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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Steven Stucky’s First Opera, The Classical Style, Receives East Coast Premiere at Carnegie Hall; Performance Features Five Warner Music Prize Nominees (Dec 4)

When Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Steven Stucky’s first opera – The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) – premiered at the 2014 Ojai Music Festival, it was hailed as “a dazzling display of inventiveness and broad comical delight” (San Francisco Chronicle) that, thanks to “the bliss and beauty of the music” (San Jose Mercury News), “proved unexpectedly moving” (Santa Barbara Independent). Composed to a libretto by MacArthur Fellow Jeremy Denk, Stucky’s comic opera – a co-commission of Carnegie Hall, Cal Performances, and the Ojai and Aspen Music Festivals – is now set to receive its East Coast premiere. On December 4, The Classical Style comes to Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, where Grammy Award-winning conductor Robert Spano leads a stellar octet of vocal soloists, five of whom have been nominated for the inaugural Warner Music Prize, and New York-based orchestral collective The Knights –dubbed “the next generation of classical music” (Performance Today host Fred Child) – in a semi-staged production by Mary Birnbaum.

One of America’s most frequently performed living composers, Steven Stucky was recognized with the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his Second Concerto for Orchestra. The compositions in his extensive catalogue range from large-scale orchestral works to a cappella miniatures for chorus, yet although he has written oratorios – including August 4, 1964, a 2013 Grammy nominee for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) represents his first contribution to the operatic genre. As Stucky told Opera News:

“I had been wanting to try opera, but I had to be persuaded that I had the chops for it, because it’s a pretty         tough assignment! But as I began to read drafts of the libretto, and I began to laugh out loud, pretty soon         it was irresistible.”

The libretto in question is by Avery Fisher Prize-winning pianist Jeremy Denk, also an accomplished writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and New York Times Review of Books. However improbably, Denk’s inspiration was The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, the late Charles Rosen’s National Book Award-winning masterpiece of musical scholarship. Opera News explains:

“Characters in the opera include not just Charles Rosen and the three title characters from his book but Tonic (a bass-baritone), Dominant (soprano) and Sub-Dominant (mezzo), who are involved in a love triangle. Also present are a disheveled character who turns out to be the Tristan Chord, Robert Schumann (a mezzo), and Donna Anna and the title character from Don Giovanni. But, explains Denk, ‘The real protagonist is music itself, and what it does.’”

As a result, Stucky’s writing draws both on his own post-tonal compositional voice, and on a scholarly yet playful appropriation of Classical stylistic tropes. At the opera’s premiere, Classical Voice North America characterized his music as “spraying mischievous quotes and parodies at us in a torrent of bemused erudition,” and pronounced the results “a hit with Ojai’s doting audience and with at least one music critic who laughed his head off at many of the musical in-jokes.” All told, as the Boston Globe concluded, The Classical Styleworks improbably well, thanks to the intertwining of Denk’s witty libretto and Steven Stucky’s clever pastiche of Classical-era music.

At the upcoming East Coast premiere, all The Classical Style’s characters will be shared between the eight vocal soloists: soprano Jennifer Zetlan, mezzo-sopranos Rachel Calloway and Peabody Southwell, tenors Dominic Armstrong and Keith Jameson, baritone Kim Josephson, and bass-baritones Aubrey Allicock and Ashraf Sewailam. Zetlan, Calloway, Southwell, Armstrong, and Allicock are all nominees for the first Warner Music Prize, which will be awarded next year in association with Carnegie Hall.

As at Ojai, the singers will be accompanied by innovative young chamber orchestra The Knights, now making its Carnegie Hall debut under the leadership of the Atlanta Symphony’s Robert Spano. The Knights recently launched a three-year residency funded by the Mellon Foundation at Brooklyn’s Roulette, where their performance featured special guest Gil Shaham and impressed the New York Times as “polished and jubilant.” Further information about The Knights is available at

Archived footage of the opera’s live-streamed world premiere performance at last summer’s Ojai Music Festival is available here. Further acclaim for The Classical Style: An Opera (Of Sorts), and details of the upcoming New York performance, are provided below.


