Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society More Fun Than Ever

Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society More Fun Than Ever
BDDS co-founder and pianist Jeffrey Sykes

It’s a dangerously addictive thought to ponder: If the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society were in Madison year-round, would they still seem as special? I’ll confess to not getting my minimum fix. This is the third season in a row that life’s vagaries have allowed me to attend only one of their six programs. (By the way, there is no emoticon sufficient to highlight that circumstance). Now in their twenty-third year, the ever-creative brain child of Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes has yet to reveal the slightest hint that they’re running out of fabulously stimulating programs, or phenomenal colleagues to join them in some of Madison’s most memorable music of the year.

The conceit this year was “23 Skidoo,” one of those singular American colloquialisms of quasi-obscure origins, which most people take to mean a sudden, and often unplanned, exit. The fifth of the six programs was dubbed “Cut and Run,” and while only one of the four works could be said to have had an overt connection to the phrase, the music at the Playhouse in the Overture Center made any such concerns less than trivial.

Every year rarities become bunkmates to masterpieces, and Friday’s concert opened with one such work, the Trio for flute, violin and piano by Nino Rota. The 1958 composition came from the pen of a man best known for his film scores, especially in his frequent collaborations with Federico Fellini. The first movement of the Trio overflowed with boundless energy, propelled by pianist Randall Hodgkinson. The slow movement was a dreamy dialogue between Jutt’s flute and the violin of Axel Strauss, and the finale combined some marvelous pizzicato from the violin with clever colors in the piano.

The first half, indeed in reality the whole concert, was dominated emotionally by the towering Piano Trio No. 2 of Shostakovich. Composed in 1944 and inspired by the loss of a close friend, Shostakovich widened the sense of grief and remembrance to the victims of both the Jews of the Nazi death camps and fellow Soviets in the gulags. One was certain what kind of performance was in store, as the performers have become an annual treat of BDDS, the San Francisco Piano Trio. Anchored by BDDS co-founder Sykes on piano, Strauss was again the violinist, joined by cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

If you hear the work on recording, it is easy to overlook the fact that the cello opens the work in a stratospheric range, eerie harmonics which continue unaccompanied for some time, and lose none of their otherworldliness when the violin finally joins in far below in its mid-to-low range. The men offered a true tour de force in the brief but intensely focused scherzo, and the slow movement gave eloquent voice to the kind of unspeakable sadness that makes music the inevitable outlet when words fail us. The finale is built on a Jewish dance tune that seems to flash at times with a danse macabre sensibility far more grim than anything Saint-Saëns imagined. It was in short the kind of performance one would rank as having made the entire evening worthwhile.

But happily, we not only had a perfect emotional antidote, but were treated to a rarity via a well-known work. Darius Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit (“The Ox on the Roof”) is most often heard in its orchestral version, and for one listener at least, the pastiche of catchy Brazilian tunes manages to wear out its welcome no matter how well played (as the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra did a couple seasons ago).

What few of us knew was that Milhaud desired to provide a score to a silent Chaplin film, and while the traditional path to that goal did not quite happen with Chaplin’s 1916 “The Count,” Milhaud did offer this four-hand piano version of Le boeuf as a solution in 1920. So we received the treat of watching this riotous quarter-hour movie with Sykes and Hodgkinson playing facing the screen, backs to the audience. How they kept their composure as they accompanied Chaplin and company’s inimitable slapstick is a mystery one could ponder only after one’s breath was caught following the boisterous applause.

The evening’s conclusion finally gave me one opening for a minor criticism: BDDS does everything so well, that even the lack of detailed program notes can be overlooked. Indeed, almost without exception, Sykes, Jutt and other artists spend a couple of minutes giving more detail about the next work than one would usually glean from even the best printed notes. Until the Trois aquarelles of Philippe Gaubert, that is. Without a peep from Jutt, Fonteneau and Hodgkinson, we were given a musical depiction of a perfumed summer night, rounded off by a kind of whirling dance. At least it made me want to do some homework on the 1921 work, and hear some more of Gaubert soon…and more of BDDS—next June!