The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Superb music-making offset awkward acting and dancing in a concert that the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society gave last weekend. This summer’s last BDDS concerts are tonight, Saturday and Sunday  | June 22, 2018

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, published belatedly but in time for this weekend’s upcoming closing concerts – two performances each of two programs — of the current summer season by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

It is a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show once a month on Sunday morning on WORT FM 89.9 FM. For years, he served on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.

Performance photos were taken by Dick Ainsworth for BDDS.

By John W. Barker

One of the two programs of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s second weekend this season was held in the Overture Center’s Playhouse last Saturday night.

The associations of its three works with war were somewhat strained, most of all for Robert Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 94. They were composed in 1849 for the options of oboe and violin or clarinet with piano.

On this occasion they were presented in a transcription for bassoon, made by the performer, Adrian Morejon (below). He played these brief and lovely pieces beautifully, but I confess I would have liked them more if one of the stipulated, higher-range instruments had been used.

The first major work was from the contemporary American composer Kevin Puts (below), called Einstein on Mercer Street. It is a kind of cantata, a half-hour in length, cast in five sections, each beginning with spoken words but moving to singing.

The text, whose origins were not made clear, purports to represent the thinking of Albert Einstein in his last years in Princeton, N.J., as he contemplates his place in science and in the creation of the atomic bomb.

The vocal part was written for baritone Timothy Jones (below center), who performed it this time, delivering it with confident eloquence. To tell the truth, though, a lot of his words, spoken and sung, did not come through clearly, at least for where I sat.

Though the vocal writing goes through one ear and out the other, there is a lot of very pleasant melodic music in the score, and it occurred to me that, with a little tightening, the work could nicely be left just to the instrumental ensemble (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano), the vocal part dispensed with — heresy, of course.

The second half of the program was devoted to the classic work of 1918, L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), originally with a French text by the Swiss writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, and with brilliant music, in the style of blues, jazz and ragtime by Igor Stravinsky.

The spoken text, in a rhymed English translation, calls for three actors: a narrator, a Soldier and the Devil. Jones was quite good as the narrator, but well enough could not be left alone.

With utter arbitrariness, the character of the Soldier was turned into the soldierette “Josie,” so that the Prince he woos and wins becomes a “Princess.”

This absurdity was absolutely pointless, save, perhaps, to allow the two co-directors of the festival, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes (below) to play soldierette and the Devil against each other. In hilarious costumes, the two did well enough, Sykes especially, but the gender change grated all the way through the piece.

And there was another problem. The work was not only written for actors and musicians, but also with dancers in mind. No choreography survives, and the use of dancers in performances of the work is patchy.

Here we had hip-hop dancer Blake Washington introduced during the Three Dances movement as the recovering “Prince,” with a lot of spastic shivering and shaking that suggested more of painful decomposition than recovery.

The stars of the piece, however, were the seven outstanding instrumentalists: violinist Axel Strauss; David Scholl, double bass; Alan Kay, clarinet; Morejon, bassoon; Matt Onstad, trumpet; Dylan Chmura-Moore, trombone; and Anthony di Sanza, percussion. With truly superb playing, they upheld the high standards of the musicians that the BDDS brings us.

For more information about BDDS’ closing concerts this weekend – featuring guest soprano and critically acclaimed UW-Madison alumna Emily Birsan and music by Mozart, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Fauré, Ravel, Prokofiev, Barber and other composers in Madison, Stoughton and Spring Green tonight, Saturday and Sunday, go to:

