the questions you raise don’t seem at odds with Kyle’s perspective. It sounds like you’re a musician so please let us know what we can support, if you have anything upcoming. thank you


        Comment by aneciabennett — June 19, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

  3. First of all, I would advise Mr. Johnson to refrain from discussing his own performances in future reviews. A concert critique is no place for self-promotion.

    If only we’d gotten to read an actual critique of the Brahms. Instead, we read the same tired discussion that has always made critics (of all kinds) feel self-important and cultured: an automatic dismissal of anything in the standard repertoire and frequently programmed. Never mind that the majority of the audience does not share the same level of pretention and was likely delighted to hear a wonderful work at the end of a well-balanced program.


    Comment by ivy — June 19, 2017 @ 9:15 am

  4. It was refreshing to get a different take on this concert.
    But there were a couple of small points where I didn’t agree with Kyle.
    Do we really need to know about the higher than fingered pitch? That’s pretty technical.
    In the Madegascar Songs, I think the nervous chuckles weren’t about the words — since it was dark, we couldn’t read them anyway — it was because the song was so weird.
    I think the Schoenberg song with its lush sonorities must have been written during his Romantic period.
    For me the playing of the Brahms trio was the high point of the program — a lovely end to a rather taxing evening. And how about a comment on the ingenious and charming projected panels that formed the backdrop?


    Comment by Ann Boyer — June 19, 2017 @ 8:12 am

  5. Very good, thoughtful review.

    I suspect the reason that the programmers thought the Brahms piece would make a good end for the program is that it as something “serious” it would hold the audience whereas the cabaret/”lighter” music might not. I don’t agree with that thinking but this is the trend of programming today: “fluff” followed by the serious stuff.

    Which, of course, is nonsense.


    Comment by FFlambeau — June 19, 2017 @ 2:40 am

    • I think Mr. Johnson intended to make rather the opposite point: that he wanted only what you called the “fluff,” and was offended by the inclusion of weightier material on the second half – never mind that, as you pointed out, the Brahms was probably the big draw for much of the audience. If I’d been served half a meal, as Mr. Johnson suggests he would have preferred, rather than being “ever-enticed” to attend future BDDS concerts I might have gone home hungry, feeling robbed of the main course.

      I can’t help but feel the performance (particularly the Brahms) deserved to be reviewed on its merits, not dismissed for the sake of a self-aggrandizing reviewer who spent two paragraphs praising his own concert in a review of another. (Or did nobody notice the “recent concert at the UW-Madison” of Pierrot Lunaire was his own ensemble, since he neglected to provide that information himself?)


      Comment by madstringplayer — June 19, 2017 @ 5:25 am

      • I don’t see the word “fluff” used once in the review. I didn’t think Ravel, Bartok, or songs were light, at all, this weekend. And this writing is substantial enough to make me believe the reviewer felt the same. That Brahms trio was the only thing I knew at the concert. I don’t need a review to make me feel good about it…but I do like this conceptual approach to thinking about the structure of a program


        Comment by madtownharper — June 19, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

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