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Jeremy BECK (b. 1960)
1. Shadows & Light for string quartet (1994) [14:01]
2. Four Piano Pieces (1995) [7:28]
3. Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (1996) [12:56]
4. Never Final, Never Gone for SATB Chorus and piano (1993) [2:20]
5. Sonata for flute and piano (1981) [9:32]
6. Kopeyia for percussion ensemble (1995) [5:15]
Nevsky String Quartet (1); Heather Coltman (piano)(2); Tatiana Razoumova (violin); Maria Kolaiko (piano)(3); University of Northern Iowa Concert Chorale/Bruce Chamberlain, Diane Beane (piano)(4); Cynthia Ellis (flute); Roberta Garten (piano)(5); University of Northern Iowa Percussion Ensemble/Randy Hogancamp (6)
rec. April 2003, St. Petersburg Palace of Youth Arts, St. Petersburg, Russia (1,3); 17 May 2003, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton (2); 1994, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa (4); 29 November 2001 in Anaheim, California (5); 20 September 1997, University of Northern Iowa (6)
INNOVA 696 [51:38]
Experience Classicsonline

This new compilation of works by the American composer Jeremy Beck surveys a number of his pieces from the 1990s. At the same time he also samples an earlier work just to prove - for the record, so to speak - that Beck was committed to tonality and a recognizable musical vernacular long before that became the hip bandwagon it is today. Indeed, though there are traces of Copland, Ravel, Debussy and minimalism here, the strongest impression is that of an original voice celebrating music. Without self-consciousness, without paralyzing abstraction, Beck reminds us that music is movement, physically and emotionally.
 
The collection takes its title from a choral song Beck wrote while teaching music in Russia in the early 1990s. Surprisingly, it’s very short, just over two minutes, but clearly has significance to the composer, who wrote the text himself. That text, inspired by the composer’s people-watching in a St. Petersburg park, grasps at that elusive moment between night and dawn, between dream and wakefulness. This is the horizon that Beck’s music is always traveling toward.
 
The disc leads off with a fine performance of a string quartet titled “Shadows & Light.” The first movement digs into an energizing strum not unlike the cutting-edge repertory typically played by the Kronos Quartet or even Ethel, the amplified quartet, though Beck’s piece is all acoustic. The second movement of the work, three times longer than the first, starts with slow, intense music, inspired by Russian hymnody, though without using Russian melodies or modes. The buildup of tension breaks into a syncopated presto, recalling a few fragments of the first movement. The choral chords keep undercutting the faster music, with which it struggles and intertwines, including what the program booklet identifies as some improvisational passages. With wrenching power, the hymn pulls the music into a remote, peaceful ending. The piece is given a committed performance by the Nevsky String Quartet in good studio sound.
 
Heather Coltman plays the Four Piano Pieces very effectively, though the recorded sound is a little closer than would be ideal. The first piece, “Prelude,” is a thoughtful structure of questioning melody and twisting arpeggios. “Dance” is punchy and mechanical, almost like a Conlon Nancarrow player piano piece, though without mathematical ratio to demonstrate. The third piece, “Meditation,” is another study of ineffables, using suspended tones to capture an elusive state. The set ends with a “Toccata” not much shorter than the other three combined. The piece is a restless, glittering flight of riffs that only stops because it has to end somewhere.
 
Russian violinist Tatiana Razoumova, who was also the compelling leader of the Nevsky Quartet in the above recording of “Shadows & Light,” returns here to play Beck’s Sonata No. 2 with pianist Maria Kolaiko. The first movement is a study of emotional (not religious) “Rapture,” captured with lyric gestures and contrasting droll wit. Interestingly, though this was written in Iowa after the composer returned to teach in the U.S., it is the most Russian-sounding of the works here. The movement builds up to a long coda. The second movement, “Reminiscence,” looks back at the first within the context of new, brighter, much more American-sounding material. Intentional or not, it sounds like the composer looking back at his return from Russia to the United States with mixed emotions. Razoumova and Kolaiko bring the music to life.
 
The eponymous choral song serves as a lodestone for these pieces, with a searching melody underpinned by restless keyboard patterns. The recorded sound is rather congested, putting the chorus in close-up focus in what sounds like a small room, though the University of Northern Iowa Concert Chorale sings expressively.
 
Beck’s Sonata for flute and piano is the earliest work included here, dating from 1981. Academic serialism still held sway at that point, and I remember hearing the serialist composer Mel Powell saying on a national radio broadcast around that time that the battle between serialism and tonality was over and that his camp had won for good. How arrogant and out-of-touch that now seems, for while the giants of the academic genres obliviously strutted about, neo-tonal composers like Beck where springing up in a grassroots move to take back tonality. One can certainly hear Beck staking out his claim here in music both charming and striking, but it also lacks the clarity and boldness of his more recent pieces, particularly “Shadows & Light.”
 
The disc closes with an exhilarating percussion work, “Kopeyia” (pronounced ko-pay-YEE-ya), which was inspired by studies of West African drumming, and takes its name from the village in Ghana where Beck did his studies. It presents a glorious layering of driving rhythms with one trance-like pause for a gentle swelling and sinking of mallet-instrument washes of sound. But while the idea for this exhilarating piece is African, Beck brings his Euro-American melodic sense into it, as well. The Northern Iowa Percussion Ensemble clearly relishes this music, playing the rhythms with tremendous snap and pressing forward as the music builds to a thumping end.
 
With the variation in recording venues, personnel and years, there are some sonic ups-and-downs throughout this recording, but that is to be expected for a compilation of this sort. And were the music not so vitally enjoyable, I might carp about the short overall timing for this disc. But the music is well worth hearing and Innova deserves thanks for putting another relevant voice in front of the public eye.
 
Mark Sebastian Jordan
 
Also reviewed on Musicweb by Jeremy Beck on Innova: Pause and Feel and Hark

 


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