It’s been 20 years of serious playtime for Bach Dancing and Dynamite, the chamber music festival that kicks off Madison summers every year with Debussy and door prizes.
And still, for founders Jeffrey Sykes and Stephanie Jutt, each six-concert season presents new opportunities to experiment. Three weekends of performances begin on Friday, June 10, and run through Sunday, June 26 at the Stoughton Opera House, the Playhouse in Overture Center and Taliesin in Spring Green.
For a series of six concerts, Bach Dancing invites colleagues from around the country to play chamber music with local professional musicians. From works by contemporary composers (John Harbison’s 2000 piece “American Painters” is on this year’s schedule) to older, overlooked gems, the group’s enduring goal is to make chamber music accessible and, most of all, fun.
“It’s the highlight of my year,” said pianist Sykes, who moved to California in the late 1990s and currently teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. “Often times, professional musicians … you’re basically told what to do. You get hired to play this music for that gig.
“This music festival, for us, was a chance to take our destiny into our own hands, musically speaking.”
Sykes and Jutt, a flautist who plays with the Madison Symphony and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded the summer festival in 1992. They took the name from a California beach party at which a group of revelers spent an evening listening to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and shooting off firecrackers.
Bach Dancing quickly gained a reputation for being quirky and irreverent with their marketing and inventive with their concerts, incorporating actors and visual artists. Concerts included a floral display (“Monet’s Garden,” 1997), a photography slide show during a Schubert song cycle, ethereal textiles hung from the top of the Playhouse.
“What I love about their festival is it’s so relaxed and casual,” said Stephanie Saint’Ambrogio, a violinist who has played with Bach Dancing for 16 seasons. “There’s not a barrier between the artist and the audience.”
This season, Bach Dancing will do their name justice with a substantial piece by Bach on every concert, either Johann Sebastian or his most prolific son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.). The concert titles reflect this focus in the group’s signature silly style: “Bach to the Future,” “The Empire Strikes Bach,” “We Will, We Will Bach You.”
“We wanted to make sure we had a lot of Bach this year, since people are always bugging us to play more Bach,” Jutt said. “We always want to go back to the masterpieces of the chamber music literature.”
One piece Jutt is looking forward to is “The Coffee Cantata,” J.S. Bach’s only secular cantata, which earned standing ovations when the group performed it in 2001.
Jutt described the subject as a young girl (soprano Anna Slate) who hangs around in coffee houses with a young man (sung by tenor Gregory Schmidt).
“Coffee houses were a risqué place for a young girl to be in that time,” Jutt said. “The way we’re going to play it, he’s a barista. And the third character is her irate father, who’s the great baritone Timothy Jones.”
The second weekend’s performances, Friday through Sunday, June 17-19, include a seldom-heard version of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” scored for two pianos (Sykes and Christopher Taylor), as well as Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’amen” for two pianos.
“It’s rare that you see a concert with two nine-foot Steinway grands going at it,” Jutt said.
The final weekend will a work for two people on a single piano — Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs” — as well as tango music by Astor Piazzolla and a “bacchanale” by Camille Saint-Saens.
“We have some of the most adventurous repertoire choices of anywhere in the country,” Sykes said. “It’s because we have an audience that’s really willing to listen to unfamiliar things, and willing to accord them space and time beside the great works of Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms.”
In this 20th anniversary year, Bach Dancing is looking for an alternative to Edenfred, the artist’s residence where BDDS musicians could live, eat and practice during the three weeks of performances. But Edenfred closed in December, and now a board member has offered to move out of her house for three weeks to loan the festival the space.
“We’re calling it EdenWebb — her name is Daphne Webb,” said Samantha Crownover, Bach Dancing’s manager of 13 years. “Next year we’ll be starting from scratch again.”
While Sykes and Jutt are pleased that their endeavor has lasted as long as it has, Jutt doubts that anyone will take over the festival after the founders retire.
“We never did make any plans,” Jutt said. “It was always, gee, should we do it next year? And the answer was always ‘yes.’
“You can’t make a music festival overnight,” Jutt added. “It takes time and work. We’re in a great place.”