Bach Dancing and Dynamite Says “We’ll Take Manhattan”

eaching the midpoint of their twenty-first season, the delectable local mini-festival known as the “Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society” celebrated all things Manhattan on Friday night at the Overture Center Playhouse.

Always to be counted on for a quirky theme each year, co-founders Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes dubbed the season “Mixology,” with each program celebrating a particular cocktail and finding a way to link it to the music.

For the fourth of their six programs, this was easy: all four composers represented had a strong link to the city that never sleeps. First up was the Cello Sonata of Samuel Barber, given a hot-blooded interpretation that seemed to pour out of cellist Parry Karp’s bright red shirt. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson may have sported more subdued attire, but proved an apt aesthetic match for Karp.

Well before the end of the rapturous opening movement, one took a special delight in realizing what a pleasure it is to accept this music on its own terms — unlike the tenor of Barber’s times when his “neo-Romaticism” was constantly derided for being hopelessly out of step with the mid-twentieth century rage for serialism and its ilk. If Barber could be accused at times of wearing his heart on his sleeve, it is at least a heart worth admiring, and Karp and Hodgkinson dove into the work as if it were Brahms with an edge.

It still seems so short a time ago that in classical music, Manhattan and “Lenny” were inseparable, and it only takes a few bars from West Side Story to take us back to those heady days. Bernstein’s performances of his “Symphonic Dances” from the classic show (which by the way, comes to the Overture Center next year) still crackle with irresistible vitality, but BDDS gave us an even more unique experience: John Musto’s arrangement of the “Dances” for two pianos, with the considerable addition of a battery of percussion, played and arranged by Anthony Di Sanza and Dane Richeson.

Jeffrey Sykes and Hodgkinson captured all the elegance and electricity in the familiar tunes, but it was the percussionists’ contributions that elevated this to won’t-soon-forget-this status. Di Sanza and Richeson were both the backbone of the performance and the high-tension high wire off of which the pianists’ sparkled; the audience reaction was a near-spontaneous standing ovation, undoubtedly as much for the arrangement itself as for its realization.

The second half presented the Trio for flute, cello and piano of Ned Rorem. Best known for his catalogue of songs, this 1960 work shows Rorem’s ability to shift instantly from his own strain of lyricism to biting dissonance and barely resolved conflicts. Stephanie Jutt displayed her usual mastery of the flute, with Karp and Sykes adding both deft and powerful elements.

Only at the close did all six of the evening’s performers come together, in Pablo Ziegler’s arrangements of three of the tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Rightly known as an Argentinian who revived and transformed his country’s national dance, Piazzolla’s early years in New York City and his consequent exposure to jazz and classical performers proved a critical component in his development as a composer.

By night’s end we had drunk all we could with our ears…an aural carousing with everything but the hangover. Like the cocktail itself, “Manhattan” night at BDDS proved to be served not on the rocks, but straight up. Bartender, I’ll have a Kir Royale Friday night in Stoughton; see you there.

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