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The 2014-15 season sees a number of other important premieres and performances of Stucky’s music. Led by Artistic Director Steven Sametz, the Princeton Singers kicked off the season with the world premiere of Winter Stars (2014), his setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same name, in a special concert celebrating the chamber choir’s 30th anniversary. At Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill, NC, the Pittsburgh Symphony and Manfred Honeck reprised Silent Spring (2011), an orchestral tone poem commissioned during Stucky’s tenure as the orchestra’s 2011 Composer of the Year, in tribute to marine biologist and Pittsburgh-area native Rachel Carson (1907-64), whose seminal book Silent Spring (1962) ignited the environmental movement. A second world premiere follows on April 21, when Grammy Award-winning pianist Gloria Cheng features Stucky’s forthcoming Piano Sonata in the “Piano Spheres” series at Los Angeles’s Zipper Hall.


Acclaim for world premiere of Steven Stucky’s The Classical Style: An Opera (Of Sorts)

The Classical Style is a mash-up of Glenn Gould at his most satirical, PDQ Bach at his sauciest and a distractedly erudite Rosen cooking up a French sauce while pontificating on harmonic structure in his kitchen. But underlying the jokes (good ones and the groaners) and tomfoolery, Stucky’s resourceful score and Denk’s droll text produce an ingeniously eloquent musing on the meaning of life.


“Birth, not death, is music’s – and hence life’s – greater mystery. Schumann makes the final entrance, transforming Beethoven, a new life with Beethoven’s DNA. Like all births, there is something new in the room that wasn’t there before. For Stucky and Denk, this is a fleeting instant of transcendence, namely a miracle.”
Los Angeles Times


It works improbably well, thanks to the intertwining of Denk’s witty libretto and Steven Stucky’s clever pastiche of Classical-era music.
    – Boston Globe


A dazzling display of inventiveness and broad comical delight.
San Francisco Chronicle


The Classical Style: An Opera (Of Sorts), a 75-minute romp of a comic opera with serious undertones by a couple of guys who love music and are not afraid to have fun with it. … Stucky – putting what he half-jokingly calls ‘those decades of teaching sophomore theory’ at Cornell to good use – goes off on a spree, spraying mischievous quotes and parodies at us in a torrent of bemused erudition. … It was clearly a hit with Ojai’s doting audience and with at least one music critic who laughed his head off at many of the musical in-jokes.”
– Classical Voice North America


The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) proved unexpectedly moving.”
Santa Barbara Independent


The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) is an opera for real. … It also proved to be an unexpectedly witty, illuminating and all-around delightful 70 minutes of entertainment. Too bad it’s not running for a week or two. It’s as if the Marx Brothers are teaching lessons on music theory and sonata-allegro form. There are plenty of in-jokes, but this shouldn’t deter anyone from seeing the opera – because anyone can hear what counts: the bliss and beauty of the music.”
San Jose Mercury News


“The more you knew about its subject matter the funnier it was, but the farcical proceedings are lively enough that even the uninitiated are allowed in. The opera was smart and clever screwball comedy, and the talk of the festival.”
Orange County Register


The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) manages to make light of the current uncertain state of classical music, but also reminds us – through the words of Charles Rosen – of its ultimate value.”
Sequenza 21


A dangerous, delicious and distinguished new work.
Berkeley Side


Steven Stucky’s The Classical Style: An Opera (Of Sorts)
East Coast premiere

New York, NY
Thursday, December 4 at 7:30pm
Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall)

Music: Steven Stucky
Libretto: Jeremy Denk

Director: Mary Birnbaum

Jennifer Zetlan, soprano
Rachel Calloway, mezzo-soprano
Peabody Southwell, mezzo-soprano
Dominic Armstrong, tenor
Keith Jameson, tenor
Kim Josephson, baritone
Aubrey Allicock, bass-baritone
Ashraf Sewailam, bass-baritone

The Knights / Robert Spano

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© 21C Media Group, November 2014

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