Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society: Sizzle, Fizzle, Roar

Penultimate program of BDDS 25th anniversary ultimately soars

The fifth of sixth programs of the silver anniversary season of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society last Friday night at Overture Center’s Playhouse was titled “Quicksilver.” The more standard than usual program (but full of promise) of Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn was indeed mercurial at times, but concluded with as memorable a single performance as one could hope for.

The night also began with much promise, in a delightfully balanced reading of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. BDDS co-founder Stephanie Jutt was partnered on flute by doctoral candidate Ivana Ugrcic, and it was a decidedly felicitous pairing. The solo violin part was beautifully navigated by Hye-Jin Kim, in her second appearance with BDDS. A crack ensemble of familiar faces pulled off the not inconsiderable trick of not burying Jeffrey Sykes at the harpsichord.

Probably since before yours truly has been attending BDDS (I first heard them in their 20th season, 2011), the festival has nurtured a gratifying tradition of taking works such as Mozart piano concertos or Haydn symphonies and presenting them in scaled down versions that frequently illuminate the originals, while the players are executing pristine readings. But for the first time in this listener’s experience, BDDS gave us a work that didn’t quite work.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 is a large work, over a half hour in length and with an original scoring includes trumpets and timpani. On Friday an intrepid band of fourteen players, including Sykes at the piano, gave us something that ultimately lacked more than it gave. Sykes made the smart move of incorporating much of the orchestral fabric into the piano part (at times when the piano soloist is normally silent), but the lack of trumpet, oboe, and one of the bassoon parts left the body of sound ill-proportioned to the original. At one point one wondered if it was possible the work was under-rehearsed—and to be fair, when one thinks of all that is presented on six programs over three weekends, it must be a nightmare to find enough hours each week to polish all of the repertoire, much of which is daunting by any measure. The nearly sold-out audience responded, particularly to Sykes, with long and loving ovations; this speaks more to the loyal and familial emotional dynamic that is as much a part of the BDDS experience as anything else. And for that matter, co-founder Sykes has earned the right to occasionally risk the possibility that now and then the BDDS reach will exceed its grasp.

But for some of us the real attraction of the evening lay in the second half, the Octet of Mendelssohn. That would be the 16-year old Mendelssohn, and every time I hear this sonic web of astonishing string writing I once more reel at the absurdity that a teenager could conceive such a composition. It would be a legitimate masterpiece of the repertoire no matter who had composed it at whatever age, and if you have yet to hear it for yourself, you are hereby urged to remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

For those of us fortunate enough to be there Friday night (or Sunday evening at the season’s final performance at the Hillside Theater at Taliesin), it was a superbly supreme reading. Even though Mendelssohn’s demands on each of the eight players is high, one does need a firebrand on the first violin stand, and BDDS gave us Axel Strauss. One always looks forward to his appearances with Sykes and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau as part of the San Francisco Piano Trio (as we had just last weekend in an indelible rendering of the Ravel work for that combo). In this piloting role Friday night, Strauss soared and wordlessly led his troops into an artistic battle that was gloriously triumphant. As key as his part is, the overall effect cannot be made without each of the eight parts equally executed, and they all deserve mention: Suzanne Beia, Kim, and Leanne League on the other violin parts, Ara Gregorian and Katrin Talbot on viola, and Anthony Ross and Beth Rapier on cello. The final chord had barely died off when it was obliterated by an ovation as thunderous and sustained as one had encountered all season.

For me the BDDS 25 was over; the most programs I’ve managed in a season was five out of six, and I never shake the feeling that I’ve missed something terribly precious when I can’t make it. But what has led to this 25th season of celebration by players and fans of BDDS is that feeling early on which grew into a certainty, that each night there would be something—sometimes all of it—that would stay in the ears a long, long time. And so while we might wish for another 25, we happily begin to look ahead to just the 26th next year, knowing they will bring something to Madison’s musical life that at this point we just can’t do without. Bravi, one and all.

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