Whimsy is key to chamber music group

Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society in its 27th season
Whimsy is key to chamber music group
Photos courtesy of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society
The cast for "Toy Stories," put on by the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, is comprised of seven players, three actors and a dancer. That includes, left to right, cellist Callum Cook, soprano Emily Birsan and choreographer and dancer Blake Washington.

In a city known for consistently imaginative programming from every classical music group in town, the one that set the tone first, and might well remain the best, is the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society.

In 1992 – before John DeMain arrived to grow the Madison Symphony and Madison Opera; before Andrew Sewell started challenging assumptions about what the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra “should” play; and before Trevor Stephenson opened ears anew with his Madison Bach Musicians – Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes acted on their ideas. They wanted to play more music in the summer and had in a specific repertoire in mind, certain musicians with whom they wanted to play and an audience in Madison they expected would be appreciative.

The one thing they were most sure of was the name, which required permission to use. Jutt had played flute in an event in Half Moon Bay, California, where people began dancing one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the beach, followed by fireworks. The event became known as the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society. Happily, the West Coast folks were delighted to lend the name for use in Madison.

In the years since, the BDDS here has grown into three-weekend festival of six different programs, each performed twice at Overture Center for the Arts’ Playhouse, the Stoughton Opera House and the Hillside Theater at Taliesin near Spring Green.

While many of its players are local stars, BDDS has for many years now attracted luminaries from both coasts – many of which have been eager to return.

The initial connection between Jutt, principal flutist for the Madison Symphony, and pianist Sykes is that Sykes did his graduate work at University of Wisconsin-Madison when Jutt was still teaching there (she has since retired), and the two formed a close musical bond.

Whimsy is key to chamber music group

BDDS’s winning formula consists of a potent mixture of chamber masterpieces and off-the-beaten-path selections, frequently including works and/or arrangements rarely encountered in a chamber series. Add a dash of whimsy and a penchant to surprise and the result has been a loyal audience returning year after year. Each season is headlined by a whimsical title, like this year’s “Toy Stories.”

Sykes says the concept grew from the certainty that BDDS wanted the centerpiece of this season to be Stravinsky’s intensely compelling “The Soldier’s Tale.” Written in 1917, it is a powerful allegory about losing one’s soul in exchange for wealth and power. The cast is comprised of seven players, three actors and a dancer.

This Friday and Saturday night, June 8-9, “Toy Stories” is at the Playhouse. Both programs will be repeated June 10 at the Hillside Theater. On opening night, highlights include the Symphony No. 82 of Haydn – an arrangement with flute, a string quartet and piano. June 9 is “American Girls,” with works by Gabriela Lena Frank, Chen Yi and Rebecca Clarke.

The Stravinsky centerpiece is slated for inclusion in the June 16-17 concerts. For the program titled “Rubber Ducky, You’re the One,” BDDS will perform “The Swan” by Saint-Saens, “Mother Goose Suite” by Ravel, a selection of “waterfowl” songs by four disparate composers and a couple more species-specific titles. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 will also be played in a chamber arrangement.

Sykes gave some arresting insight into how much work goes into preparing for these two-hour concerts.

“We typically start group rehearsals on Monday afternoon, continue that evening, Tuesday and Wednesday all day, Thursday morning and afternoon. We have trial performances on Wednesday and Thursday – outreach events and open rehearsals where we get to try things under performance conditions. On Friday and Saturday we have a sound check in the halls before the performance.”

A close look at BDDS’s dizzying schedule begs the question why the performers go through it all.

“So much in our modern lives is based on maximizing convenience. Playing chamber music is maximally inconvenient,” Sykes explains. “The mindset of convenience is all destination with as little journey as possible. The mindset of chamber music is all journey with no final destination imaginable. What’s the ‘final destination’ in playing Mozart?”

Sykes adds, “BDDS is fun in the deepest sense of that word. In our seemingly ‘post truth’ world, I think audiences more than ever crave real, authentic experiences. Live chamber music is as real as it gets.”

Greg Hettmansberger covers jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.