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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 21.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society's novel program features Schumann, Mendelssohn, C.P.E. Bach

Credit:Dick Ainsworth

At the Stoughton Opera House, one of my favorite performing venues hereabouts, the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society opened its 19th season with its first program on June 11, fielding a pool of six musicians.

There is always a catchy theme for each season, and this year it is "Novel Obsessions," organizing its programs under the rubrics of various novels, or at least their titles. The opening one is The End of the Affair, taken from Graham Greene's novel. Indeed, at one point, actress Colleen Burns read a passage from that work.

Three of the four pieces played in this initial program are claimed to be the composers' farewell to their work in that particular form or instrumental combination. The exception was Andrew Imbrie's "Serenade for Flute, Viola, and Piano," which dates from the time when his girlfriend became his wife.

The most modern of the selections, it certainly has its thorny qualities, but it is perfectly approachable, and its three movements are effective studies in contrasting moods, and show a particular sensitivity to the qualities of each of the three instruments, individually or in combinations.

Appropriate to this year's birth bicentennial of Robert Schumann, violinist Frank Almond (concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony) played the latter of the composer's only two Sonatas for Violin and Piano, which date from late in his career. Almond made an interesting point about his violin, a Stradivari instrument that once belonged to the notable violin virtuoso Karol Lipinski, a close friend of the composer, with whom (or with his wife Clara), Almond suggested Lipinski might have played this very music. Perhaps its inspiration was irresistible, for Almond, joined by BDDS co-director Jeffrey Sykes, gave a performance of truly Romantic passion.

After the intermission, co-director Stephanie Jutt, violist Ara Gregorian, and pianist Eli Kalman played a "Quartetto" in D major for keyboard, flute, viola and bass. This is one of three works (and not truly provable as "the last") that J.S. Bach's most influential son, Carl Philipp Emanuel composed in his last year (1788), as an extension of the old Baroque trio sonata.

The keyboard, or at least its right-hand part, becomes one of the melody instruments along with the other two. Normally this would be played with a cello doubling the keyboard's left-hand part, and the keyboard would be either a harpsichord or, at the least, an early fortepiano. By dropping the cellist, the keyboardist assumes a double role (creating a "quartet" for only three players), and by using a modern piano, the timbres and balances are distorted. Still, C.P.E. Bach's characteristically jagged writing came through as stimulating, in an elegant performance by Jutt, Gregorian and Kalman.

As the conclusion, Almond, Gregorian, cellist Joseph Johnson, and Kalman served up Mendelssohn's Quartet in B minor for Piano and Strings. This was the last of three such works composed when Mendelssohn was an astoundingly precocious 14, and the last of his initial three publications, Opp. 1-3. It is an ample four-movement work of remarkable craftsmanship and inspiration -- and for a composer of any age.

At times the piano is pitted against the strings in an almost concerto-like fashion, but the string-ensemble writing is particularly clever throughout. The four players delivered the piece with enormous vitality and gusto Friday evening, earning a deservedly spontaneous standing ovation.

An auspicious start to the season! This program will be repeated this Sunday at Taliesin in Spring Green, while a different one will be given in Madison's Overture Center on Saturday. And there will be two more weekends of programs to come, as always, with fascinating variety of music and top-quality musicianship. For information, go online or call 608-255-9866.

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