Strums and tuttis: Beaser’s music for guitar and orchestra

Album Art for Robert Beaser’s Guitar Concerto

This disc takes the title of its biggest and most prominent work, but it also includes three others: “Evening Prayer,” “Ground 0,” and “Notes on a Southern Sky.” Those first three are all for orchestra, written in the last ten years, while the last is an early piece that Robert Beaser wrote for Eliot Fisk, a guitarist. Whether short or long, these are all substantial works, which is to say that they eschew superficiality. Beaser has always written works that have real ideas, real content, and thus are imbued with real meaning. He is the real deal.

The partnership of Beaser and Fisk goes back to their undergraduate days at Yale University in the early ’70s. Both of them were and are seekers: Beaser in finding a deep and rich music, and Fisk in extending the virtuosic and expressive possibilities of his instrument. Besides the commission for “Notes,” Fisk and the elegant flutist Paula Robison commissioned Beaser’s “Mountain Songs,” a frequently performed and rearranged work that is now firmly placed in the repertoire.

Beaser grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, where he studied percussion, piano, and composition. He performed and wrote for the Boston Youth Symphony, one of the foremost ensembles of its type in the country. He studied with Yehudi Wyner and Jacob Druckman, among others, at Yale College and the Yale School of Music. Thereafter he spent a year in Rome as the winner of the Rome Prize. The work from his Yale days was weighty and complex, but always strong in ideas and logical development. It is a rigorous music with a whiff of the academy. Works in this period include his String Quartet and woodwind quintet Shadow and Light. As far as I know, these works are not available on recording, but they should be—not just because they represent an important stage in Beaser’s youthful development, but because they are excellent pieces. His time in Rome was important, as it is there that he altered his compositional approach and developed a more inclusive and tonal language. As such, Beaser along with David Del Tredici and others, took up what became the “New Tonality.”

I will make the following categorical statements about Beaser’s music—there is nary an unnecessary note, and its sense of the inevitable is overpowering. His penchant for development and variation is always present. Large scale architecture and a sense of pacing is unfailingly well done; the forward ride, while always clear, allows for and encourages surprises. But I leave the best for last—Beaser’s pieces always sing. His music, like all the very best, combines body and soul. His rhythm partakes of the vernacular (like Bernstein or Copland), but Beaser raises its potential and possibilities, like Haydn and Mozart did with the minuet or Bach with the gigue. His materials are always strong and memorable, and he is one of the best orchestrators we have.

The works on the disc Guitar Concerto display all of these qualities. These pieces glisten and reward numerous hearings.

Fisk describes the “Guitar Concerto” as “epic.” I agree. It is a huge work, probably one of the longest and most complicated in the literature. But it doesn’t feel this way, which is the sign of a truly fine work. Like most classical concertos, it is cast in three movements. The first is in a quasi-sonata form and is based on a most simple and elegant idea, a chain of thirds. The developmental process is clearly narrative, which is to say the ongoing sense of movement seems inevitable. Its contours are easily trackable. The guitar takes the lead from the start and the orchestra is a willing and able partner in this almost–pas de deux. The second movement is more complex than the first. By this I mean it presents a greater degree of emotional complexity. Called “Tombeau,” it employs or refers to various Baroque dances, if in an off-kilter way. It then enters a world that is “nightmarish.” Beaser’s music is firmly within and stands on the tradition, and he notes that this movement pays homage to Ravel and Couperin. The third, “Phrygian Pick,” harkens back to Beaser’s “Mountain Songs” in its reference of folk music, but in this case the movement abuts bluegrass and Andulusian musics. It is a wild and raucous romp that brings the entire work to a glorious, albeit intense, conclusion.

Evening Prayer is based on Esti Dal (Evening Song) from Kodály’s Vegyeskarok (Choruses for Mixed Voices) and was commissioned by the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. “Based on” in this case means that Beaser utilizes the tune as a jumping off point, a means of departure. The language is reminiscent of middle period Copland, open and clear. It combines youthful exuberance as well as languid and sonorous melodies, or choral-like materials. The music occasionally struts and shows off fine orchestrational chops. This piece swings big time, like a jazz band on steroids.

Ground 0was written in memoriam around the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Based on an earlier work for piccolo and piano, it is for the most part fittingly restrained and sonorous. It combines choral-like material (a frequent element in Beaser’s work) with a “tintinnabulation” of thin bell-like sounds. Its climax is weighty and profound. It opens and closes in wisps of high sounds, and a quiet stasis. It fulfils its intent perfectly.

Through his partnership with Eliot Fisk, Beaser has made a major and lasting contribution to the solo guitar repertoire with numerous pieces including “Notes on a Southern Sky.” Placed after the “Concerto,” it might be considered a lengthy encore. The work was one of Beaser’s first to look at folk music, in this case, that of Venezuela. It combines soulfulness and impetuosity in its meditations. Long moments of agitated stasis are interrupted by angular abrupt attacks. It is in two sections—slow and fast—but while the first is strongly melodic, there is frequently an undercurrent of tension provided by rapidly repeated notes. The second movement dances in almost-steadying sixteenth note motion, yet it has a clear sense of phrasing that breathes. The driving coda brings this seminal work to a satisfying conclusion. Fisk, as in the concerto, plays brilliantly. His sound is strong yet sensuous. He knows Beaser and this music, and plays both works with dedicated aplomb. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra under the direction of conductor José Serebrier play their hearts out, with a sound that is full and rich, yet also transparent. They hit American syncopations like they own them.

This article originally appeared on The New Criterion and is used here by permission. You can find the original article here.