BDDS celebrates silver anniversary, but give them a gold medal
The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, that impish and excellent music festival created by Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes, has now been spoiling us every June for a quarter-century. They have long proven that they bear comparison with many a better-known summer festival in our nation, and now they are completing their 25th season. The second of six concerts last Saturday night was dubbed “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” but truly the results were more golden than anything else.
The most anticipated performance of the Playhouse concert at the Overture Center was the world premiere of “In at the Eye,” a new song cycle by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts. Puts has long been a favorite of Jutts and Sykes; it was serendipitous that BDDS, in conjunction with a few other music festivals, commissioned Puts not long before he won the Pulitzer in 2012 (for his first opera, Silent Night), and the completion of the cycle was timed for this 25th BDDS season.
After being asked to write for flute, violin, cello, piano and baritone, Puts discovered some poems of William Butler Yeats which are nothing if not direct. The cycle’s title comes from the first song which begins “Wine comes in at the mouth/And love comes in at the eye.” Bass-baritone Timothy Jones, a longtime local favorite (who returns to Madison next spring for the Madison Symphony’s performance of Brahms’ A German Requiem) was the passionate and sensitive soloist.
Puts found telling opportunities to utilize the flute against the strings and piano, and as in his other works this listener has heard, the style is modern yet expressive. Not surprising for a composer who continues to find success in opera and other vocal works, Puts’ writing for the Jones ranged from stentorian to intimate. The second half of the set was particularly compelling, with no breaks among the final three of the six songs. The fourth, “Fallen Majesty,” is nearly without instrumental accompaniment save for occasional medieval motifs in response to the text. When Jones sang the last line “Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud,” Jutt took over with a long solo that conjured an image of dissipating vapor, which led directly to the set’s most famous poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” Puts, who was on hand to give some salient and witty insights before the performance, received a major ovation.
The evening opened with a surprising treat, a quartet for flute and strings arranged from a Mozart piano sonata. Robert Stallman has done the honors, and it is an interesting project, inasmuch as Mozart had written three quartets for the combination (and famously said he didn’t care much for the flute, despite also writing two wonderful solo concertos and the masterpiece concerto for flute and harp!). Credit Jutt with having this “new” Mozart on her radar; the writing was often fully idiomatic, and a refreshing change of pace. She was joined by longtime BDDS guest Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio on violin, Madison’s own Sally Chisholm on viola, and BDDS “rookie” Kenneth Olsen on cello (he spends the bulk of his time as assistant principal cello of the Chicago Symphony).
The second half was devoted to one of the great Op. 25s of the repertoire (because of the 25th anniversary of course!), Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor. Sykes kept the intro to a minimum: “We like it. You’ll like it. It’s great. Enjoy!” Of course he was on safe ground; this is arguably one of the earliest true masterpieces of Brahms, and the aforementioned string players joined Sykes in a no-holds-barred reading. As in the Mozart, the occasional unison playing of Sant’Ambrogio and Chisholm was a model of perfection, but like the work itself, the players delivered a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-it-parts performance. The near capacity crowd could not have stopped themselves from a swift standing ovation. All that remained was to count the hours to next weekend’s concerts (Friday and Saturday at the Playhouse, Sunday afternoon and evening at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin), which will have a decidedly Latin American flavor. They’re guaranteed to be the perfect way to spice up your weekend.