Composing From the Inside, 
Conducting From the Outside

May 16, 2004

The California Symphony produced a creative variant on the season closer Sunday night in Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center.  Music director Barry Jekowsky coupled a new work by its composer-in-residence to the standard go-to finale, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Conveniently, Kevin Beavers’ Songs from the Discovery calls on tenor and baritone soloists and chorus, all right at hand of course.

Judging from these two pieces, Beavers composes from inside himself, creating from what he’s assimilated and made his own.  It’s become increasingly rare to encounter one of his generation who is really composing and not generating music by parody, procedural format, conceptual gimmick or postmodern pose. Even his choice of poems (by Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska) was driven by musical considerations, the images as well as the rhythms inviting and igniting the settings.  Both poems speak to the challenge of human accomplishment, but very differently.  “The Acrobat” characterizes the daring flight, artistry and beauty of his solo moment, the music setting shimmering textures, evanescent sonorities within which distinct lines appear. 

In his light, narrowly focused tenor, Kevin Gibbs sang easily the well-paced, shapely phrased lines of the poem. The chorus, Sanford Dole’s Baroque Choral Guild, underlined and iterated the text, mostly in unison or octaves, and the clearer for that. The music captured the weightlessness and grace, rounding off with the poem’s sense of a completed moment.

A sound of its own “Discovery” is as darkly contrastive as Beavers predicted when he addressed the audience (that now-de rigeur introduction, the necessary reassurance to a possibly wary audience that the composer is a breathing, living creature, even as you and I). The textures are thick and scored in dark sonorities, the music pursuing a continuing course with the sureness of his harmonic sense. The language of it is neither new nor startling, and if it recalls the vocabulary of the 20th-century American modernists that they worked out empirically rather than systematically, it does have its own sound, is not derivative.

“Discovery” is the terrible credo of a scientist who makes a great discovery and then, unflinchingly, destroys every trace of it lest it fall into the hands of evil government. Each line states a conviction about the necessity for this destruction, usually beginning, “I believe . . .” Anton Belov, a Russian-born, now American baritone (not to be confused with the hockey player and the basketball star of the same name) sang it with somber intensity and depth. He has a keen dramatic sense. The chorus conveyed the same conviction, its music in four-part writing, open and clear. The fine diction Dole enforces makes all the difference.

Beavers has a composing talent of considerable promise. In these pieces, there is not much rhythmic energy or contrapuntal excitement, but the music sounds like it comes from one person.

Robert P. Commanday, 
the editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, 1965–93, and before that a conductor and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.

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