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BDDS: From Improbable to Impeccable

June 26, 2011

A lot is written about Madison’s Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society’s (BDDS) colorful approach to chamber music. And that’s as should be. After all, is there any art form with a greater reputation for stuffiness than a group of starched-shirt musicians noodling their way through the lesser-known works of the classical canon? It’s BDDS’s mission to explode that myth and add some mirth to the proceedings, and that’s something the revolving ensemble does quite well.

This year’s theme, “Bach to the Future,” couldn’t have been more emblematic of the approach. And after 20 years of whimsy, the moveable musical feast of founders Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt has attracted a well-deserved and greatly appreciative following.

We saw the magic at work again Saturday at The Playhouse at Overture Center, when the pair were joined by pianist Randall Hodgkinson, violinist Axel Strauss and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau. And we saw some outstanding musicianship as well, which is the other, even stronger cornerstone on which BDDS has built its reputation.

Contemporary composer Paul Schoenfeld’s Three Bagatelles opened the evening, with Jutt, Fonteneau and Hodgkinson taking the reins of the three-movement work. The composer’s more contemporary styling set the work apart from much of what was to follow, providing an interesting and engaging opening number.

Technology came into play with Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs, op. 28 for piano four-hands, with Hodgkinson and Sykes taking control of the keyboard. The attractive fabric backdrop slid down to reveal a projection screen, which filled with an overhead projections of the keyboard and the pianists’ four hands – much like the overhead stove-top projections of a demonstration kitchen — which were as witty in their interplay as Barber’s work was musically in its interpretation of six dance rhythms.

But BDDS is rarely better than when interpreting the classics. Violinist Strauss performed impeccably on J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in D minor for solo violin. The musician’s eyebrows arched as his fingers flew across the instrument’s frets, the horsehairs on his bow severing one by one as the composition progressed. Strauss received the first of two much-deserved standing ovations.

Strauss was back, this time with Fonteneau and Sykes, to close with Johannes Brahms’ Trio in B Major, op. 8. The composition was remarkable for the fact that it was written when Brahms was quite young, then revised by the composer in later years as his musical style matured. Richness of tone matched with compositional energy and passion, all driven by the performers’ outstanding paying. Chalk up a second standing ovation.

The second half of the evening played stronger than the first, providing impeccable interpretations of some outstanding works. And the improbable? Sound engineer Buzz Kemper, dressed as a bee, strumming through an acoustic guitar rendition of the Slim Harpo blues classic King Bee as the post-intermission entertainment.

Never let it be said that BDDS takes itself too seriously, or that sounds techs can’t have a little fun.

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