By Greg Hettmansberger
Any of the regulars, and certainly the co-founders, Stephanie Jutt and Jeffrey Sykes, must count the days each year as June approaches. After experiencing five of the six programs of this 20th season of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, the overriding impression is a potent mixture of day-camp camaraderie in the midst of that palpable joy that occurs when great artistry is created live.
Returning to the Stoughton Opera House Friday night, the group’s namesake led off the proceedings with the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1039. The focus was on Jutt’s flute and the violin playing of Axel Strauss, and on two occasions there was a seamless, magical transition between the two in passing a long phrase one to the other. Once again, this was a modern instrument reading, with Randall Hodgkinson adding a discreet piano accompaniment, gently underlined by the cello of Jean-Michel Fonteneau.
The next work proved to be the highlight of a stellar night: the Trio (1914) of Maurice Ravel, featuring the San Francisco Piano Trio of Strauss, Fonteneau and Sykes. It is one thing to hear great individual musicians come together in a festival setting, but even such artists who do play a good deal of chamber music are no match for an ensemble that has been together for years. This is particularly true in a work such as the Ravel, which is full of virtual orchestral color and nearly as many moods. Strauss added to the impression that he made in the Bach, that he produces a tone not so much louder than one would expect, but it has a kind of three-dimensional glow that seems to pull one’s ears to it. Fonteneau was the very picture of the consummately controlled master, calmly negotiating every technical challenge, and eliciting a compelling richness from his cello. Sykes made one forget that the piano is, by nature, a percussion instrument.
The second half was lighter but no less beautiful: Paul Dukas’ (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” guy) arrangement for piano, four-hands of Saint-Saens’ “Bacchanale” from the opera “Samson et Dalila.” The next piece was a rarer gem, the Trio of the 18-year old Claude Debussy, originally for violin, cello and piano, but here in an arrangement with Jutt on flute taking the violin part. Frankly it is hard to imagine the original with violin being able to hold a candle to this version. The evening concluded with two arrangements of the modern tango-master, Astor Piazzolla: the “Grand Tango,” originally written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, but here in piano trio form, and the “Fuga e misterio,” an arrangement from an operetta, that re-united all five of the evening’s stars.
Saturday night at the Playhouse in the Overture Center was accompanied by that potent mixture of high anticipation to hear the program unfold — and great reluctance to see the festival conclude. The opening work was the delightful “Three Bagatelles” of Paul Schoenfield, whose Piano Quintet will be given its world premiere this November as part of the Pro Arte Quartet centennial season. The Bagatelles are of course slighter in nature, but the opening “Cloying” seemed a self-deprecating title, as the sounds from Jutt, Fonteneau and Hodgkinson were thoroughly inviting and imbued with a quite natural sweetness.
The six “Souvenirs” of Samuel Barber for piano, four-hands was a major treat: a camera directly above the keyboard allowed the audience to watch the fascinating technical challenges navigated by the hands of Sykes and Hodgkinson projected on a large screen. The 1952 dance-inspired movements (everything from a Waltz to a Two-Step, Hesitation-Tango and Galop) still possess a genuine freshness after more than half a century, and the “Two-Step” added the visual element of something akin to watching a Wimbledon tennis match times ten.
The second half needed only one performer, Axel Strauss essaying the mini-epic “Chaconne,” the great closing movement from the Bach “Partita in D minor.” “Mini” because it lasts less than a quarter-hour, “epic” because in those scant minutes, Bach gives us a world of expression (and technical challenges that still daunt the unproven player).
Strauss reminded us in a single, unaccompanied work why Western music essentially begins with, and in so many ways since, is centered in Bach. As for his playing, well, there are a couple of moments in the Chaconne when it feels as though it might be over; then Strauss continues and the heart leapt with “Oh yes!— there’s more!”
The San Francisco Piano Trio reunited for the work of a man who, perhaps more than other musician of the late 19th-century, understood and fully appreciated Bach: Johannes Brahms. His Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 8 has both the passion of youth and the finely honed touch of the elderly master, as the composer almost completely reworked the early masterpiece at the end of his life. Strauss, Fontenot and Sykes wrung every ounce of beauty and perfection out of it, and we were left wanting more.
So I noticed the poster in the foyer that mentioned “Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, June 15-July 1, 2012. Hmm…only 353 more days…but why does 2012 have to be a leap year?! See you there…