The Classical Style

Listening to the sophisticated pianist Jeremy Denk, Oberlin class of ‘9o, play Bach’s keyboard concerto No. 5 the way he plays György Ligeti’s Piano Etudes, Book 1: “IV. Fanfares”, I was also reminded of Denk the witty librettist

The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) (2014) by composer Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk is a parody of the Classical/canonical but at the same time a tribute to Style itself. Kinds of style may change but there is one thing in classical music that remains central – Style. It encourages innovation but also invites repetition (in Derrida’s sense of the word). Forms of repetition may include reference, allusion, variation, and quotation. These forms illuminate or question a particular style, and this new opera uses them all, and more.

Deconstructive repetition is a way of performing style that strongly encourages (and rewards) audience participation. Listeners collaborate with the composer who draws on a particular repertoire expecting them to recognize its codes. Yet there is one stylistic venture that remains unacknowledged in this opera, its massive predecessor which Stucky and Denk repeat, the “grand opera buffa” The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) by composer John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman.

Stucky has “curated” an affectionate pastiche that makes clean, innocent fun of, but eventually pays tribute to, the Classical Style (starting with the classical/canonical treatise by the same name). Of course it is knowingly self-indulgent, down to the role of a nerdy Berkeley Ph.D. student working under Richard Taruskin (who obviously is no Charles Rosen…), and audience collaboration grows into self-congratulatory complicity. In the end, it works like a musicological exercise, no, a dissertation in the form of a post-modern opera. There is more than ample primary material and reiteration in it but not enough self-reflection and elaboration.

During Denk’s encore at the end of the Bach concerto (his “giving” Geben of a “gift” Gabe to the audience), the name of his personal blog, “Think Denk,” prompted me to recall the Heideggerian play on the semantic connection between “to think” denke and “to thank” danke.  For years now performers, composers, students, listeners, readers, and many others think with him and thank him for that, as I thank my pianist self, Pantelis Polychronidis, for thinking with me.

March 26, 2015

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