The performance will remain live in my memory for the rest of my life.
Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 2014 season this weekend with the organization's typical combination of unfamiliar music with beloved masterpieces, in performances of the highest quality. The June 14 performance took place at Overture Center's Playhouse, and both of the weekend's programs will be repeated at Taliesin in Spring Green on June 15.
Music for two pianos framed the program, featuring the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society co-director Jeffrey Sykes and UW faculty star Christopher Taylor. They launched things with Maurice Ravel's La Valse. It was originally written as a piano duo, but Ravel had an uncanny gift for thinking simultaneously in pianistic and orchestral terms. So it is in his orchestral version that the work is best known. The two players were totally in sync, in a performance of wonderful sonority, capturing the nostalgic sarcasm of Ravel's use of the waltz to reflect on the opulence and smugness of a world just eradicated by World War I.
The stage had to be extensively rearranged to set up for a very new (2011) composition by the American composer Aaron Jay Kernis. His L'arte della danssar for soprano voice, flute, viola, harp and percussion, is a long, cantata-like affair, using texts from a 15th-century Italian description-book on dancing. The problem was, though, that Kernis completely failed to make an honest setting of the long text. The key to the difficulty was his use of a high soprano voice, in its highest ranges, as the vocal exponent.
Now, with the best of will, sopranos are rarely are able to get the words out, especially when mostly rapid patter quite cancels out efforts at diction. The Italian texts, with English translation, were provided with the program book, with the house lights up for reading. But most of the time, it was impossible to follow them as singer Dìsella Làrusdóttir shrieked out her awkward lines. Ironically, the instrumental "accompaniment" was regularly much more interesting -- both for its cleverness and its listenability -- than the vocal writing. Perhaps Kernis, who seems not really to have cared about doing justice to the texts, should just have left out the vocal part altogether. Nevertheless, all praise to the five performers involved for their devoted efforts on behalf of a thankless project.
After the intermission, co-director Stephanie Jutt showed off her latest discovery in the endless quest for unfamiliar music for flute. Accompanied by Sykes, she played the Introduction and Allegro by Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000). Light and airy, with consistent melodic interest, this work offers just the kind of workout in which Jutt excels.
Then came the pièce de résistance, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances, his last and crowning composition. Here the story is the reverse of Ravel's, for the orchestral version was composed first, and the arrangement for two pianos followed quickly. The orchestral version is the one more regularly heard, a piece of compelling richness. By contrast, the piano-duo version reduces the score to a bare-bones clarity that is constantly revealing, with its own pianistic integrity. Still, it is the greater nuance and coloristic range that inevitably is the one for consistent satisfaction.
The score is cast in three movements. The powerful first one contains a midsection of heartbreaking beauty (a melody taken by saxophone in the orchestral version). The second is a waltz that, like Ravel's, combines nostalgia with cynicism. The third movement is a restless, pounding fantasy, much of its material developed out of the first four notes of the "Dies irae" chant.
Taylor and Sykes were magnificent in their propulsive but carefully shaped rendition. This is one of those special Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society performances that will remain alive in my memory for the rest of my life. No small contribution to both piano-duo performances, by the way, was made by the loan of a vintage 1914 Mason & Hamlin piano, restored by the ever-benevolent Farley's House of Pianos.
There are still two more weekends to come for the 23rd Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society's season. Catch what you can of it!