ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre turns 100 this year, and to celebrate the Rochester Philharmonic and the Eastman Philharmonic will be performing together in a rare collaboration this Saturday. Tickets can be found here.
The program features:
- Strauss: Don Juan
- Hanson: Symphony No. 2, “Romantic”
- Jeff Beal ’85E: The Cathedral (Premiere)
Howard Hason, the composer of the Symphony, served as the director at Eastman School of Music for 40 years, starting in the 1920s. But the final piece is written by a currently famous alumnus: Jeff Beal.
Beal is best known for his score for the hit Netflix TV show, “House of Cards.” But his resume is expansive, with scores for documentaries, movies, and concert music. On a special visit back, he will conduct his own piece.
In a 1-on-1 interview with Dan Gross, Beal discussed premiering piece, “The Cathedral,” working with Ethan Hawke on a new Apple TV+ project, the Beal Institute — a graduate program he and his wife endowed at Eastman — working with students, and more.
It’s called the cathedral. Let’s just start big picture talking about this piece.
Yeah, well, we’re celebrating 100 years of this amazing space, which is the Kodak Hall at the George Eastman theatre. It’s a joint concert that’s never happened between the Rochester Philharmonic and the Eastman Philharmonia. And I was commissioned to write a piece for these groups.
I think the people that commissioned me thought I thought I’d put them all up on that stage. But I got this idea to do it. Typically, so the Rochester Philharmonic will be on the main stage, and the students in the Eastman Philharmonia will be in these boxes on each side and up in the balcony. So the idea is the audience will be surrounded by the music.
I knew I wanted to become a composer. When I was playing trumpet in Oakland Symphony hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and I’m sitting in the middle of the orchestra, and I still feel like, that is the most amazing place to hear orchestral music is being inside it. So I hope that the audience gets this very immersive experience from listening to the piece.
It’s also commemorating 100 years of the space, what kind of emotions or thoughts you’re looking to provoke with this?
Well, you know, I was thinking a lot about traditions. And the fact that this is the idea between the master and the student, was a metaphor that I think represents this building. This is a world-class music school, right on this other wall, which I was a student at. And right on the other wall is a professional orchestra… all the teachers at Eastman School are virtuosos.
The ways in which we teach music, it is this sort of very oral tradition, and it’s very intimate. And so this, the piece is a conversation. It’s the way in which musical phrases are passed between each other as a language.
And then one thing I always like, asking musicians and composers of your caliber is when you work with professional musicians all the time. They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing. They’re amazing at their craft. What’s it like coming back and then working with students who maybe are figuring out some of the things that the professional is not ready? What’s that experience like for you’re working with students again?
Yeah, I love it. And I love the energy and the passion of young musicians, especially of the Eastman caliber. The fun thing about doing this piece is I actually gave the students the much harder part.
I’m on the podium conducting, but they are playing and they’re watching a conductor who might be 100 feet away from them. So it was a real good chance for them to have a real-world experience performing where they sort of have to figure it out and to come together as a section and do it so it’s incredibly joyful and fun to watch them respond and learn and have an experience that hopefully they’ll remember for a long time.
On the Beal Institute:
In your words, what is the Beal Institute? It’s been in place for six years now and reflect on its success for me.
Film music has always been sort of an unofficial part of the history of this school. My mentor, Rayburn Wright had a class in film music. But by the time my wife and I started becoming involved as alumni and talking to young students, it became very obvious there was a desire for so many young musicians to both perform and to learn how to compose for the screen.
We founded and endowed the seed money for the institute, to be created. And it’s a two years master’s program led by a wonderful Emmy-winning composer from Los Angeles, Mark Watters. And it’s been really wonderful.
We’ve had some amazing students who’ve gone on to become assistants for like, Ramin Djawadi, who does the music for Game of Thrones and many other things. And I love teaching, I love showing the craft… And what better place to do it than here at the, at the school it was founded by the man who invented modern photography. So this was originally a it was a silent movie house. (Those are) the first big events that happened here.
I really feel like film music is really an important part of modern symphonic literature. Any musician that gets a job in any orchestra now is going to be playing the music of John Williams and many other people in concert. So we’re really at an exciting time, I think in the evolution of the canon of music, where film music is really becoming not only on screen, but performed in a concert hall as well.
I want to backtrack a little bit. And this wasn’t on my list. But you’ve talked about Ray Wright. I’ve spent a lot of time here at Eastman and his name is so revered. And he was really the first to do this sort of multimedia composition. But for you when working with him… I mean, there must have been this kind of moment realized: “This is cool. I want to do film composition.” Did you have that with him?
Several. And you know, Ray was also the conductor, Radio City Music Hall. And I remember we used to do studio orchestra sessions in the room that’s now named after him. And it was sort of in the round. So he was throwing cues in front and behind him.
I kind of feel like, “oh my gosh, I get my moment of Ray Wright” when I conduct a cathedral on Saturday, because I’m conducting in the round.
