A New Symphonic Messsage, 
With Poland-USA Link

May 17, 2004

WALNUT CREEK—Kevin Beavers’ new “Songs from the Discovery” has an aura and a haunting impact, with some dazzling orchestral colors to boot. It ranks among the most

memorable of the world premiere commissions of the boldly enterprising California Symphony here.  It leaves us a message for our times, with a capital M.

Like so many compositions, this one took on a life of its own, ending up quite different from the composer’s original plan.  Which is usually a plus, attesting to both invention and inspiration at work.

Beavers, 32, got caught up in the “Discovery” poetry of Wislawa Szymborska which won her the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Never mind that they were in Polish, and that their English translations (used here) are hard to sing (with line endings on one tongue-twisting past participle after another). The content message was powerful, “clearly pointing out the moral fault lines that our scientific explorations dances upon,” as Beavers puts it.

Beavers’ composing developed the works in such generous measure that he had to drop poems 3 and 4, and then ended up flip-flopping the two composed texts, now running “The Acrobat” followed by “Discovery”—by themselves already adding up to 23 minutes, a considerable length as symphonic premieres go.

“The Acrobat” is an upbeat testament to man’s creativity seen through the metaphor of the flashing trapeze artist. The solo tenor is backed by a sonically rich orchestra, at times producing a robust American sound in the triumphant vein of Schuman,Gould or Copland. Beavers has a sure hand with these grand orchestral gestures, though his solo vocal line did not catch my interest.

Far stronger is the finale for baritone solo and chorus on “Discovery.” This is the nub of Beavers’ message. The music nudges on areas already touched by Mussorgsky and Britten, building to an agitated climax before receding with the distant sound of a bell, as if science had run unchecked and left a trail of desolation.

The theme strikes me as both timely and political, coming in a period of both WMDs and of nuclear proliferation. Szymborska’s pessimism may be extreme, but it falls in line with other significant laments in modern Polish music, from Penderecki’s “St. Luke’s Passion” to Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”  Though heavier than what symphony audiences usually like to confront, Beavers’ opus should, I would hope and pray, get repeat plays around the USA as it links for us, with utmost eloquence, two messages from across the oceans converging on one idée fixe very much linked to our times.

The performance by both the California Symphony and the chorus was very good indeed, and in the focal role baritone Anton Belov added expressiveness in spades, imparting the main theme.

Sanford Dole has shaped his Baroque Choral Guild singers, over 50 strong, into one of the Bay Area’s elite ensembles.  Music Director Barry Jekowsky opened with Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Overture, in which his orchestra’s excellent woodwind section added both conviction and contrast. The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (“Choral”), which because of deadline conflicts we were unable to hear.

BEAVERS UPSTREAM, DOWNSTREAM—Born in Colombia, South America, Beavers got a doctorate in music from the University of Michigan. He is currently on the faculty of the increasingly imposing University of Texas in Austin Music Department.

The upcoming 2004–05 Cal. Symphony season provides a generous Beavers encore via his Symphony No. 1. The four program season opens Oct. 24–26 with a world premiere by Christopher Theofanadis. In addition, the new brochure lists Sarah Chang playing Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto, which further inquiry revealed to be No. 1 (April 17–19, 2005).

©Paul Hertelendy 2004
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music
Week of May 17–24, 2004
Vol. 6, No. 111

Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish—and a certain amount of salsa—for years.