The concert on Jan. 30 by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, conducted by Stephen Alltop and featuring the work of film and TV composer Jeff Beal, was a unique experience for me. I can't remember ever going to a concert wholly devoted to a living composer, and one who was not only present but actually taking part in the performance.
Beal is most famous for his prize-winning music for the TV Series "House of Cards," on the streaming service Netflix. (The earlier years of the show have been available on DVDs.) This show is about the rise to power of an unscrupulous congressman, Frank Underwood, aided by his wife Claire. I have never seen any of this very popular series, but, when conductor Alltop asked the audience how many of them had seen "House of Cards," relatively few hands went up, in the balcony at any rate. So, I felt less guilty about my ignorance of the Kevin Spacey epic. But wait, I have seen the original "House of Cards," the 1990 British series that starred Ian Richardson, at his manipulative best, working his devious way to be prime minister. That show was offered on WILL-TV.
Composer Beal introduced his works from the stage, and in his affable manner he was quite candid about the musical influences on his work: Igor Stravinsky, Neo-Classicism, minimalism and late Romanticism. The opening work, "Pollock Suite," was a folksy, lively sampling of the music he wrote for the 2000 documentary on the painter Jackson Pollock. The bustling opening, with repeated ostinatos, reminded me of the Shrovetide Fair section of Stravinsky's Petrushka, and the "down-home" touches of Americana suggested the influence of Aaron Copland.
One thing Beal does splendidly is setting moods by a skillful blending of instruments. The movements of his trumpet concerto "Alternate Route" suggest moods ranging from reflective to "hot and rhythmic" to pensive, and lastly to "elegiac and hopeful."
Beal, a trumpeter by training, used two such instruments, and played the concerto's solo line, which was predominantly in an easy-going, laid-back jazz mode. At one point, part of a trumpet dropped to the floor, but Beal soldiered on with his jazz riff. The last movement featured an up-and-down theme that was passed in a humorous way from Beal to the orchestra and back again.
In a piece entitled "House of Cards: Russia," Beal himself conducted the orchestra. In sad and elegiac music, illustrating the plight of a gay American imprisoned in Russia, there were moving solo passages for cellist Barbara Hedlund, violist Robin Kearton and violinist Igor Kalnin, who took bows at the piece's end.
After intermission, clarinetist J. David Harris, well known to local audiences, gave an impressive performance in Beal's 1997 clarinet concerto. Employing a very large orchestra, including five saxophones, led by Debra Richtmeyer, Beal created many enjoyable moments of orchestral splendor. At times, however, the clarinet line, ably played by Harris, seemed on a different wave length than the orchestra. We were told that both the trumpet and clarinet concertos had chances for the solo instrumentalist to freely improvise, but how was one to know whether the soloist was playing a written cadenza or improvising on their own? Near the concerto's end there were interesting staccato accompanying figures from the trombones and trumpets. At the end of the clarinet concerto, Harris received very strong applause.
All through the concert, the C-U Symphony performed at a very high level, and conductor Alltop's sympathy for Beal's music resulted in very idiomatic-sounding performances. The crowning work of the concert, and the best example of Beal's compositional skills, was the final "House of Cards Suite." I found most of it deeply moving, while inexorably mounting to a grandiose climax, which produced a standing ovation. What Beal does best, music for the screen, he does splendidly. Now to find a darkened room where I can binge on the U.S. "House of Cards" in between TV political debates.
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.