Photo: Fritz Myers
On June 17, 2022, at New York’s Fotografiska, Jeff Beal’s “The Paper Lined Shack,” received its New York and string quartet premiere, along with the world premiere of the composer’s “Things Unseen” for string quartet. And though “Things Unseen” is an instrumental work, it’s worth some words. The piece sets up “The Paper Lined Shack” by acquainting the audience with Beal’s musical language, which was at times asymmetrical, and thoroughly “American” with overtones of Aaron Copland and John Adams.
Beal is a multifaceted composer and performer. He is well-established in film and television with five Emmys on his mantle. His score for Ed Harris’ film, “Pollock” (2000), captured the attention of Hollywood and he has written music for “House of Cards,” “The Queen Of Versailles,” and HBO’s “Rome,” “Carnivàle,” and “The Newsroom,” among many others. Then, there’s the jazz side of Beal. Trained in both jazz and classical trumpet, he haunts jazz clubs when opportunities arise, and his scores have, occasionally, featured him tooting his own horn—literally.
The Invisible World
“Things Unseen” is a 27-minute work for string quartet comprising four movements: “Ghosts,” “Spirits,” “Angels,” and “Gnomes;” a.k.a. things unseen. Beal’s music fluctuated from reflective to restless. Behind the quartet, images of nature and person-made objects progressively filled the screen, with each image starting as an extreme closeup, unrecognizable until the camera pulled back for the reveal. This produced a sense of gamification, with the question being, “What’s this one going to be?” as the revelation developed like molasses dripping from a spoon. It worked nicely and rather than being distracting, the pictures jump started the imagination without being prescriptive. This was different from the evening’s vocal work, “The Paper Lined Shack,” which furnished a clear-cut narrative meant for the audience to follow.
“Things Unseen” was engaging and mostly accessible. Beal had more room and time to play with the composition, something distinct from the quick turnarounds demanded by Hollywood. There was the sense that Beal looked to incorporate the cinematic within contemporary classical, having both pieces straddle the worlds and their unique languages. Pulling from his jazz background, he invited the audience to clap in between movements as if they were solos in a club. Clutch your pearls because Beal thinks the staid concert format in which everyone sits prim and proper and applauds accordingly is “bulls**t.” His opinion drew a hearty hoot of praise from the relatively young audience.
Before moving away from “Things Unseen,” there’s a cellist who deserves a tremendous shout-out. The New Hollywood String Quartet performed all the evening’s music, but the group’s cellist was stranded on the other side of the country because of the unpredictability of U.S. airline industry. There was no chance the cellist would arrive in New York in time to perform.
New York has plenty of virtuoso musicians, but how does a composer find a cellist in short order who can take on challenging music they’ve never seen and join three other musicians with whom they’ve never rehearsed? Enter Michael Nicolas for the jump-in. Nicolas is a member of Brooklyn Rider, Int. Contemporary Ensemble, and Third Sound. Of all the cellists in all of New York, it was Nicolas who saved the day with his brilliant musicianship. If asked who among the quartet only joined a day or so prior to the world premiere, Nicolas probably wouldn’t make the list. The cellist played and gelled like he’d been a member since the quartet’s inception. Truly amazing.
A Story in Song: “The Paper Lined Shack”
The second half of the program showcased Beal’s narrative song cycle based on the written diary of Beal’s great grandmother, Della. The presentation of the work was its New York premiere and the premiere of the string quartet version. Originally commissioned as a fully orchestrated piece by St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in honor of the renowned conductor, Leonard Slatkin, the work was conceived after the composer and his wife, Joan, discovered Della’s diary after a move to southern California. Joan Beal, handpicked vignettes from the diary to form a comprehensive view of who Della was as a person and the milestones marking her life. Where needed, she versified Della’s words, but many remained untouched because she had an innate gift for words. The poetic nature of the diary’s entries often surprised the Beals. It was an aspect of the composer’s great grandmother that had laid hidden in a box, waiting for the right time to emerge.
Written near the end of her life, the pages within the diary present a portrait of a woman who persisted and raised her family on a 10-acre farm in Idaho. Widowed as a young woman, she raised six children on her own. Her story, written in her own hand, captured a full picture of a strong, determined woman supporting her family in an unforgiving region of the US, with little but a paper lined shack to call their home.
To match the indefatigable spirit of his great grandmother, Beal wanted a powerful singer who could serve as the medium through which Della’s words could please the ear and mind. He chose soprano Hila Plitmann, a vocalist he’s collaborated with in the past.
Plitmann is a two-time Grammy Award-winner. Her most recent win was for “Mythologies,” which took home the 2022 Grammy in the Best Classical Solo Vocal Album category. The soprano, like Beal, is a multifaceted creative force. You can hear her on film soundtracks, such as “The DaVinci Code,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tides.” “Ghostbusters” (2016), and “Batman v Superman.” As an actor, Plitmann was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical from the Los Angeles Ovation Awards. And musically, the soprano is in no danger of being pigeonholed. Beyond her work in the operatic repertoire, she has crossed over into jazz and world music, having co-founded Renaissance Heart, a genre-bending global music project.