Posted in Classical music
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I write to apologize to Sharon. I took her previous message to be from “ivy”. This was inept on my part, and sincerely regret any distortions that resulted.
    In her previous message, Sharon raised challenges that I tried to respond to–she found them “rude”, but I delivered them bluntly, feeling we were getting nowhere in this discussion.’Sharon raises a new challenge this time: that I should explain my judgements of the black dancer.
    Well, the reasons were pretty clearly stated in my original review. I found the dancer-choreographer’s performance both “inappropriate” and “repellent”. All I can do is extend each point.
    “Inappropriate” because it was imposed upon one particular moment in a production of the Stravinsky work. That moment was the set of dances Stravinsky used to cover the time when the Soldier’s fiddling brought the Princess–sorry, the “Prince”–back to life. As I indicated, I found that production misguided on several counts, but the dance had nothing to do with a work created a century earlier and was a very select 21st century intrusion into it. If it represented a return to life, I could find no evidence of that in the performance.
    “Repellent” because it involved bodily distortions–twists, shakes, shimmying, bizarre movements or postures–that hardly correlated with what the healthy (or made rehealthy) body would do.
    Now, these were opinions. I delivered them because that is a reviewer’s job: to give honest opinions based upon informed experience. But I think I may claim some degree of informed experience, and of a scope and breadth of tastes that is not based on just bias or cultural insensitivity. Others may certainly disagree with my opinions, but I did my job honestly, and on bases that were explained then and are so again here. That is why I demanded that those who condemn my opinions should give SPECIFIC rebuttals to them, not just insistence that a black performer cannot be judged on open artistic grounds.
    Surely there is no other way to conclude all this controversy, if the role of an honest critic is to be preserved..
    John W. Barker – July 1, 2018, 7:30 pm.


    Comment by John W. Barker — July 1, 2018 @ 7:32 pm

  2. Well, hello again, “ivy”. By the way, my name is John W. Barker. What is yours?
    It seems that in the latest challenge to my review of the black dancer, I should be willing now to say “I hadn’t considered that”. But I hadn’t considered WHAT? Neither “ivy” nor anyone else has explained to me SPECIFICALLY what were my mistakes. No one has explained just why that particular dance was imposed where it was in the Stravinsky work. I know that work pretty well, and I have a right to question such a decision. No one has explained to me why the movements of that particular dancer would be viewed as anything other than grotesque. Is there some meaning that a black dancer’s movements have that can only be understood by a black viewer?
    The only objection that “ivy” has put forward is that I am white, and therefore cannot appreciate black art. Black performers have made and continue to make contributions to our cultural life. But is actually quite demeaning of them to assume that they go before the public draped in a protective guarantee of acceptance, respect, and reverence, simply because they are block, with all standards suspended. How insulting to blacks!
    So let us have the SPECIFIC objections to my judgements. Why shouldn’t we have a clear justification for why something alien is placed in a particular work of musical theater? Why shouldn’t we have an explanation of the rationale for a dance performance that is vulgar and repellent by audience standards, but is somehow not to be called so? I, and my other white-racist conversational contacts, ask for reasons, ones that go beyond the usual throwing about of labels that only denature the real issues of prejudice.
    Yes, I have a “comfort zone”. It is not of some narrow “racial” nature. It is the zone of artistic accomplishment. By its standards I have every right to make honest judgements without being slandered.
    The difference here is very simple. I stand for artistic achievement, regardless of its source. “ivy” stands for white liberal guilt, which insists that whites cannot appreciate black performers, who must be above and beyond judgement, and therefore should be automatically approved.
    (Indeed, from what I have read in these exchanges, I wonder if “ivy” actually attended the performance in question, so vague are the accusations made.}
    By now these exchanges have ;passed well out of hand, and I rather doubt that anyone is reading it any more. So I see no reason to comment any further–unless issues of specific substance can be introduced at long last.
    John W. Barker – June 30, 2018, 10:30 pm.


    Comment by John W. Barker — June 30, 2018 @ 10:29 pm

    • I can’t speak for Ivy, as I am someone else (which perhaps you would have noticed if you’d read my comment for any other reason than to respond as rudely as possible). But I’m curious as to what your “clear justifications” are for what makes this dance “alien,” “repulsive,” “vulgar,” and “repellent.” You ask for our justifications for why this art was not repulsive and alien. I’d like yours for why it IS. I’m also curious if you’ve considered WHO was IN the audience whose “standards” you say were so offended.


