Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven come alive in “An Opera (of Sorts)’ 

click to enlarge Jeremy Denk
  • Jeremy Denk’s “The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts)” gets its Bay Area premiere at Ojai North in Berkeley this week.
Jeremy Denk doesn’t mind admitting that his new opera started as a kind of joke. Ask him what inspired it, though, and the acclaimed pianist becomes perfectly serious.

“The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts),” he explains, is an homage to Charles Rosen, whose 1972 book “The Classical Style” has illuminated classical music for countless readers.

Denk, who serves as music director of the 2014 Ojai Festival, introduced the opera last week at the annual Southern California music bash. This weekend, the work makes its Bay Area premiere at Ojai North, presented by Cal Performances Thursday and Friday on the UC Berkeley campus.

The opera’s principal characters are Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and in a call from Ojai, Denk said he had always been amused at the thought of putting the iconic trio onstage. “It was kind of a joke at first,” he says. “But it acquired a life of its own.”

He proposed the opera to Ojai artistic director Tom Morris, who loved it. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky was engaged to write the score. At the premiere, Robert Spano conducted the New York based ensemble The Knights; both will reprise their performances in Berkeley.

The one-act opera begins with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven playing Scrabble in heaven and grousing about their waning popularity. “They’re half themselves from historical reality and half the stereotypes we’ve made of them,” says Denk. “Haydn is a bit neglected, as he is in real life. Mozart is somewhat filthy. And Beethoven’s perpetually gruff, irritable, and high-minded to a fault.”

Robert Schumann makes an appearance, as do characters named Tonic, Dominant, and Sub-Dominant. “I thought it would be fun to hear what the principles of harmony those composers perfected had to say for themselves,” says Denk.

Denk clearly relishes the musical joke. But he’s in earnest when he describes the impression Rosen’s book made on him. “For me, ‘The Classical Style’ was a way of bringing that period of music alive,” says Denk, who was friends with Rosen. “It’s some of the most clear and vivid writing about music that exists.”

Denk, named Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year, won’t be sitting on the sidelines in Berkeley — on Saturday, he’ll perform piano works by Ligeti, Janacek and Schubert. The schedule also includes appearances by pianists Uri Caine and Timo Andres, string quartet Brooklyn Rider, vocalist Storm Large and the a cappella quartet Hudson Shad.


Ojai North Music Festival

When: Thursday through Saturday

Where: Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley campus, near Bancroft Way and College Avenue, Berkeley

Tickets: $10 to $68, some events free

Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calperformances.org

Note: “The Classical Style” and Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 74, No. 3 are on programs at 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday.

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Georgia Rowe

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