A Dissent on “The Classical Style”

AS I posted the other day, this year’s Ojai Music Festival was full of good stuff. But there was one piece that frustrated me: The new opera, The Classical Style, which was for many the highlight of the weekend. Why did it drive me crazy?

The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) is the first opera commissioned in the seven-decade history of the festival; it’s based on a well-regarded book by late music scholar and pianist Charles Rosen.

Jeremy Denk, who inaugurated the work and wrote the libretto, is not only one of the great musicians of my generation, he’s known as one classical music’s premiere writers and intellectuals as well. (I’ve written this myself and still believe it, and it was a real thrill to see him play Ives and others this year.) Steven Stucky, who wrote the music, is among the finest contemporary composers: His music – some of which was a pastiche of classical-era pieces or music that sounded like it could have come from the 18th century – was consistently strong. Some of the singers were very good, too.

Otherwise, this opera seemed a missed opportunity. At the risk of sounding grumpy, I expected more from talents of this caliber.

Is it possible to make an opera out of a critical study? Maybe; I can imagine, say, an intriguing work of some kind springing from, say, Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, or Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden; maybe something by Susan Sontag.

But what we got here – besides a few winning moments, such as the love triangle/harmony lesson in which a singer playing the Tonic is pursued by a Dominant and in turn yearns for a lovely Subdominant – is an oddly anti-intellectual batch of bad puns and inside jokes.68th Ojai Music Festival - Libbey Park - June 13, 2014

It’s hard to describe The Classical Style any more fully, because it’s such inside baseball. Denk clearly admired Rosen (an eloquent writer, in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere, also known as a difficult, dismissive guy) and tries to bring him alive as a kind of last-of-his-breed New York intellectual.

Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven wander through the play, lamenting that they are not only dead, but speakers of a dead language. A nerdy, Berkeley-school musicologist shows up and pontificates, to the delight of many, but giving the whole opera a sense of score-settling. (I have my own problems with theory-obsessed academics, but this did not engage the issue in a smart or original way.) Some of the rest was too clever by half; most of it was pretty insular. I even got the jokes, but wonder: Does this speak to anyone but classical-music and opera insiders?

Colburn School musicologist Kristi Brown gets at just how mixed up the damn thing is here.

Without the libretto in front of me it’s hard to point to specific faults, but it’s easy to recall what wasn’t there in The Classical Style.

A few weeks ago, I saw an opera in Los Angeles – Massenet’s Thais – that is on nobody’s list of the world’s very finest works. But it was about themes that still connect with our lives today – lust and luxury versus spiritual hunger – as well as a historical period in which many gods were giving way to one. Even as a lifetime agnostic, I found it deeply moving.

Cosi Fan Tutte – the opera responsible for turning me on to the form – is comic, but it’s about something human as well: Love, deception, sex, the contradictions of monogamy. Another opera I’ve seen in the last year – Einstein on the Beach – is more abstract, but it’s profound in its own oblique, minimalist way.

Part of my response to The Classical Style may come from the fact that I grew up in a jock-ish suburban world with little interest in high culture. (My parents and a few teachers were the exception.) And while I write about the fine arts professionally, I live in the shadow of a couple Hollywood studios, and most of my peers are into rock music and mainstream movies and Game of Thrones.

I’m also increasingly aware, as I watch theater companies tank, classical groups go under and publishing houses lay people off, that the audience for the traditional arts is not exactly thriving. (This is the place, by the way, where my opponents attack me for being a middlebrow nostalgist.)

I wasn’t born into a classical-music world, but I found something profound in the music that wasn’t happening elsewhere. And I don’t want inside jokes to be required for others enjoying contemporary music. I want to be able to tell people that it’s worth moving away from pop culture — at least some of the time — to find something deeper and richer, smarter and more sophisticated. (Like Rosen, and Denk, I think, I want to see Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven speak to us again, though I will hold onto my Shostakovich and Clifford Brown and Clash records, too.)

Does opera or poetry or whatever, then, all have to be earnest and portentous? Of course not, and this year’s festival included a few smutty Mozart numbers that reminded us that the sacred and the profane have often existed in tandem in the classical tradition. That’s fine; I get it.

But to have an entire opera, written by two near-geniuses, that’s the centerpiece of one of classical music’s premiere festivals, feel so emotionally empty, so dismissive, so insular — and perhaps worst of all, funny only in an Adam-Sandler-goes-to-conservatory kind of way — saddens me.

It forces me to say to the millions of Americans who think the fine arts are worthless, and that culture vultures are a bunch of self-absorbed toffs: Well, maybe we should just all stay in and watch TV after all.

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  1. MWnyc says

    Scott, I get why you’re frustrated, but I wonder if you’re not expecting more of this opera than it was ever intended to offer.

    Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky probably wouldn’t put it like this publicly (at least not for a few years yet), but it sounds like The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) is meant to be just a great big inside joke.