      Comment by Sharon — July 1, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

  3. It seems that “ivy” insists on prolonging this discussion. (It is impossible, of course, to know who “ivy” actually is. I publish my thoughts plainly under my own name. Does “ivy” have something to be ashamed of?)
    We are talking about basic issues of music criticism here. In general, this is a time when we are being expected to abandon all standards of judgement and accept anything and everything as “artistic expression”, self-justified as such.
    But historically, good criticism means honesty of judgement. It is not supposed to involve exceptions being made for some particular group to whom one must now be sympathetic and encouraging. Yes, as a white, I am well aware of the terrible things that white society has done to blacks among us, for centuries, and still does today. But when it comes to black offerings in the arts, they deserve the respect of being judged honestly. To do otherwise is to surrender utterly all standards out of “liberal white guilt”.
    When black performers present their performances before the public, do they do so with the demand that standards of judgement be suspended for them, or do they do what all performers do, present their work for public appraisal and criticism? There is room for encouragement. But public performers, of any cultural tradition, are, quite simply, inviting evaluation when they appear before the public..
    I was making a necessary response when I delivered my opinion. Yes, I found the dancing in question inappropriate, as insertion into a work created a century ago by a French writer and a Russian composer. Sure, Stravinsky had drawn upon “popular” music of his day. And it was music that had been created by blacks but in which white performers had assimilated it into their work by then. What Blake Johnson did was an isolated irrelevancy, without any logical relationship to the work it was imposed upon.
    And yes, it was repulsive, in both of the two times I saw it. I find in conversations that there are a lot of other people who saw it quite emphatically agreed with me, for what that is worth. Black performers can and should make their offerings, but they are thereupon subject to judgement–and not entitled to its suspension because they are black. Rather, like any performers, they should reflect on reactions to their performances and consider whether they need to rethink their work.
    And yes, again, the reversal of gender as to the role of the Soldier was totally foolish, running counter to the whole sensibility of the original story.
    John W. Barker – June 25, 1:15 pm


    Comment by John W. Barker — June 25, 2018 @ 1:24 pm

    • The fact that other people “quite emphatically agreed with” you doesn’t make you right, it just means that you’re talking to (probably white) people with their own implicit racial biases. A suggestion for you in the future, Mr. Barker: when someone points out something that you hadn’t previously considered, you can respond, “I hadn’t considered that. Thank you for sharing with me” instead of getting defensive and proving their point to a fuller extent by now referring to this Black dancer’s work as “inappropriate” and “repulsive.”


      Comment by Sharon — June 28, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

  4. Reading the comments to my review of the BDDS performance of Stravinsky’s “Histoire du Soldat”, I find that I am a “racist”. Apparently the definition of that term is anyone who says anything negative about a black performer.
    The dancer I criticized, Blake Washington, is black, and his dancing style is explained as belonging to a new black idiom. As a critic, I was called upon to give my reaction to his performance, and I did so. I found it offensive and inappropriate to the work into which it was inserted. That apparently offended some who think that everything black must now receive only praise. Sorry, but I made an honest judgement, which has nothing to do with “racism”.
    It might be noticed that I had favorable reactions to Timothy Jones, another black performer–but based upon his work, not his race.
    With all this fashionable fuss, I am surprised that no one has concluded that, in addition to being a “racist”, I must also be a “sexist” for criticizing strongly the irrational conversion of the role of the Soldier into a female part.
    Just how many repentances are required of me for critical honesty?
    John W, Barker – June 23, 2018 @ 9:35


    Comment by John W. Barker — June 23, 2018 @ 9:41 am

    • If you are requesting complains about your sexism, I can supply those, too: the characters in L’Histoire are archetypes, not real people, so yes, your claims that the gender switch is irrational and grating are indeed sexist, in addition to your use of the made-up word “soldierette.” A female soldier is called, well, a soldier, and there’s nothing confusing or absurd about seeing one onstage.

