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'Classical Style' review: Hitting funny bone of opera history

06.23.14
Jeremy Denk
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

There has been plenty of musicology written about opera, the brilliant pianist and writer Jeremy Denk points out, but never an opera about musicology. Now he and composer Steven Stucky have rectified that oversight in glorious fashion.

"The Classical Style," their exuberantly witty and often touching one-act opera, attempts nothing less than to give theatrical life to a work of music-historical analysis - Charles Rosen's 1971 masterpiece of the same name, which explicated in erudite detail how Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven created a new musical language.

It's not the sort of material that lends itself easily to the stage. Yet Friday's superb performance in Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley - the headline event in a long weekend's worth of music that constituted the Ojai North festival - was a dazzling display of inventiveness and broad comical delight.

The premise of Denk's libretto is simple enough. The three great composers, bored with the afterlife and anxious about their legacy, go in search of someone who can truly understand them. Rosen, the keen intellectual polymath who died in 2012, is just the man they need.

The 70-minute piece that ensues has all the zest and ingenuity of the world's brainiest college revue sketch. Stucky's score is nimbly stitched together out of recognizable bits of the composers' works, along with other allusions that zip in and out almost too quickly to be heard (I particularly appreciated the two measures of "Salome" in the middle there).

Side plot

In a wonderful side plot, the three chief harmonies of tonal music (and three-chord rock) appear as characters, casting the workings of tonality in terms of the eternal love triangle. There are witty in-jokes that aren't too in for people to catch, like the take-off on Leporello's "Catalog" Aria from "Don Giovanni," with the Don's amorous conquests replaced by a litany of performances and scholarly studies of Beethoven's music.

"The Classical Style," for all its madcap tomfoolery, even ends on a lovely, and loving note, leaving listeners feeling a little more deeply appreciative of the achievements of the Viennese masters. And isn't that what musicology, or opera, is all about?

If the opera - which really deserves to find a permanent home in the repertoire - was the weekend's main offering, it was hardly the only delight to be had during this annual presentation by Cal Performances and the Ojai Music Festival. Denk, who served as this year's music director, assembled a fine mix of programming and performers.

But his most exhilarating contribution was as a pianist. On Saturday morning, he served as what he called the warm-up band for the extraordinary Uri Caine Ensemble, with an unbroken stream of short piano works by Schubert and Janácek that seemed at times to be variations on a single theme. And Denk returned Saturday evening to tear his way through a virtuosic and riveting account of the first two books of Ligeti's piano etudes, music that is as fearsome as it is humane.