Beal and Plitmann couldn’t have been more perfectly matched. Beal wrote a jungle gym of notes on which Plitmann’s voice could play, and she presented the composer’s vision with both power and nuance, guiding the audience through a woman’s life story in five relatively short movements.
The work’s presentation was a multimedia affair distinct from that of “Things Unseen.” Rather than using abstraction, Beal incorporated century-old images from the diary. Projections are treacherous waters, but in the hands of a Hollywood composer, the displays were well conceived and delivered, layering a visual story atop a sonic one. The images used for “The Paper Lined Shack” brought an intimate look into Della’s life. It was akin to secretly but reverently flipping through a family photo album that’s not your own. Within every image is a story, and in “The Paper Lined Shack,” those stories showed up as song.
Five Songs, One Amazing Life
“Carefree Girl” opens the story and tells of Della’s tom-boyish childhood which included a goat ride gone wrong and the love she held for her bicycle, purchased by her father at a cost $85.00. It was wistful and joyous in its innocence.
Plitmann’s line is high (as it is throughout the cycle), reflecting Beal’s choice to write for a robust voice. The delivery throughout the cycle is declamatory. In “Carefree Girl,” joyous moments in the narrative sent Plitmann above the staff to a B5 multiple times.
“The Red Chair” tells of the love between Della’s parents and the bliss they experienced having children. Franklin, Della’s father, purchases a new hat, celebrating the occasion of the birth of their son, Glenn. The red chair, a gift reserved by Della’s grandfather for his first granddaughter, went to her sister Rosella.
Plitmann sparkled as she related the bounciness of familial love. Her voice was bubbly, like champagne freshly poured. The tessitura of “The Red Chair” was higher than that of “Carefree Girl,” with more notes above the staff, the highest once more a B5, which made more appearances than in the previous movement. Beal uses a magnificent flowing line in the violins to undergird and drive the piece forward. In the score, he indicates the expression should be smooth and hypnotic, and The New Hollywood Quartet followed the marking to a T.
With the next movement, “The Paper Lined Shack,” the arc of the story reaches an inflection point. Once more, Beal uses a rippling, stream-like violin line. However, this time it’s different, with the cello sounding a steady pulse beneath the flow. The text is a playful description of Della’s Idaho shack in which they used a large box for a table and apple crates for chairs. Outside, jackrabbits jumped and there was nice grass. In Della’s words: “It seemed alright then.”
Della then speaks of a strawberry patch dug by Papa (her husband) and how it was a source of joy for him and the family. Winter arrives; the shack is cold, blankets have a coating of snow in the morning and clothes stick frozen to the walls. Della’s parents warm the children in a chair. Here, Beal gives Plitmann some ringing top notes with a B5 lifting to a C6 sharp. The medium-size performance space seemed ready to burst from the potency of Plitmann’s sound. The movement ends in a bittersweet memory. That intense winter was the last Christmas spent with Papa before he passed away. Musically, Beal shifts from the jauntiness of earlier to long, poignant and cinematic legato lines.
The fourth movement is heart-rending. Della has met sorrow for the first time when she learns of her mother’s death. The death of Della’s husband followed shortly. As she gazes and reflects upon the sweet pea patch planted for her, and now in full bloom and doused in June sunlight, she states, “The garden looked the same, but everything had changed.”
Beal again gave Plitmann shimmering high notes with a sustained C6 held across two measures. She just hung there, at the top, alluding to her mother and husband’s spirits rising to the heavens. Several bars later, Beal brings Plitmann higher to a sustained D6, the topmost note in the piece.
Wrapping the cycle is “My Heart,” which opens with a mournful viola solo played by Robert Brophy with touching nuance. Beal showed his film scoring influence with drone tones seguing into lush melodic chords.
“My Heart” is a coda. Della writes that the memories she has put to paper are for her children that they may know of the love she had for them and how love, in general, brought the family together. Plitmann reads her lines from a letter wrapped in a blue bow, as if she were Della. “It was love that brought me from my father’s house to be your mama. It was love that we planted in the garden. There our hearts bloom, and you were born.”
The movement is tender, lyrical, and handed the soprano a chance to not just soar above the staff, but to do so gently, lovingly, and with great care for the words she sang. Here, Plitmann was a bird with a gorgeous song, and whose gentle warbling spoke of things past and of the future as Della’s children, grandchildren, and then great grand children learned not only of their family’s history, but of the love that shaped it. Little did she know her diary would be set to song by her great grandson and shared with the world.
These two intriguing works are available on your favorite streaming service starting on June 24, 2022.