We’re Nothing but Busts, Mozart. Busts!: ‘The Classical Style,’ an Opera Buffa at Zankel Hall

12.05.14
Robert Spano, Jeremy Denk, The Knights
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini 

A revealing exchange that’s both absurdly funny yet genuinely insightful into the inner workings of music takes place in the third scene of “The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts),” with music by Steven Stucky and a libretto by the pianist Jeremy Denk. A character called Dominant, an embodiment of the dominant chord in tonal harmony, complains to a bartender about her fate. “If only I could resolve,” Dominant sings mournfully, adding, “I yearn and sigh,” but “some part of me feels incomplete.”

Then a character called Tonic, representing, you guessed it, the tonic chord, comes bounding into the bar, a cocky bass-baritone. Dominant looks at Tonic and says, “Oh no! Not you again!

“He follows me everywhere,” Dominant explains to the bartender.

Of course, this is exactly what occurs in tonal music, especially the music of the Classical era. The tonic chord does follow the dominant everywhere, like a stalker. And the dominant can only attain its longed-for resolution through its interaction with the tonic.

This scene at the bar got a big laugh from the delighted audience that packed Zankel Hall on Thursday night for the New York premiere of the work, a witty operatic entertainment of the sort that doesn’t get written very often. Now, admittedly, “The Classical Style” will be best appreciated by a niche audience, those who know enough to enjoy the humor of turning the harmonic relationship between the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords (and yes, a mezzo-soprano soon appears in the scene as Subdominant) into a comic drama about an interdependent threesome.

The inspiration for this 70-minute piece was the seminal 1971 book “The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven,” by the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen. Those three composers are characters in the opera, along with Rosen, who died at 85 in 2012 and surely would have loved this piece.

The premiere production was presented in June at the Ojai Music Festival in California during Mr. Denk’s stint as its artistic director. (A video of that complete performance can be seen on YouTube.) At Zankel, the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Rachel Calloway was the beleaguered Dominant; the robust tenor Dominic Armstrong was the bartender, a man used to hearing people’s sob stories; and the dynamic bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was the impressible Tonic, who comes to realize that he is not quite as important as he thinks. A fine mezzo-soprano, Peabody Southwell, is Subdominant, a character who holds more sway in the arrangement of chords than is implied by her name, as we learn during the opera.

The conductor Robert Spano led the impressive chamber orchestra the Knights and a wonderful cast of singers taking multiple roles in a vibrant performance of the piece, directed by Mary Birnbaum.

It opens in heaven, in a setting that suggests the activity room of a retirement home. Haydn (Mr. Armstrong in a powdered wig) is complaining about how he is been patronized by posterity. “They call me Papa Haydn,” he miffs. Mozart (the radiant, feisty soprano Jennifer Zetlan in a pants role) is writing a letter in which he objects to his portrayal in the film “Amadeus” and demands 25 percent of the gross. Beethoven (the earthy-voiced bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) is engrossed in a game of Scrabble.

Haydn has seen an article in The New York Times declaring that classical music is dead.

“What’s classical music?” Beethoven asks.

“I think they mean us,” Haydn says.

Their one consolation is a book that Haydn has come across, “The Classical Style,” in which Rosen analyzes how the style came to be and the specific ways in which this trio of geniuses created works of greatness. Still, in a Mozartean trio, they express dismay at how time has made them caricatures, “just busts on a shelf.”

Mr. Stucky has written a pastiche score, though with mystical modernist stretches and spiky, charged episodes. There are evocations galore and many direct quotes from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and more. The score could easily have been clunky and obvious, but Mr. Stucky’s music is subtle, sly and vividly colorful.

When we meet Rosen (the compelling baritone Kim Josephson), in his apartment, he is preparing to take part in a symposium on sonata form. He is inquisitive, self-absorbed and brilliant, much like the real Rosen, full of ideas and insights. Yet all sorts of other entertaining characters pop up.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven crash the symposium, looking for Rosen, in an extended comic ensemble written, cleverly, in the form of a sonata. Later, at an undisclosed location, after hearing Rosen elegantly describing Mozart’s achievement, we segue into the opening scene of “Don Giovanni” at the moment when Giovanni (Mr. Allicock) is trying to seduce Donna Anna (Ms. Zetlan) by force. Then, Henry Snibblesworth (the lively tenor Keith Jameson), an energetic, nerdy young musicologist, bursts in to help Donna Anna, not by rebuffing her attacker but by explaining, politely, that the vocal line she is about to sing contravenes values of good melodic writing.

The baffled Giovanni, now out of the mood, leaves. There is no duel, no killing of the Commendatore, hence, no “Don Giovanni.”

My favorite character was the Tristan Chord (Mr. Josephson), featured in an inspired scene that parodies Wotan’s narrative from “Die Walküre,” when the god tells the whole sorry story of his life to Brünnhilde. Here, the Tristan Chord laments that in his youth, restless for harmonic novelty, he created a chord that erased the rules of harmony. But now, he explains bitterly, “I wander the earth homeless, unmoored.”

To open the evening, Mr. Denk gave fresh, spontaneous accounts of two Mozart piano pieces: the Rondo in F (K. 494) and the moody Sonata in C minor (K. 457).

It’s hard to say what the future holds for “The Classical Style.” But even those who lack understanding of the rudiments of harmony would surely enjoy it, while also learning something in the most entertaining way.