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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Bach Dancing and Dynamite features new American composers

Among the joys of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society's annual operations has been their outreach beyond Madison. I love their performances at the Stoughton Opera House, a restored jewel. For this year's opening concert, they reached out to the Mineral Point Opera House, another regional gem, one awaiting - and richly deserving - restoration.

Always adventurous in programming, the BDDS this year stresses inclusion of music by young American composers. Particularly so in the June 13 opener. Organized around the thematic idea of a journey, it began with an arrangement for flute with piano of the opening song of Schubert's "Winterreise" cycle. And the program's centerpiece was Vaughan Williams' wonderful "Songs of Travel" cycle setting nine poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. Jeffrey Sykes accompanied Timothy Jones, whose light baritone voice and exceptional diction allowed great sensitivity to the words - a lovely performance.

The rest of the program offered music by the new Americans. Kevin Puts (b. 1972) contributed two unusually scored pieces. His "Traveler," for flute, violin, viola, cello and piano, is built around a central theme in a way that recalls the old contrapuntal idiom of the Italian ricercare. His "Ritual Protocol" is a more extended, three-movement work exploring the parallel, yet subtly contrasted, timbres of marimba and piano, in rhythmic and percussive style that sometimes suggests Balinese gamelan sound.

The program ended with two willfully witty and fiendishly difficult pieces. "Seduction" by Miguel del Aguila (b. 1957) is a fevered introduction and dance in Caribbean flavor. "Breakdown Tango" by John Mackey (b. 1973) is a frenzied and "satanic" dance of sardonic energy.

The new pieces held interest and certainly pleased the audience. But, in a broad context, they remain little more than entertaining novelties. There is so very much wonderful chamber music out there (by living as well as dead composers), a great deal almost never heard. The BDDS is so good at marshalling wonderful musicians in their concerts that it seems a pity not to employ them in as much substance as possible. Granted, it is exciting for musicians to take on the challenges of newer music, especially when they can consult directly and even rehearse with the composers themselves - something that can't be done with dead masters. And new music does need to be heard. In fairness, too, the concert programs ahead are better balanced, not so heavy with new items, and full of really splendid stuff by "traditional" composers.

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