26th season continues to impress
Some things never change…when I first covered the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society in 2011, I managed to attend five of their six programs—and still regretted missing the sixth. Last Friday (June 16) I attended the first of their second weekend of concerts, and was not surprised to hear more world class performances in a program that could hardly be more varied.
The hallmark of BDDS is indeed simple, uniformly excellent performances of as eclectic a set of programs as one can imagine; in fact, they often (happily) venture outside of what might be called “standard” chamber repertoire. They also have some tongue-in-cheek fun in their seasonal overview, this 26th season having been dubbed “Alphabet Soup.” The June 16 was brought to us by the letter “B,” and multiples thereof in “Two Bs or Not Two Bs.”
The “not two Bs” came first, with a work I was dying to hear, a precious breezy miniature by Saint-Saens, the Tarantelle for flute, clarinet and piano. Late in his life, Saint-Saens penned a wonderfully romantic Sonata for Clarinet, but this tidbit is a very early work, and the only notes I’d heard were mid-piece on radio. I’m sure there are recordings of it, but I’m not in any hurry to dim the memory of BDDS co-founder and flutist Stephanie Jutt (pictured above with pianist and co-founder Jeffrey Sykes), clarinetist Alan Kay and pianist Christopher Taylor. “Impeccable” may describe the execution, but you need a bunch more words to convey the dazzle the trio brought to the work’s treacherous passage work.
Next we had one excerpt from Ravel’s “Sheherezade,” “La flute enchantee,” which featured Jutt offstage, with soprano Emily Birsan joined again by Taylor. The heady and perfumed mixture continued in Ravel’s exquisite “Chansons madecasses.” The artistic choices by BDDS rarely miss their mark, but here was one quibble. Jeffrey Sykes explained beforehand that the songs should not be interrupted by applause (a good call), but that the lights would be turned down—even though translations had been thoughtfully supplied—so that we could enjoy some heightened drama, enhances by the backlit installations of Helen Hawley. What we might have gained in drama (questionable at best) came at the cost of more fully enjoying Birsan’s subtle realizations of Ravel’s delicate constructions. But let’s be clear: This is nit-picking; I would happily sit through it the same way again. In the “Chansons” we also had our first delightful re-acquaintance with cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.
The first half concluded with a truly explosive performance of a masterpiece, the “Contrasts” for Violin, Clarinet and Piano of Bartok. Commissioned by Benny Goodman, this is a compelling work on every level, and to hear it tossed off with such aplomb by Kay, Taylor and violinist Axel Strauss was a major draw for yours truly to attend in the first place. Kay has been here before (he is both principal clarinetist and artistic director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), and one can only hope he keeps coming back, as do so many of the non-local BDDS participants.
The second half saw the return of Birsan, now in a selection of cabaret songs by Benjamin Britten, William Bolcom and Arnold Schoenberg—and once more we dealt with lowered lights. Yes they were all (except Schoenberg) sung in English, but why use all that paper in hand-out translations? Indeed, a perusal of the Britten and Bolcom texts afterwards revealed several moments where we would have enjoyed the jokes and nuances of some of Birsan’s clever vocalism.
But all can be forgiven—in fact, nearly forgotten—by the concluding reading of a thorough masterpiece, the Piano Trio No. 2 of Brahms. Now Sykes sat at the piano, and Fonteneau and Strauss once more gave us an immaculate traversal that never lacked an ounce of introspection, passion and clarity. The threesome are always highly anticipated for a weekend of BDDS, as they have performed as the San Francisco Piano Trio; when one hears an established ensemble at the top of their game in a work such as this it reminds us of many things: Why we fell in love with music in the first place, and how it’s always best to hear it live, among other things.
One weekend (barely, at this posting) remains for BDDS edition #26, but I will make it there Saturday night. Hope to see every seat filled—an even bigger Brahms work (the Piano Quintet) should rock the Playhouse at the Overture Center.