His iconic work has echoed in our homes untold millions of times: flurries of syncopated downward arpeggios, accented by searing trumpet calls and an ominous bass line churn. It's a perfect musical portrait of irresponsibly wielded power.
But composer Jeff Beal has written more than just the Emmy-winning score to Netflix's political drama "House of Cards." He recently finished a flute concerto, and soloist Sharon Bezaly, conductor Osmo Vanska, and the Minnesota Orchestra are giving its world premiere this weekend.
The project began when Beal received an unusual email from Robert von Bahr, founder of BIS Records. Minnesotans know BIS as the beloved label that has recorded their orchestra's award-winning Beethoven, Sibelius, and Mahler cycles. But Beal didn't know what to think of von Bahr — at first. "He had a very boisterous way of wording it," Beal remembers, laughing. "He's like, 'I want you to write some music for the world's best flute player.' And I said, either this guy's out of his mind or this person can really play."
Turns out that von Bahr is sane and Sharon Bezaly can really play. The three met in Sweden in the summer of 2015 to hash out the proposed concerto's details.
Bezaly hoped the piece could explore a variety of diverse emotions. At the time, she was wrestling with the recent death of her mother, her earliest musical mentor. "That story was meaningful for me," Beal says, confessing that he likes to "selfishly borrow" from commissioners' life experiences. So the second movement became an exploration of "the cathartic feeling that maybe one goes through when one has that profound sort of a loss."
At the same time, Bezaly "really wanted something that was very melodic, sort of joyful, rhythmic...I mean, I'm sure she heard that in my music and my film music. She loved the syncopated sense of rhythm." Consequently, the third movement finale has syncopation in spades. "When people think of the flute, they think of it as sort of a dainty instrument, you know?" Beal says. "And I really wanted to go against type, especially in the last movement. It's almost like the flute is shredding an electric guitar solo or something. I mean, it's just a barnburner. And it's very sort of..." He hesitates, searching for the right words. Finally: "It rocks out!"
BIS was so enthusiastic about the concerto that they recorded it this past summer in Sweden, months before its world premiere here. At the same sessions, they also recorded what Beal has dubbed his "House of Cards Symphony," an orchestral suite based on themes from the show.
Beal is clearly inspired by this cross-pollination between the worlds of film music and concert music. "This whole idea of film music entering the concert hall is exploding," he says. "It doesn't mean that every piece of music written for a TV show or a movie deserves to be in a concert hall. I really feel like that's a sacred space and there should be a threshold of excellence that allows it to be played by an orchestra in that setting... But the idea that great music can exist in any medium is certainly what I aspire to. So I think it's really really wonderful that this is starting to happen."
He enthusiastically tosses off a list of great film composers who are now trying their hands at concertos: John Williams (for years, he has been "the flag-bearer of this!"), Elliot Goldenthal, and James Newton Howard (in a neat bit of programming, Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra will be performing the Howard violin concerto this July).
"Listen, I love the screen, I love the idea of visuals, but..." Beal trails off briefly, collecting his thoughts. But then the ideas come tumbling forth, a fast eager monologue directed squarely at the audience. "There isn't really a program to the flute concerto, but I think invariably when people hear music they create a movie in their mind. And I guess in a way I'm sort of looking forward to hearing what that story is that people take away from it. What does it say to you? To me, that's the end of the loop. The piece isn't done when I write it. The piece is finished when it's played and people finish the creation by listening to it. I consider that loop really important. So I'm looking forward to seeing what they have to say."