By Greg Hettmansberger
There may have been some in the Overture Center Playhouse Saturday night who came to the fourth program of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society primarily for the second half, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 of the group’s namesake. But knowing that BDDS has grown their faithful and enthusiastic audience over the last twenty years with a combination of superior artistry and challenging programs, many of them were undoubtedly there to experience a deeply mystical vision delivered with some expert clarity.
The mysticism came courtesy of the pen of Olivier Messiaen, in his epic two-piano work, “Visions de l’amen.” The clarity emerged from the hands of pianists Christopher Taylor, and Society co-founder Jeffrey Sykes.
The 1943 work, seven movements that sprawl over nearly fifty minutes, draws principally upon the composer’s devotion to Catholicism — more famously expressed in the 1940 masterpiece “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed in the Nazis Stalag VIII-A. Sykes’ prefatory remarks were, as usual, most insightful, giving a clear sense of the over-arching scope of the work, from the Creation itself to the ultimate reuniting in eternal bliss.
But an even more salient touch was the addition of longtime actor/singer/teacher/radio personality Linda Clauder, who read before each movement. Some of the remarks came directly from Messiaen, but most were from the Bible, from the opening book of Genesis to the closing The Revelation of John, with other passages from The Song of Solomon and The Gospel According to Matthew.
Messiaen composed a virtual encyclopedia of pianistic color, and Taylor and Sykes seemed to work from a limitless palette. Whether in the gradually unfolding “Amen of Creation,” the pain of “Amen of the Agony of Jesus” and “Amen of Judgment,” or the celestial bells of the closing “Amen of Consummation,” the two men complimented and meshed their considerable gifts. In the penultimate “Amen of Judgment,” Taylor seemed to prowl up and down the keyboard, pouncing upon piercing chords.
I had had only a passing acquaintance with the work until Saturday night; a CD of it ended up in my car a year or so ago, and my overwhelming impression was that this was music that demands focused, concentrated listening. Really, the concert hall is the only place to truly experience such a work as “Visions de l’amen,” and perhaps only BDDS could find a way to program it and still sell tickets.
It was cheering to see the modern Steinway in place for the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, and Taylor seated before it once again, with flutist Stephanie Jutt and violinist Erin Keefe the other soloists. They were tastefully accompanied by violinists Suzanne Beia and William Polk, violist Kerri Ryan and cellist Parry Karp. I’m sure it had much to do with the location of my seat, but Jutt was uncharacteristically overshadowed in the opening movement by Taylor and Keefe. The ensuing “Affetuoso,” with only the three soloists employed, restored matters of balance, and the finale also emerged democratically.
But the main matters — virtuosity made easy, musical conviviality displayed in all naturalness — carried the performance throughout. The transition following intermission was another “channeling,” this time of J.S. Bach himself, via the irresistible talents of Karlos Moser. These added little flourishes of BDDS fall into the category of: you had to be there. We’ve all got one more weekend to soak it all up…see you there.