The Classical Style (an opera, of sorts)

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By Jon Fredric West

On Wednesday, July 20th I once again spent a delightful and impressive evening at The Catherine Cummings Theater in Cazenovia to see the Society for New Music’s production of the Steven Stucky, and Jeremy Denk’s, funny and thought provoking opera, The Classical Style (an opera, of sorts).  Heartfelt thanks must go to Neva Pilgrim, the Society’s Program Director and Producer of the evening’s opera. At the end of the evening, the audience was most appreciative.

The performance began with a nicely played, but slightly nervous, performance of Mozart’s, piano Sonata No. 7 in C Major.K.309 (284b) by Tania Hrosar, a talented thirteen year old. The composition introduced us to the sonata form which was an important point of discussion in the opera. This was followed by a very poetic rendition of Beethoven’s, Bagatelle No.25 in A minor (Fuer Elise) by Central New York’s premiere collaborative pianist, Sar Shalom-Strong. Mr. Shalom-Strong continued playing the piano for the opera, taking his part as the orchestra of the evening. He played with great precision, charm and elegance and made the most out of the different musical styles of the opera. But the most astounding feat of Mr. Shalom-Strong’s piano artistry was the ‘at sight’ reduction of the orchestral score as he was playing! Bravo!

Our Maestra was newly promoted Professor, Heather Buchman. She is the director of the Hamilton College Orchestra and Chair of the Department of Music. Ms. Buchman conducted with superb pacing of the scores nuances. She traversed the stylistic quotes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner seamlessly and always seemed to find just the right tempo, never too fast and never too slow. Her tempi encouraged the singers to deliver their parts with excellent diction; a very important point, if the audience is to be able to understand the plot and the jokes and the fact that it is indeed given in English.

Director, Lighting Designer, and Costumer, Victoria King, brought out the best in the fine cast with well delineated characters.  Excellent comic timing, so important to making a line funny or just fall flat, was in evidence with all cast members. The poignant moments were handled well, especially the final scene, which I found more touching than in the original staging. The chamber stage was well used and along with Set Designer, David Harper, a limited budget did not keep us from being fulfilled with the production.

The opera itself is a most impressive piece of music where Mr. Stucky composes in the style of the three main characters, Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven. He makes numerous musical quotes from all three composers and even takes us to the land of Tristan und Isolde by Wagner where he introduces the great revolutionary sea change that came to music composition with the writing of the ‘Tristan Chord’. Mr.Stucky’s variation on “The Catalogue Aria” was brilliantly done. The writing was so convincing that one wishes Stravinsky had taken lessons from Mr. Stucky in Neo Classical Style for the Rakes Progress!

The only caveat I have is to believe that the opera is too much of a ‘think piece’. The opera is so replete with musical discussion and theory that it can only completely be enjoyed by a very informed audience; such as a conservatory setting.

The cast set a high water mark of professionalism. Singing, acting, diction, was all pointed up to great intent and gave the evening a true sheen of excellence and enjoy ability. Bravi tutti!

A standout of the evening was the exciting “Mozart” of Julia Ebner. She has been hired by the Metropolitan Opera and judging from this performance, one can see why. Her voice is strong, well placed and dynamic, with much vocal nuance. The fioratura was accurate and exciting.  Ms. Ebner’s voice reminded me of a young Antonietta Stella, while her acting was at all times right on point and the character’s frustration was palpable. One small acting point: In acting a “pants” role, one must remember that in this time period Mozart would not have sat with his legs “akimbo” like an old heavy set man.

Jonathan Howell presented a funny and loveable gruff characterization of “Papa Haydn”. He reminded me very much of Oskar Homolka’s character in I Remember Mama. Also, later in the show, his “Bartender” hit just the right shades of nuance between a listener and a bouncer. I felt almost as if he was setting the stage picture for a reprise of Harold Arlen’s, It’s a Quarter To Three. Mr. Howell’s singing was strong, precise and meaningful, with great high notes that contained just the right amount of “squillo”. His is a tenor voice of formidable presence!

