Denk and Stucky Have Fun With ‘Classical Style’

United StatesUnited States Haydn, Stucky:  Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello), soloists, The Knights (orchestra), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 20.6.2013 (HS)

Ojai Music Festival: "The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)" 6/11/14 Libby Bowl
Ojai Music Festival: “The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)” 6/11/14 Libby Bowl

Haydn: String Quartet No. 59 in G minor, Op. 74 No. 3, “Rider”
Stuckey: The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)

Tonic, Don Giovanni: Aubrey Allicock
Haydn, Bartender: Dominic Armstrong
Dominant, Musicologist: Rachel Calloway
Snibblesworth: Keith Jameson
Charles Rosen, Tristan Chord: Kim Josephson
Beethoven, Commendatore: Ashraf Sewailam
Subdominant, Schumann: Peabody Southwell
Mozart, Donna Anna: Jennifer Zetlan

An opera based on a book on musicology would hardly seem like fodder for a rollicking evening, but the team of pianist/writer Jeremy Denk and composer Steve Stuckey pull it off. The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) made its debut this month, first in Southern California at the Ojai Music Festival and this past week at Ojai North (presented by Cal Performances).

Denk penned this 70-minute riff on the words and ideas of Charles Rosen, whose book The Classical Style was scoffed at when it was first published in 1971. Now its treatment of the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is much loved by musicians. In the opera, not only do the three archetypal composers wander the earth but Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant emerge as flesh-and-blood characters. An earnest musicology student becomes the villain of the piece. Rosen himself, portrayed as an absent-minded professor, quotes long passages from the book. Robert Schumann and The Tristan Chord appear, too, to show us where music headed after the Classical Era.

Stucky wrote the score, fleshing out these characters and stitching in as many inside musical references and jokes as possible. A symposium on sonata form is written, of course, in sonata form. A parody of Leporello’s “Catalogue Aria” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni enumerates performances, ovations and cellphone rings for Beethoven’s music in various countries.

Heard Friday in Hertz Hall on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, this pungent and sweet soufflé manages to lay out the musical ideas while remaining true to the classical style itself. The performers made it all clear and kept it fizzy, reveling in moments of slapstick but not shying away from a surprisingly serious and touching finish, either.

Robert Spano conducted The Knights, a New York-based orchestral collective, seamlessly tuning into various musical styles, including the late Romantics Schumann and Wagner. Vocal performances were admirable across the board. Bass-baritone Kim Josephson was the only bona fide star in the cast (he’s sung many roles at the Metropolitan Opera) but I would not be surprised if we hear a good deal from others in the future.

The three composers were especially good. Jennifer Zetlan’s diminutive size, pliant soprano and comic timing made Mozart into earthy delight. Ashraf Sewailam’s tall stature and resonant bass created a stentorian Beethoven and, when he arrived at Charles Rosen’s dinnertime singing the Commendatore’s music from Don Giovanni, an imposing figure. Dominic Armstrong’s lyric tenor and slightly befuddled demeanor made Haydn into an endearing character.

Peabody Southwell’s sultry low mezzo-soprano was the standout among the chords. As Subdominant she exuded a sexual mystery with both her body and her voice that played against higher mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway’s clingy Dominant and heroic baritone Aubrey Allicock’s self-centered Tonic. Keith Jameson (Bardolfo in the Met’s recent HD broadcast of Falstaff) lent a finely tuned tenor to Snibblesworth, the musicology student earnest in his knowledge of facts and clueless to the emotional majesty of music.

Josephson acted as the fulcrum for all of this, first as Rosen in domestic scenes but also as a eye-patched figure identified as the Tristan Chord. His scene was modeled musically and dramatically on Wotan’s narration in Act II of Die Walküre. In it he explains to a rapt Dominant how he wandered away from the harmonic moorings of the classical era and ushered in a new world no longer anchored in tonality. “Freest of all chords,” he concludes, “I am a slave.”

A final commentary, and a surprisingly moving moment, comes in the final scene, an appearance by Robert Schumann (sung by Southwell). As Rosen moves to the piano and plays the Fantasy, Op. 17, he turns to the audience and says, “Schumann’s monument to the classical style.” Schumann gets to the gist: “We cannot repeat the same forms for centuries.” It’s all written in Schumann-esque, high Romantic style

Setting all this up was a graceful and elegant performance of Haydn’s String Quartet No. 59 in G minor, played by Knight Rider, the string quartet that includes Colin and Eric Jacobsen, who founded The Knights.

Harvey Steiman

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