by Walter Simmons
BECK In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano. In February. Gemini. Slow Motion. Third Delphic Hymn. September Music ● IonSound Project (Peggy Yoo [fl], Kathleen Costello [cl], Eliseo Rael [perc], Laura Motchalov [vn], Elisa Kohanski [vc], Rob Frankenberry [pn]); Margaret Baube Andraso (sop) ● INNOVA 797 (69:21)
BECK String Quartets: No. 1; No. 2, “Fathers and Sons”; No. 4; No. 5 ● San Gabriel St Qt; Nevsky St Qt; Da Kappo St Qt ● INNOVA 867 (63:03)
These two discs provide a richly rewarding representation of the music of Jeremy Beck (b. 1960), with which I am making my first acquaintance. Having studied at the Mannes School, Duke, and Yale with such luminaries as Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick, among others, Beck has pursued a decidedly old-fashioned approach. Although the results are not strikingly individualistic by any means, his music is impressive for its thorough mastery of traditional craftsmanship, for its consistently engaging personality, and for some works that reveal considerable expressive depth. Of the eleven compositions represented here, not a single one is dismissible as unworthy, and all are heard in precise, polished performances that impose no compromise on the impressions they make. Beck is currently based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he maintains a law practice that probably enables him to compose without undue concern with the impact of his music in the marketplace.
The pieces on both discs are drawn from the same period—roughly 1980 through 2010—which essentially spans Beck’s creative life, but each offers music of somewhat different character. The first disc features the IonSound Project, a mixed sextet with whom Beck became acquainted during a year he spent as visiting professor at Chatham College in Pittsburgh. In residence at the University of Pittsburgh, the ensemble became enamored of his music, and this recording grew out of that relationship. September Music (2002) was the first piece performed by the ensemble, while In Flight Until Mysterious Night (2009) was composed specifically for this recording.
Most of the pieces on the earlier recording display a largely diatonic musical language, with a mild degree of dissonance, not unlike the populist musical language of Aaron Copland, but without drawing upon obvious “Americanisms.” Nevertheless the music reveals its national origin unmistakably through its pert and lively, syncopated rhythms. I would describe its style, within my own frame of reference, as exuberantly neo-classical. Thus his music might be said to resemble that of, say, Robert Baksa or Rick Sowash. However, Beck’s music is built upon a structural foundation that is considerably more elaborate and dense than theirs, and thus leaves a much deeper impression. In that sense, though not in surface sound, it calls to mind the two piano trios of Patrick Zimmerli, about which I enthused several years ago (Fanfare 29:4) and which made my 2006 Want List. Like Zimmerli, Beck writes what a certain type of listener would call “real music:” that is, essentially, music composed according to the formal principles modeled by Brahms (not that either composer’s music “sounds like” him). This gives Beck’s music a strength and substance not generally encountered among the more recent avatars of traditionalism. It also means that, regardless of the catchy titles of the pieces on the first disc, the music is thoroughly abstract, and would be no less attractive (though perhaps harder to remember) with purely generic titles (as on the second disc). Yet for the most part, their appealing surface and thorough craftsmanship make them infectious and very likeable.
I could discuss each piece individually, but while they are not carbon copies of each other by any means, they embody a certain aesthetic that the reader of the previous paragraph will be able to identify in relation to his own predilections. Nevertheless, so as not to shirk my responsibility altogether, I will note that I found the Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano (1988) to be the most impressive work on the disc, its character somewhat more serious than the cheerful exuberance of most of the other pieces, with a contrapuntal developmental texture that I suspect would have met with Brahms’s enthusiastic approval. In February is a vocal work set to the composer’s own text. Here I found the poem’s irony and ambivalence not matched by the straightforwardness of the music’s character. Beck notes that Slow Motion,for vibraphone and piano, was inspired by the music of jazz artists Gary Burton and Chick Corea, and their influence is easily detected in this delightful piece. Third Delphic Hymn, originally composed for viola solo in 1980, is the earliest piece presented here, written during Beck’s first year as an undergraduate at the Mannes College of Music. He rearranged it for violin solo in 2003. The title is a reference to the earliest known examples of written music. As a piece for an unaccompanied string instrument, it is brief enough to be effective rather than grating.
The second CD features four string quartets performed by three different ensembles. These are extremely solid works that cut deeper than most of the pieces on the first disc. While still largely diatonic, the contrapuntal lines produce a somewhat higher degree of vertical dissonance, and the sense of tonality is less obvious. They are thoroughly abstract, making them difficult to describe without resorting to the sort of structural play-by-play that is of virtually no interest to anyone first becoming acquainted with the music. (The liner notes fall into this trap, although—admittedly—what else is there to say?) But the music, while perhaps less appealing on first hearing, is no less impressive, and displays no less mastery in its presentation of expressive substance conveyed with consummate craftsmanship. Although they are more introspective compositions, with less overt resemblance to other, more familiar works, they offer the kinds of rewards that most traditional listeners expect from the string quartet genre. All four quartets (one wonders about the absent Quartet No. 3) are gratifying works, although No. 2 is perhaps a bit less successful in holding the listener’s attention. They receive generally excellent performances by the three different ensembles. While perhaps not as immediately ingratiating as the first disc, it is not one iota less impressive, and I expect that these quartets will prove to be increasingly rewarding with greater familiarity. I hope that at some point Beck’s music will receive the recognition that it deserves. I gather that he has also a number of operas to his credit, and I am curious to see and hear them.