Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) - 12/04/14

Mozart: Rondo in F Major, K. 494 - Jeremy Denk
Mozart: Sonata in C Minor, K. 457 - Jeremy Denk
The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)
Composer: Steven Stucky
Librettist: Jeremy Denk
Conductor: Robert Spano
The Knights
Jennifer Zetlan: Soprano
Rachel Calloway: Mezzo-Soprano
Peabody Southwell: Mezzo-Soprano
Dominic Armstrong: Tenor
Keith Jameson: Tenor
Kim Josephson: Baritone
Aubrey Allicock: Bass-Baritone
Ashraf Sewailam: Bass-Baritone

Earlier this year, when I heard that Jeremy Denk, along with eminent contemporary American composer Steven Stucky, was working on an opera (?!) based on Charles Rosen's highly regarded, rigorously academic study The Classical Style (??!!) , I decided to read the book to get a better sense of what it was all about. I eventually made it to page 43, "The Origin of Style", skipping the most technical parts that were too obscure for me, and never went any further, more due to a lack of time than to a lack of desire. But I trusted the consummate pianist who went from best-kept secret to prestigious award-winning, multi-faceted artist within just a few years to make the intriguing adventure smart, entertaining, educational, unconventional, but still widely accessible.
Since I did not make it to the Ojai Music Festival last summer, on Thursday evening I joined my friend Paula in a Zankel Hall packed to the brim and buzzing with excitement to attend the New York première of The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). The uniqueness of the endeavor was apparently not lost on anybody, especially not the woman behind me who confided to her seatmate that she had "no idea what she was there for". So let the show begin!

The first part of the program was actually traditional fare - namely two piano pieces by Mozart - which were performed by Jeremy Denk with his signature combination of deep respect and carefree style. The Rondo kickstarted our evening with a light and easy touch, before the Sonata moved us into more dramatic territory. After hearing Denk give recitals in concert halls of various sizes and acoustical qualities, I realized that we had finally found the perfect venue for those periodic rendez-vous and totally relished this heavenly half hour.
After intermission, I went right back to heaven, and found Mozart right there too! The Viennese master was passing time playing Scrabble with Haydn and Beethoven, bored and bickering. The first few minutes wasted no time setting the witty and insightful tone of the opera by roundly establishing their distinct personalities. Haydn showed slight irritation at being called "Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa Haydn" to the tune of Papageno's popular aria from The Magic Flute, Mozart was starkly determined to get his share - 25% - from the gross generated by the film Amadeus, and Beethoven pedantically beat his adversaries at Scrabble with lofty words like "Weltanschauung" and "Gesamtkunstwerk", an accomplishment that Mozart, in true Amadeus form, giddily countered with "Scheisse", and Haydn, more prosaically, with "Bier". They eventually heard from The New York Times that classical music is dead, came across The Classical Style, and decided to descend back to earth to have a word with Charles Rosen.
Another major scene took place in a bar, where Dominant, Tonic and Subdominant hung out and talked about their lives. Dominant was mournfully looking for an ever-elusive but indispensable resolution, Tonic made a show-stopping grand entrance, and Subdominant wanted everybody to understand that there is nothing "sub" about her. The exchanges among this humanly volatile but harmonically codependent ménage à trois were clever, hilarious and edifying, even if some of the insider's jokes only made total sense to music connoisseurs.
Another key character was Henry Snibblesworth, a nerdy Berkeley PhD musicology student who may not have had the sharpest social skills, but who got to unwittingly rescue Donna Anna when crashing her forced seduction scene for no other purpose than to point out to her that her next vocal line would "contravene values of good melodic writing". His big moment, however, came a few minutes later when he winningly sang about who Beethoven was through an exhaustive list of numerous milestones such as the numbers of performances of the ninth symphony in America, of interminable lectures, of accidental cell phone rings, of standing ovations and of dogs named Beethoven, among many others, to the tune of... Leporello's famous Catalog aria from Don Giovanni. Positively ingenious and devilishly effective.
But not all was fun and game, and the most poignant scene was hands-down when the depressed, homeless Tristan Chord walked into the bar, with an eye-patch à la Wotan, and whole-heartedly sang to the puzzled diatonic trio endlessly long, incredibly lush Wagnerian lines about how, as an excitable youngster eager for musical innovation, he had come up with a chord that managed to annihilate the rules of harmony, sternly warning them that hell was about to break loose. You don't say.
The man at the origin of the whole enterprise, Charles Rosen, was there too, with a bigger than life personality that restlessly went on and on about music. He was the only character that never goofed off or lost his solid common sense, always remaining his brilliant self, unshakably dedicated to his noble cause, forever exploring and looking for new ideas.
All singers were excellent, effortlessly switching from one part to another, and seemed to have a good time as well. With her agile voice and superior comic timing, soprano Jennifer Zetlan was a wonderfully expressive Mozart, and her impressive gymnastics during her "too many notes" moment made us very grateful for the undue number of notes indeed. A Met veteran, baritone Kim Josephson put his deeply majestic voice to the service of the Tristan Chord and his commanding presence to Charles Rosen. Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam successfully impersonated an endearingly grumpy Beethoven and bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was irresistibly full of himself as the dynamite Tonic. Tenor Keith Jameson pulled off the musicology student's part with lots of energy and humor.
In perfect line with the opera's spirit, Steven Stucky's contribution was an inspired pastiche score featuring direct quotes from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which made looking for clues part of the fun. Don Giovanni, in particular, was a recurring presence, and who could complain about that? These classical excerpts were interspersed with Stucky's own composition, and it all worked pretty much seamlessly. The music was original, colorful and engaging, creating the ideal environment for reality and fantasy to commingle. Kudos to the chamber music orchestra The Knights and conductor Robert Spano for keeping it fresh and compelling.
The lively, occasionally rambunctious, performance ended on a rather subdued note, with a surprise visit from Robert Schumann. Music will go on, and hopefully so will The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). No music knowledge required, but nevertheless advised for maximum enjoyment.

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