Notes and Editorial Reviews
This was my first acquaintance with the music of the American composer Jeremy Beck. Beck grew up – playing the cello – in Quincy, Illinois and later went on to study at the Mannes College of Music, Duke University and Yale School of Music. His teachers have included Lukas Foss, Jacob Druckman, Stephen Jaffe and David Loeb. He is presently based in Louisville, Kentucky.
On the evidence of these three compositions, Beck’s music is very well crafted, in an idiom which has much in common with the twentieth century ‘mainstream’ of American music – as found in the work of figures such as Barber or Roy Harris or, in some respects, Bernstein. His tonal compositions are largely orthodox, even old-fashioned in the way they work, in the
emphasis they place on melody, though that isn’t to deny that Beck makes imaginative use of the inherited tradition. There is, interestingly, a common thread one might describe as ‘literary’ linking the three works on the present CD.
The Cello Sonata heard here is apparently Beck’s third venture in the form; a first sonata was written as an undergraduate in the 1980s, a second during his time as a graduate student at Duke University. The three movements of this third all have titles or headings, and what Beck calls "an ending title". The first movement is headed Aria da capo and is accompanied by the words "sings upon waking"; the second is headed Pavane and has as its ending text the phrase "receives a Princess"; the final movement is headed Galliard and has the words "observes the precious foibles of the Earth" as its "ending title". Beck explains his purpose in using such texts: "the headings are classical references, suggesting historical derivations and structural nuances; the endings are poetic, all of which are connected to the primary image of the sonata. The poetry is meant to open emotional windows into the interior of the piece, rather than suggest specific visual cues". A slightly cool melancholy pervades all three movements, more evocative of the moon’s effect on an earthly, sparsely peopled landscape than of the moonscape itself. This is a human piece, rather than an astronomical one, as it were. Aria da Capo begins with some attractively singing music for the cello and, in what follows there are passages of lively interplay between the two instruments. Expectations that we will return to the original da capo aria are not, however, fulfilled. Analogously the second movement – Pavane – again seems to imply a ternary structure which isn’t completed; the rapid section of this movement is particularly exhilarating. In Galliard Beck plays a witty hand, formally speaking. The ‘missing’ third section of the second movement is unexpectedly introduced and is followed, in turn, by the ‘absent’ repeat of the aria from the first movement. This neat way of belatedly keeping the formal ‘promises’ made earlier is a nice example of how traditions can be (and always are) made new by gifted composers.
Songs Without Words is again in three movements, each of which is designed as a response to a specific poem and each of which gets its title from that poem. The first, ‘Irresistible Death’ is inspired by a passage from Pablo Neruda’s ‘Alturas de Macchu Picchu’; the second, ‘…mists of brightness’ gets its title from one of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnets, and the last, ‘Night Watch’ offers a kind of musical articulation of a short poem by Vikram Seth (whose An Equal Music of 1999 is, incidentally, surely one of the finest of modern ‘music’ novels, in its study of relationships between - and beyond - the members of a string quartet). Though the music is pleasant, and though both Elizabeth Sadilek and Gretchen Brumwell play with winning tenderness, I found this less gripping than the Cello Sonata. I wasn’t always able to hear quite how the music related to the poem, and wasn’t always sure that the music had quite enough substance to stand entirely on its own.
The longest work here – and rather different in character from the two which precede it on the disc – is Black Water. This originated, Beck tells us, in a reading of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel of the same name. The novel is a fictionalised account of the events of what happened on Chappaquidick Island in July 1969, the accident in which Mary Jo Kopechne drowned when Senator Ted Kennedy’s car left the road. It is presented from the point of view of the drowning woman – called Kelly Kelleher in Oates’s version – as she reacts to the reality of her situation and also experiences both hallucinations and sudden rushes of memory. In part, the novel is a study in how and why powerful men can have a destructive attractiveness for certain women. Beck has produced his own libretto – printed here in full - from the text of Oates’s novel. It makes an extended monody for soprano and here gets a powerful performance from Jean McDonald and Robin Guy. There is a considerable range of moods, many rapid switches of pace and idiom, a sustained intensity – all communicated in a performance which has both force and subtlety. If I say that I would like to hear other performers tackle this work I don’t mean in any way to denigrate McDonald and Guy; I say it because I think this is a work which would reward other performers too and which would lend itself to a variety of interpretations.
Black Water is a compelling work; the interestingly inventive Cello Sonata gets an excellent performance from Emilio Colón and Heather Coltman; the Songs Without Words are, at the least, pleasant, even if I find them less attention-grabbing than the other two works. In short, this is a fine sampler of a composer whose work I shall certainly look out for in future.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Black Water by Jeremy Beck
Robin Guy (Piano),
Jean McDonald (Soprano)
Period: 20th Century
Date of Recording: 1999
Songs Without Words by Jeremy Beck
Gretchen Brumwell (Harp),
Elizabeth Sadilek (Flute)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1997; USA
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