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Monday, October 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 54.0° F  Overcast
Music
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Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society performs Bach, Vaughan Williams, Bermel and Haydn in striking 20th anniversary series opener
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Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio shaped haunting melodies on the violin.
Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio shaped haunting melodies on the violin.

The antique Stoughton Opera House was warm and welcoming Friday evening as the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society performed its first concert of the summer season. This year marks the society's 20th anniversary, so after the show the audience shared a rich chocolate cake.

Substantial portions of Bach are programmed for this season, and yesterday's concert, titled "Bach Around the Clock," opened with J.S. Bach's Trio Sonata from "A Musical Offering." Joseph Haydn, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and contemporary American composer Derek Bermel were also featured.

The Trio Sonata for flute, violin and continuo is a late Bach work dedicated to King Frederick the Great of Prussia, a flute player and music lover. A lovely largo opened the sonata with Stephanie Jutt on flute, Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, violin, Parry Karp, cello, and Layton James on a French double harpsichord that he built. Jutt's clear, smooth playing created airy spaces in the sonata's dense texture. James and Karp kept the rhythm flowing, while Jutt and Sant'Ambrogio shaped haunting melodies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' "On Wenlock Edge" is a song cycle of six poems from A.E. Housman's collection, "A Shropshire Lad." Tenor Gregory Schmidt, pianist Jeffrey Sykes, and a string quartet kept it simple and nostalgic. While "On Wenlock Edge" has English propriety, the musicians brought out Ravel's French influence. Schmidt's interpretation was robust, adding fire and fervor to songs that are, for the most part, sad and contemplative. But there were about fifty seconds of humor in the fourth song, "Oh, when I was in love with you." The young lad minds his manners when he woos his lover, but as time goes on, he reverts to his old, ornery ways.

Derek Bermel's "Nature Calls" and other songs for bass and piano showed us how far out classical music can be. Bass-baritone Timothy Jones and Bermel were classmates at the University of Michigan, and some of the songs performed last night were written for the singer with the help of poet Wendy S. Walters. Poems like "One Fly" and "Ma's Kitchen" were half spoken, half sung and fully acted out as Jones added his own blend of theatrics. Sykes plucked out Bermel's charmingly atonal piano writing. While most songs were comical, "Dog," a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, was thought-provoking.

Joseph Haydn's "Symphony No. 101 in D Major" closed the concert. Not many composers are as difficult to play as Haydn. Symphony 101, called "The Clock" because of its steady, clock-like andante, is athletic and meaty. But Bach Dancing's musicians were working hard and their efforts paid off. That uncanny communication that good musicians have with each other was at its height in this symphony. The rhythm was precise, the playing clear and articulate. The performers navigated tricky rhythms and Haydn's obsessive concern over details. Violist Daniel Panner added rich resonance, and I especially enjoyed the virtuosic, solo playing of violinist Carmit Zori.

This was an outstanding concert, and if you missed it, Bach Dancing will perform it again at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 12 at Taliesin's Hillside Theater in Spring Green.

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