Last Saturday's performance at the Overture Center Playhouse was a novelty even for the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, which is noteworthy for experiments with the unusual. Instead of a program of chamber works, which the BDDS always organizes so well, this experiment took the form of a kind of concert-documentary. It was focused upon that trio of intertwined musical figures, Robert Schumann, his wife (a great pianist and a composer herself) Clara Wieck Schumann, and their friend (and Clara's great admirer) Johannes Brahms. Their words and music were juxtaposed in touching and often amusing evocations.
Musically, their works were intermingled. There were songs by each of the three for voice and piano, whose texts spoke of the power and frustrations of love. For instrumental relief, there were two sets of "Three Romances," one each by Robert and Clara--the latter's set written for violin with piano, the former's set written for the alternatives of oboe, violin, or clarinet with piano. These were played, quite plausibly, on the flute. And, finally, there was a set of variations that Brahms composed on a theme by Robert, written for piano four hands.
None of these selections, it must be admitted, are examples of each composer's best work. But they included some lovely things along the way, and their interrelationships were valid.
The five performers read passages (in English translations, of course) from the letters, diaries and documents of five characters involved--our three composers, Clara's father, and a Schumann daughter.
Leading this group were two really fine singers. Emily Birsan, long familiar to Madison audiences, seems to grow vocally and artistically with each appearance, her rich and lovely soprano voice used with sensitive appreciation for the emotions of the song texts. Timothy Jones is a BDDS veteran of many years, and his strong bass-baritone voice was matched by a fine confidence and comfortable stage manner.
The founders of Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, flutist Stephanie Jutt and pianist Jeffrey Sykes, were predictably on hand, while another pianist joined the game. That was no less than a certain John DeMain, who was trained as a pianist. The music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra rotated accompaniment assignments with Sykes, and the two shared the piano for the Brahms--he played the burly secundo part, be it noted. DeMain was even given a grouchy text by Clara's embittered father to read.
In all, an unusual presentation, full of charm and humanity.
The staff sensibly prepared sheets of the German texts with English translations, which was a welcome contribution to enjoying the program. Efforts were made to mitigate the usual house darkening for the performance, but it must be said that, at least during the first half, a good deal of the audience found reading the texts or the program booklet difficult to impossible. Theater managements really ought to rethink this idea that performances must be given in near or total darkness in order to be enjoyed.
The third weekend in this year's Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society season will be June 28-30.