You have to give this to the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society — they know how to engage an audience.
From 20th century experimentalism that both clangs and whispers to 19th century Romantic yearning to 18th century comic opera made fresh for the 21st century, they draw in audiences hook, line, and sinker. And you know the musicians are having fun when they do this.
BDDS opened its twentieth season this weekend under the theme "Bach to the Future: A 20th Season Bacchanale." Each program, of course, features a substantial work by a member of the Bach family as well as other composers and works influenced by Bach (presumably the great JS is the main authority being cited there).
This program, "We Will, We Will Bach You," opened with Ned Rorem's "The Unquestioned Answer." Performed by Stephanie Jutt on flute, Jeffrey Sykes on piano, and Suzanne Beia and Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio on violin, the piece explored a wide range of ensemble textures and played repeatedly with different permutations of stillness and motion.
The opening, for example consisted of a series of dissonant yet tender sustained chords in the flute and violins, against which the piano struck out harsh, disjointed melodies. This section was followed by one in which the piano provided a rocking accompaniment to more lyrical gestures from the rest of the ensemble.
The ending was breath-taking: as the piano alternated between pounding and floating, the violins and flute held out a lingering chord that grew quieter and quieter, the tones blending so seamlessly that I imagined I could almost feel the tiny, subtle grittiness of bow on string and breath on metal. Sykes, in particular, deserves praise for the range of his playing, but the ensemble as a whole was superb.
César Franck's 1886 sonata for violin and piano followed, performed by Carmit Zori with Sykes again on piano. The expressive content of this piece covered more familiar ground than the Rorem-it was serious, dramatic, and emotional from beginning to end. Zori and Sykes' performance was loving and passionate, and they held the space fully right to the last moment.
BDDS rightly placed JS Bach's "Coffee Cantata" on its own at the close of the concert. It was a show stealer and a reminder of the group's commitment to encourage humor and classical music to co-exist peacefully. As originally created, the "Coffee Cantata" was essentially a short comic opera about a father trying to convince his daughter to give up her thrice daily caffeine fix, coffee being newly faddish in 18th century Europe.
BDDS translated and liberally adapted the text to include references to Facebook and iPads, and placed the three characters in modern dress-a suited father (Timothy Jones), jean jacket-wearing daughter (Anna Slate), and dreadlocked and tattooed narrator / barista / love interest (Gregory Schmidt).
Singers and instrumentalists alike played the humor to the hilt, and if the hamming teetered on the edge of overwhelming the music, the whole thing was, in the end, musically sound. Besides, Bach clearly intended to play for guffaws in the first place.
This concert was a classic example of what BDDS does best: adventurous programming, serious musicianship, and staging that reminds you the best musical performances can be as creative as the compositions they feature.