It’s fascinating, but Ray was really ahead of his time… He had a very expansive attitude toward music. He wasn’t ashamed of music that might be in a commercial venue as being good music and having the potential to become excellent. And that was really inspiring to me.
He was so embracing of technology. He was always curious, and now it seems very primitive but whatever was the latest greatest was what Ray wanted to do.
How does it feel every time we come back to your alma mater to be able to teach and give back?
I love it. In fact, it was kind of a COVID thing. But my wife and I live now live in Manhattan. So part of the reason for that move was being closer to the school because I was just named a “Distinguished Visiting Artists,” which I’m very honored to be. And but officially or unofficially, you know, I didn’t want to just have my name on the Institute; I wanted to while I’m around, be a real partner of these students and help them, mentor them and teach them as they go through the program.
Perfect. I do have one more little musical question. Then. I like to end all my interviews of creative people with sort of these big picture things.
This is a great interview… I love these questions.
I’m flattered to hear that. One thing I am always interested in is when someone who is an instrumentalist then goes into composition… Trumpet is a very declarative and melodic instrument. How do you think that has informed your film score composition?
You know, you can hear my trumpet in the House of Cards name, for example, and I love using it when the case is made for it. But I’m really excited because actually this year I have a film coming out called Raymond and Ray starring Ethan Hawke.
That’s going to be an Apple TV in October. Ethan Hawke’s character is a jazz trumpet player. So but even before they shot, the movie I got was able to create some things that he plays on screen. And for me that felt like the full circle, the trumpet player because I was a trumpet major. When I came to Eastman, I felt like the trumpet player and the film composer finally got to meet each other in my life in a strange and beautiful way.
Is he miming what you’re playing?
And he’s done this before. He did such a great job. He also played Chet Baker in a movie called Born to be Blue. I was on set when he filmed his part and he did a great job. It’s really a wonderful little movie.
I just have to ask you… That must have been a trip seeing someone miming your playing?
I said I liked the piece better when (he) plays it than when I do. Because he’s Ethan Hawke! So it’s such a good presence. But it’s also a personal movie. Rodrigo Garcia, who wrote and directed it, he lost his father a few years ago, and it’s about loss and grieving and saying goodbye to a parent. And so that’s I like the emotional tone of it.
Trumpet is a very declarative instrument to but it can also be a very beautiful, lyrical instrument, you know, and think about somebody like Chet Baker, Miles Davis… I think as I got older, I sort of gravitated more to those players, just because the way in which the emotion I think in the instrument is, it’s a lot like the voice. I think a lot about singing. My wife’s a wonderful singer, and I love writing for singers. So I think, I think the best trumpet players have that sense of vocal quality when they play.
I do have to throw in a designated question about House of Cards. Did you have a sense that this was going to be it and this is still carrying with you? This is a project that people still talk about?
It’s definitely the music I’m most well known for around the world to this day. And the funny part of it is, you know, listen, it was a great cast. Great director David Fincher. But nobody knew that House of Cards would become the sensation that it was because really, this was an experiment.
This is the first time, Netflix, which was very young company at the time… We put the whole season out at one time, that seems crazy. But it really ushered in this amazing era of storytelling, and almost this operatic scale in which the writers could write a whole season in the way that they knew that their viewers would really watch all the episodes and track it like a really long movie.
Jeff Beal answers Dan Gross’s “Big Three” questions:
I do want to get to these three big-picture questions. You’re originally from California, moved here for school? What about Rochester and the Eastman School of Music really looking back on it informed you as a composer and musician?
I think there’s so much history here between Howard Hanson… Ray Wright, and all the great teachers that have been on there, and all the great colleagues of mine like Michael Torquay, and Kevin Puts who have gone on to win Pulitzers.
There is a bit of an Eastman aesthetic and an Eastman sound. And I think this place the city has a very strong connection to I would what I would call the “roots of American identity.” And that’s been a lot of my work from House of Cards to Pollack to many other films I’ve done. And I think there’s something very quintessential and proud — not in a haughty way, but in a very wonderful way — about (how) we’re Americans. This is we’re doing this differently. We love European music. But the whole Eastman School is about the future. It’s about taking these traditions and moving them forward. And also from a place of being Americans.
We’ve talked about an upcoming project that’s coming out in October, I believe, on Apple TV. What is your next big accomplishment? What’s the next feather in your cap? Besides getting through the show?
Like the piece on Saturday night, I really love writing concert music, and I love writing for the voice. But I think the next sort of big mountain on my horizon is probably… I really want to write an opera. So that’s in the early stage development of ideas. And so I think that it’s very close to film music in the sense that it’s musical-dramatic storytelling. So that’s really a goal I have in the next several years.
Any advice for aspiring composers?
Study, not only music but also study film, because film is a form of literature. So being a good film composer, you’d have to learn how to write music, you need to study all the things you need to learn. But you also need to study the language of film, and study the language of film music and really pick apart what makes a scene work, and how does the cue take you through each step of the way.