      No one is disputing that you gave your honest reaction to the performance, nor did anyone say that any criticism of a Black performer is racist. But the fact that you are essentially the only critical voice in the classical music scene means that your opinions influence audiences to an extraordinary degree. So you owe it to musicians of color in Madison to address your unconscious prejudices and to try not to be “offended,” as you put it above, by Black art when it appears in your insulated white space.

      Giving compliments to a different Black performer (performing white art) is completely irrelevant to this discussion. One can have Black friends and still possess unconscious bias. It doesn’t excuse your dismissal of a piece of Black art in a traditionally white venue.

      You don’t need to “repent.” The best way to respond to this is to listen differently in the future. When you encounter music or art you’ve never experienced before, especially if it’s from a culture other than your own, check your knowledge and judgment before deriding it in your reviews. As white people, we ALL make these mistakes. But we have to reign in the impulse to respond defensively when someone points them out, and instead trust that they may have caught something you missed.


      Comment by ivy — June 23, 2018 @ 1:36 pm

  5. The dancing at Hillside space was extremely confined, within inches of audience. Dance needs space, air, room to move and not be in your face. Unfortunate.


    Comment by Zinia Fyor — June 22, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

  6. The dancing at Hillside space was extremely confined, within inches of audience. Dance needs space, air, room to move and not be in your face. Unfortunate.


    Comment by Zinia Fyor — June 22, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

  7. Describing hip-hop dancing as “spastic shivering and shaking?” That sort of racist remark should never make the final edit on this blog.

    If you’re unfamiliar with the style of a performance, stick to reporting the facts rather than uninformed opinion.


    Comment by ivy — June 22, 2018 @ 11:22 am

    • Dear Ivy,
      Thank you for replying.
      Blake Washington has been acclaimed as a hip-hop dancer and choreographer. That describes him, not the kind of dancing he did at this specific concert.
      Besides, to describe such dancing in the context of whether he is portraying a recovering person is not racist and is overly sensitive.
      It was simply the review’s impression and not some sort of insulting putdown of hip-hop in general. To call it racist is to stretch and misstate what the review said. He merely said it struck him as inappropriate to the specific story and role.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — June 22, 2018 @ 11:35 am

      • I didn’t say Barker was insulting hip-hop in general, but his deliberate choice of obviously pejorative language to describe a form of artistic expression outside his comfort zone (or knowledge) cannot help but be influenced by his race when he’s talking about a product of Black culture.

        The idea that hip-hop dancing is “inappropriate” to Stravinsky (who is himself known for challenging his audiences’ notions of beauty, both with music and dance) is, whether deliberately or not, a racially charged topic. At best, it implies that the only appropriate performance of Stravinsky is a recreation of the original. At worst, it’s a determination (whether the product of conscious or unconscious bias) that Black dance isn’t good enough for white music.

        As white classical musicians and listeners, we need to be sensitive to the ways in which we (often unintentionally) alienate Black artists and audiences. It’s now acceptable to talk about sexism in our field (which you do on this blog with some frequency), but we still haven’t figured out how to talk about racism. You seem to be more offended that someone is identifying something written on your blog as racist than by the possibility that something written on your blog might actually be racist. Rather than getting defensive, I’d like to challenge you to examine whether you might have missed the racial subtext, which is present whether or not it is acknowledged or even intended.


        Comment by ivy — June 22, 2018 @ 2:35 pm

  8. I’m glad to read your articulate review. Having seen Soldiers Tale once before, I felt the acting here was a distraction, not in keeping with the high quality musical and narrative performances.


    Comment by Z. Fyor — June 22, 2018 @ 8:23 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,256 other subscribers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,403,778 hits
%d bloggers like this: