String of High Notes for Pianist
By MICHAEL COOPER
BOSTON — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are playing Scrabble in heaven. No, it is not the setup of a joke — well, not exactly. It is the first scene of the highly improbable comic opera being written by the pianist Jeremy Denk and the composer Steven Stucky, based on one of the most influential scholarly music books of recent decades: Charles Rosen’s “The Classical Style.”
“Weltanschauung! Triple word score … 183 points!” the know-it-all Beethoven sang at a recent workshop run-through here, as he played the German word for “worldview.” The opera’s Mozart — sung by a soprano, in a nod to the kind of trouser roles that the real Mozart sometimes wrote for women playing men — responded gleefully with a 28-point German word that, if translated into English, would be of the four-letter variety.
“You’re that kind of person in Scrabble,” Mr. Denk coached his Mozart during a break, “who only plays dirty words.”
The news that Mr. Denk had come up with the idea of writing a comic opera based on “The Classical Style,” a work of rigorous analysis with its own chapter on comic opera, was greeted in musical circles with amused curiosity and a little disbelief. It was as if a well-known author had decided to write a novel based on Strunk and White’s seminal writing guide, “The Elements of Style,” or an artist had decided to paint a fresco of H. W. Janson’s “History of Art.”
Mr. Denk was frank about the genesis of the idea. “I think it involved a little alcohol, originally,” he said with a laugh.
The madcap project — which Mr. Denk conceived and wrote the libretto for — is very much in keeping with the kind of unusual, deeply thought out and simultaneously respectful and irreverent approach to music that has helped make this Mr. Denk’s moment. During the past year, he has gotten a contract from Random House to expand a piece he wrote for The New Yorker into a memoir; been named a MacArthur Fellow (referred to colloquially as winning a genius award); and been designated Musical America’s “instrumentalist of the year.”
Mr. Denk will receive his next accolade on Tuesday when he is awarded the Avery Fisher Prize, a $75,000 prize established 40 years ago to recognize both musicianship and, more broadly, contributions to the musical world. (The pianist Charlie Albright, the violist Dimitri Murrath and the Calder Quartet will each get $25,000 career grants.)
“The Classical Style,” which will have its premiere this June at the Ojai Music Festival in California and will be performed at Zankel Hall in New York in December, teems with musical jokes and quotations from notable pieces. In one scene, three characters playing the building blocks of tonality — Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant — walk into a bar, only to be frightened by the Tristan Chord. In another, a symposium on sonata form is written in, well, you can guess. There are in-jokes, but listeners will not need Ph.D.s to get them all. Besides looking for laughs, Mr. Denk and Mr. Stucky said they hoped the opera would illuminate some of Mr. Rosen’s insights on classical music, and inspire people to think about its place in the modern world.
In recent years, Mr. Denk, 43, has become well known not only as a concert musician but also as a writer and explainer of classical music, from his blog, Think Denk (jeremydenk.net/blog), to the liner notes of him speaking and playing the piano on a DVD, which was included with his recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Mr. Denk became friends with Mr. Rosen, who was himself a well-regarded pianist and a scholar, in the years before his death in 2012 at 85. He said he hoped that the opera would be seen as “deeply respectful” of Mr. Rosen.
Mr. Denk recalled feeling nervous before asking Mr. Rosen if he could turn the book into an opera.
“He laughed, and he thought it was ridiculous, but he gave his permission,” Mr. Denk recalled. “It was a big thing building up to it, because I wanted to ask him, and didn’t want him to feel that it was a jape. So I asked him over dinner. I’m sure he never really believed that it would actually come to pass.”
It came to pass largely because of Thomas W. Morris, artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival, who asked Mr. Denk in 2009 if he would take on the rotating post of music director for this spring’s festival.
“Jeremy said, ‘Well, I’ve had a very mad idea for an opera, and when I tell you what it’s on, you’ll laugh,’ ” Mr. Morris recalled. But Mr. Morris signed on, seeing it as in keeping with Ojai’s mission of letting artists take risks. “It’s not a place where you trot out your party pieces,” he said.
Mr. Morris helped line up Mr. Stucky, a composer with a background in academia who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which weaves allusions to past composers into a contemporary setting.
“Tom attempted a shotgun marriage,” Mr. Stucky said, recalling that he initially thought it was a brilliant but impossible idea. “But the more I talked to Jeremy, and the more samples of libretto that I saw, the more impossible it became for me to get out of it.”
Mr. Denk’s sudden burst of attention has been a big change. Now, just a few years after he was little known outside of piano circles, offers are pouring in. On Tuesday the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will name him an artistic partner, beginning next season.
“It’s insane,” he said during an interview after a run-through of “The Classical Style” here at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where he is an artist in residence. “It’s wild, and I’m a little bit in shock, kind of. It’s a great shock.
“My dad wrote me an email after the MacArthur: ‘Keep it up!’ ” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘I can’t keep this up, this is pretty much as good as it’s going to get.’ ”
© The New York Times 2014