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Jeff Beal: From the tranquility of Idaho to the chaos of Pollock and thermonuclear war

Nov 7, 2019

Jeff Beal
Credit Courtesy of the University of Rochester

Jeff Beal can put his feet up and relax Friday night at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater. “I have nothing to do,” he says.

Yes, that’s the job of the Eastman Philharmonia, conductor laureate of the St. Louis and Detroit symphony orchestras Leonard Slatkin, and Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann. It’s a celebration of Beal’s Emmy-encrusted career as a composer of film scores, television themes and classical compositions.

“Varied styles, but all great music,” Slatkin says. “That was the Duke Ellington line, he would say, ‘There are only two kinds of music, there is great music and there is the other stuff.’ ”

Having nothing to do is a brief respite for Beal. His career has followed the first part of Ellington’s equation, with seven solo CD releases and 19 Emmy nominations, winning five for works such as his long association with the Netflix political drama “House of Cards,” and his score for the film “Pollock,” a biography of the bound-for-a-bad-end abstract painter Jackson Pollock.

Friday’s program features “Suite from ‘Pollock’ ” and the song cycle “The Paper Lined Shack.” The show closes with “Battleground,” a one-hour soundtrack from the 2006 anthology series based on Stephen King stories, “Nightmares & Dreamscapes,” projected on a screen behind the Eastman Philharmonia as it plays.

“The many faces of Jeff Beal,” Slatkin says, “which you hear in this particular concert we are doing.”

Beal, a California native, studied composition and trumpet at the Eastman School of Music, graduating in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in music. He married a classmate, soprano Joan Sapiro, and they moved to New York City, where Beal found success as a jazz trumpeter and composer. 

But his career took a sharp turn in the mid-1990s, when the Beals moved to California. Land of movie soundtracks. In 2001, his work on “Pollock” was highly praised, and he won his first Emmy in 2003 for the theme from the USA Network detective show “Monk.”

He composes and records much of his music at his home in California, to the point he plays most of the instruments himself. When he needs a string section, he can fit about two dozen musicians in the living room. Or, what was once a living room. “A big portion of the house has been taken over as a recording studio,” he says.

The Beals re-established their connection to the Eastman School of Music a few years ago, donating $2 million for the creation of the Beal Institute for Film Music and Contemporary Media. He’s working with students in the program while here for Friday night’s show.

“The Paper Lined Shack” is a recent Beal composition. It represents what Slatkin hears as the “pastoral feeling to Jeff’s music that is close stylistically to Aaron Copland’s more relaxed scores.”

The inspiration for the piece came from a box that the Beals found 10 years ago in the basement of their home. In it was a typewritten diary by his great-grandmother, left behind for her children. She was a pioneer women who moved to Idaho with her husband to live on a farm. But he died unexpectedly during their first year there, leaving Beal’s great-grandmother as a single mother with six kids, living in a house with no heat. Beal mused over the discovery. “Is it an opera, I don’t know what it is…? We sort of put it in a box and forgot about it for a while.”

When Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony commissioned Beal to write a piece, Beal remembered that box in the basement.

“I wanted an interesting, strong female character to drive the narrative,” Beal says, “and so my great-grandmother sort of just seemed like the perfect vehicle.” He remembered meeting her when he was a child: Funny, spunky, “she obviously had a lot of strength and character to do what she did in her life.”

And the lack of self-pity in personality, Beal says, that stood out. She was proud of having endured hardship.

“Her story, her journey, and also the idea of resiliency, and also just the way she wrote about her experience, was so poetic, so beautiful.”

And “Battleground?” Not so poetic. The Stephen King story of a man – played by William Hurt – battling little green army men has no dialogue. But there is a thermonuclear explosion, an interesting challenge for the Eastman Philharmonia. 

At first unaware that his friend Beal had written the score, Slatkin watched “Battleground” while recovering from a coronary bypass procedure. “For one hour, I was on the edge of my seat,” he says. “Not being scared or terrified, it was just an amazing set of tensions, created by the fact that, one, there is no talking, and two, the music itself was so engulfing that you couldn’t help but be drawn into this.”

After finishing the interviews for this story, Beal and Slatkin spent a few minutes trading anecdotes about public-restroom urinals; they seem to have that kind of easy relationship with each other. Upon seeing “Battleground,” Slatkin called Beal and insisted they had to put that score in the concert hall.

The pastoral landscape of Idaho, with banjo, meets the Apocalypse and plastic army men. Classical and pop culture crossover. “The celebration of film music in the concert hall is really a trend that is exciting people about concerts,” Beal says. “It’s bringing a different audience to the concerts, and it’s also giving people that see a concert realizing that this isn’t just an antiquated museum piece, that this music that we love and play at such a high level at schools like the Eastman, this is actually a living, breathing part of our culture.”

The show starts at 7:30 p.m., for tickets go to eastmantheatre.org.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.