“Beethoven” was sung and played to perfection by Eric Johnson. A ‘basso cantante’ voice of great beauty; he was at once frustrated, witty, and acerbic and properly pompous as the great composer. Mr. Johnson’s German accent was spot on, yet you could understand every word he sang. This was a gem of a performance.

“Charles Rosen” and “The Wanderer” in ‘The Tristan Chord’ were given a very memorable vocal and acting performance by the redoubtable Steven Stull. The author was portrayed with the proper self- involved mania and his turn as “The Wanderer” was masterfully sung and truly touching in the dramatic. In fact, I wish Mr. Stull had used a bit more of the same vocal fullness for the singing of “Charles Rosen” as he did for “The Wanderer”, for it was in the Wagner quote that his voice attained its full glory.

The part of the “Music Student” was played nicely with appropriate disgust and boredom by Alexandra Turner, but she needed to project both her character and voice more to achieve full effect. Particularly she must work on removing her nasal CNY accent.

Both Janet Brown and David Neal must be given great credit and praise for their portrayals of “Dominant”- “Musicologist” and “Tonic”- “Don Giovanni” respectively. Ms. Brown has one of the most beautiful “soubrette” voices I have heard and Mr. Neal possesses a mellifluous “bass-baritone” voice of great charm and elegance.  Ms. Brown was woeful and depressively slinky as Dominant and academic as “Musicologist”. Mr. Neal was extremely pompous and egomaniacal as “Tonic” and oiled his way around the stage as “Don Giovanni”.

However, I would have preferred artists of more generous and dramatic voice, particularly as “Musicologist” and “Tonic” than these wonderful artists naturally possess.

A most striking Danan Tsan commanded the stage as “Subdominant”, “Participant I”. She is gifted with stage presence enough for three people; tall, beautiful and handsome, acting chops par excellence, and a truly sumptuous round mezzo-soprano voice that makes you want to jump in and swim. I hope to hear a lot more of this young woman in some larger parts in the future. “Dahlila”, “Carmen”, “Orfeo” to name but a few. 

Last, but indeed not least, was the very funny and well timed characterization of Daniel Fields as “Henry Snibblesworth”. This young man possesses a tenor voice of great potential. His voice is big and round and well placed, although occasionally he allows the sound to drop out of his “mask”, but a good coach can help him to become sensitive to this defect. Mr. Fields was at all times interesting and played the all too human persona as a self-absorb, manic nerd that you could really believe spent hours a day in dusty old music libraries compiling facts and figures. Keep up the good work Mr. Fields!

Jon Fredric West, D.M.A., was one of the top Heldentenors in the world of his generation. His vast experience includes leading role performances with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Prinzregenten Academie, DeutscheOper, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Semperoper Dresden,Wienerstaatsoper, Salzburg Easter Festival, Salzburg Oper Festival, Berlin Philharmanic, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Casals Festival, Music Festival of the Canaries Islands, Residentie Orkest de Haag, Teatro Royale de Madrid, Teatro alla Scala, Grand Theatre de Nice, Chatellet de Paris, Bunka Kaiken of Tokyo, NHK, San Francisco Opera, New Israeli Opera, Washington National Opera,  Kennedy Center, Miami Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Arizona Opera, Portland Opera,New York Philharmanic, Bayerische Rundfunk, Maggio Musical, Cincinnati Symphony and May Festival, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Montreal Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Houston Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra. He currently maintains a private teaching and coaching studio, teaches at Hamilton College and at Mohawk Valley Community College.

Detail Box:

What:  The Classical Style (an opera, of sorts), music by Steven Stucky, libretto by Jeremy Denk

Who:  The Syracuse Society for New Music, Cazenovia Counterpoint Series

Where:  Catherine Cummings Theater, Cazenovia, N.Y.

Date of Review:  July 20, 2016

Posted On: July 26, 2016
Listed As: Events in CNY