A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Jun 29, 2013
09:49 AM
Classically Speaking

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society Goes All In with “Poker Face”

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society Goes All In with “Poker Face”

It’s hard to imagine the members of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society playing without a smile. After all, they’ve not only created whimsical themes for their three-week mini-festivals these last twenty-two years, but their penchant for injecting humor into the programs is nearly as well-known as their world-class performances.

So the term “poker face” is not a phrase that would leap to mind when conjuring the image of co-founders Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes. But that was the umbrella title of the group’s fifth of six programs, presented at the Stoughton Opera House Friday night.

The conceit was that all three works were transcriptions that, if one was unaware of their origin, could fool the listener that what was being heard was the original instrumentation. BDDS was right—but the house won, as a sizable audience responded to each work with greater approbation than before.

The night opened with Jutt presenting her own arrangement of Prokofiev’s “Five Melodies for soprano and piano.” Immediately one appreciated the possibilities: after all, Jutt’s flute could provide both a range and variety of timbre unmatched by any soprano (and since the originals are wordless, nothing is lost in the "translation"). Sykes provided the sensitive accompaniment.

The overall title of 2013 BDDS is “Deuces Wild,” and the conceit could not have been more apt as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 was offered as part of the 22nd season. This was an arrangement for flute, violin, cello and piano by Mozart and Beethoven contemporary Johann Nepomuk Hummel. In the last two seasons, BDDS has presented a Haydn symphony in similar arrangements, and of all the inimitable qualities that make BDDS so attractive, I believe it is in the presentation of such items that for me is the most wonderful.

Hummel’s arrangement was no exception. Violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau (who along with Sykes make up the San Francisico Piano Trio) were added to Sykes and Jutt and filled the hall with a heady mixture of Mozartean elegance often more illuminated in its delicate transparency than any full orchestral performance could manage. One would expect that, given its original status as a superb, mature piano concerto, the keyboard would dominate. But this was not the case; give credit to Hummel’s skillful imagination, and Sykes’ gift for placing balance over needless spotlighting.

Yet in some ways the single work on the second half of the program proved the irresistible gem: Brahms’ String Sextet in G Major, arranged by his contemporary, Theodor Kirchner, for piano trio. A purist would argue that much of the greatness of the original lies in Brahms’ peculiar comfort in the rich, potentially dense harmonies of pairs of violins, violas and cellos. But hearing the piano provide the harmonies, and allowing a single violin and cello to run the gamut from robust to delicate, was a singular delight.

Despite being a lifelong fan of Brahms and knowledgeable of most of his chamber work, this Op. 36 is less known to me. The San Francisco Piano Trio made me want to revisit the original soon—although I suspect that then I will want to hear the Kirchner version again.

Strauss had amply demonstrated his gifts in the Mozart (although in this case there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing!), but in the Brahms/Kirchner we at last had our fill of Fonteneau’s rich and compelling artistry. As with other great Brahms chamber works, the emotional scope is symphonic—and the demands placed on even the six original instruments more than hints at the orchestral as well—and the three players on Friday left an impression that led most of the audience to stand at once (and not to leave).

The repeat of this program on Sunday afternoon at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin is sold out, but some tickets remain for Saturday night’s final program of the season featuring Korngold and Beethoven, at the Playhouse in the Overture Center. That program also will be heard Sunday evening at Taliesin, with some seats available. And then, we’ll just have to count the days until the 23rd whimsically wonderful season of BDDS.

Photo: Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes. Courtesy: C&N Photographers

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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