Bach Dancing and Dynamite: The Devil Is in the Details

BDDS offers strong performances, but falls prey to temptation in Stravinsky

 

Now in its 27th memorable season, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society has never played it safe; if anything, co-founders Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes have thrived on adding all sorts of twists to their programs. Not every dart thrown hits the bullseye…but on the whole we’d rather have the risks taken than not.

The centerpiece of the BDDS season is Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” with the titular figure the trigger, so to speak, that led to the season’s theme, “Toy Stories.” Alas, Jutt and Sykes couldn’t resist the temptation to play around a little too much with their favorite toy.

The 1917 work has long been one of this auditor’s favorites. Sitting out World War I in Switzerland, and with little hope of finding an orchestra to perform any large new works, Stravinsky turned to a text of C.F. Ramuz that called for a Narrator, Soldier, Devil and a dancer, and distilled the timbre of an orchestra into a mere seven players: violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and one percussionist. The result is a nearly one-hour allegory of the great theme of selling one’s soul to gain the world, only to lose both in the end. The music was composed less than four years after the searing breakthrough ballet The Rite of Spring, and we get much of the incessant multi-meter energy and arresting timbral combinations. I have seen the work more often conducted than not, even in the suite version just for the players (more about that later), but BDDS took the challenge head on, and performed the work as true chamber music.

Jutt gave a short intro to the piece, and her camouflage fatigue top and cap were not just to get us in the right frame of mind…she was going to play the Soldier. Jutt would be tempted and tortured by the Devil of Sykes, in a scarlet robe, and occasionally soft felt horns atop his head. There is no objection here to making the Soldier a female part, and frankly, Jutt lent more subtlety to the part than might have been expected. Sykes also handled most of the part well, excepting there was never a palpable sense of the sinister, the gravitas of inevitable evil. Still, local groups often recruit members of American Players Theater when a work calls for any speaking parts, and on this score we have to consider it an opportunity missed.

But much was redeemed by casting bass-baritone Timothy Jones as the Narrator, and the part does in fact include many lines that tell us what the Soldier is thinking. The one major miscalculation in the staging was to have the Devil reappear and through exertion of will, “pull” the Soldier along to perdition, Jutt walking quasi-zombie like. The problem with it is that it diluted the musical effect of the final Dance of Triumph, which dissolves as one instrument after another drops off, leaving the percussion to conclude the work.

When it comes to the playing, there is no praise high enough. Again, conductorless, the septet nailed this incredibly challenging work. Here were the true stars of this “Tale”: violinist Axel Strauss, bass David Scholl, Alan Kay on clarinet, Adrian Morejon on bassoon, trumpeter Matt Onstad, trombonist Dylan Chmura-Moore, and Anthony Di Sanza on percussion. Here’s the best context I can give: at the 1992 Ojai Festival, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic were conducted by Pierre Boulez, no less—and the BDDS troupe outplayed them last Saturday night at the Overture Center’s Playhouse. That, by the way, was another wildly thrown dart, directed by Peter Sellars, who cast the Narrator with a duo known as Urban Prop (T-Love and Suggah B) who were a hot hip hop item back in the day. I wrote in that review that the whole concept might have worked better in the streets of South Central LA than under the venerable California live oaks of Ojai—but that it was “Far better to chance the occasional misfire of a Sellars than settle for a middle-of-the-road, same-old-thing approach.” By comparison, BDDS did indeed come closer to the heart of Stravinsky’s searing allegory than the SoCal stars of Ojai.

There was one other major hit, the dancing of Blake Washington (pictured above, courtesy BDDS). He had made an unexpected appearance last year, and this time his extraordinary gifts were given full rein. In the original story, the Soldier eventually goes to cure a sleeping Princess; of course, Jutt now goes to cure a somnambulant Prince. The music sequence is called Tango-Waltz-Ragtime, and as wonderful as the music is, Washington’s array of movements, ranging from the whimsical to yearning to joy, added a wonderful dimension.

The first half of the evening was more the usual BDDS experience: compelling performances with only a minor (but ongoing) quibble. The aforementioned bassoonist, Adrian Morejon, offered his own arrangement of Schumann’s “Three Romances,” Op. 94. Originally for oboe and piano, I have played them on clarinet…and frankly, am rarely disposed to want to hear them in any other arrangement. Until last Saturday. Morejon’s playing destroys the old line about the bassoon being the “clown of the orchestra.” Such depth of expression, and subtleties of tone color…and at the piano, Sykes reminded us that it is possible to play the traditionally assumed “thick” piano parts of Schumann with clarity and sensitivity.

Contemporary composer Kevin Puts is a real favorite of BDDS, and thanks to them (and a Madison Symphony performance of a Puts work a few seasons ago), I continue to find his music well worth exploring. Saturday we were treated to “Einstein on Mercer Street,” a 2002 work written for Timothy Jones, and an ensemble that roughly mimics the group required by the Stravinsky: remove the bassoon and trombone, and add Calum Cook on cello, and Satoko Hayami on piano. The text is drawn from Einstein himself, revealing the tender love toward his wife—and his bitterness that “They say even the bomb was my idea” (referring to the fact that his theories helped lead to nuclear bombs. But…too many subtleties were lost, because we had no printed text in the program booklet (which otherwise was fabulous as usual) or projected surtitles.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same: whatever BDDS does that raises the hackles on this evolving curmudgeon, I’m always glad I went. There are three more chances to experience the unique BDDS experience: Friday at the Stoughton Opera House, Saturday at The Playhouse, with both programs offered Sunday at the Hillside Theater, Taliesin.

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