    Sure, this opera’s not like Haydn or Beethoven or Shostakovich; evidently it’s like P.D.Q. Bach – and none of us ever expected Peter Schickele, at least in that guise, to do any more than give us good inside jokes. We certainly never expected P.D.Q. Bach’s music to demonstrate to newcomers what’s so sublime about the art form.

    So I guess the question would be whether a big ol’ package of inside jokes ought to be the centerpiece of the Ojai Festival. I’ve never been (and I’d love to go), but I’ve always gotten the feeling that Ojai’s an event whose audience is pretty knowledgeable already. (Otherwise its bosses would never have engaged the likes of Pierre Boulez, George Benjamin or Pierre-Laurent Aimard as music directors.).

    If Ojai were to do big inside joke pieces year after year, it would worry me, but this one time? No harm done, I think. As for the millions of Americans who think the fine arts are worthless (in your last graf), you don’t have to tell them to stay in and watch TV. Just suggest that they go to, say, the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl or to a Green Umbrella concert rather than the 2014 Ojai Festival.

  2. says

    This correspondent makes a good point.

    I’ll just repeat that this was the first opera Ojai has commissioned in 68 years. And they went to two really formidable talents. I’m still curious to see what these guys could come up with it they took it seriously. Even, comic-opera seriously.

    And a newcomer or someone with only modest exposure to classical music should certainly check out the Ojai festival. Just not this piece.

  3. says

    Very nice piece, Scott … I think what so often damns a work of music (or other arts, for that matter) is the lack of the common touch, reaching out to the groundlings. It sounds as if this was just too refined and too Mandarin to succeed. That’s why you cite the Massenet, I think, because it had that missing element. You’ve heard me expound on this before, but I truly believe that Shosti and Prokoviev and Copland were the successes of their era because they kept their audience in mind (in the case of the Soviets, that was pretty much a life-or-death decision). The audience that Denk and Stucky were playing to, it seems, was too narrow. Pity …

  4. says

    Indeed, Milton… Tho truly mandarin art — James Merrill’s poetry, say — has its own integrity and depth even if it’s not reaching for a broad audience.

    There were some parts of the opera that worked, as I said. But some of it demonstrated the worst of both worlds.

  5. Neil McGowan says

    [[ a well-regarded book ]]

    No-one I know regards it well. It’s an accretion of ultra-conservative moralising by Rosen, who hated contemporary music. He attempted to build a firewall around his pet composers, that would de-facto banish all others into outer darkness.

    The most absurd claim in this most absurd of books is that Beethoven was a “classical’ composer. Rosen felt perfectly comfortable with this – even though Beethoven’s song output, such as the cycle An Die Ferbe Geliebte, set poems which literary historians have been describing as “Romantic” for nearly two centuries. Beethoven’s own contemporaries (Spohr) called him “a most perfect Romantic composer”.

    But no, none of this was enough for Rosen. Thus we have the absurd situation that the Romantic era in German literature began nearly 30-40 years earlier than it did in music (well, if we believe Rosen, that is).

    Rosen’s true mistake, of course, was not to identify the Romantic trend in Mozart’s late works. An opera about Knowledge, that would set you free from tyranny? Or look at the Belmonte/Constanze duet in the prison-cell, in Act III of Seraglio? Two lovers on death row sing of their undying love?? The prison cell of Fidelio isn’t far away. Except that the clown Rosen believed that an opera about an escape plan for a political prisoner, to evade a death sentence from a corrupt state prosecutor… Rosen believed that was “classical: too. It doesn’t get more asinine than that :((

  6. Neil McGowan says

    Of course, Richard Strauss did all this much earlier. He asked Hofmanstahl to write him a libretto “for a Mozart opera”. The result was the saccharine twaddle of cuckolded Barons and cross-dressed Chevaliers we know as Der Rosenkavalier.

  7. says

    I wonder to what extent these categories mattered to the composers. I’m no scholar, but I think of early Beethoven as fitting pretty squarely into the classical style, his middle period being transitional/hybrid, and his music after 1800 or so being convincingly romantic.

    But critical/historical categories are generally approximations of what artists do, and they tend to fit into schools or eras uneasily.

    • Neil McGowan says

      Mr Rosen thinks of Beethoven as being exclusively Classical. His crappy book is still enforced reading on the Music faculties of many universities, regrettably.

      Beethoven himself set poetry which identified itself as Romantic…

  8. Diane Sanchez says

    I saw this piece last Thursday night at Ojai North (Cal Performances) I found it to be great fun. The audience all seemed to be enjoying the performance as it was clever and ridiculous at the same time. Both the program notes and the glossary that were provided made it possible for someone like me ( not a music scholar or musician) to feel engaged even if I didn’t get all the references. After all many operas have historical period inside references and jokes , this opera though not “heavy” makes some interesting observations and invites you to think through the comedy about the immortality of this music. I say its was 70 minutes…don’t over think it.

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