Ion Sound Project, the fourth Innova recording dedicated to the music of composer Jeremy Beck, takes its title from the Pittsburgh-based chamber group of the same name. Stemming from a friendship with pianist Robert Frankenberry, Beck’s collaboration with Ion Sound Project began in 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh with a performance of his September Music, the piece which also closes this album. Beck’s music is unabashedly tonal, rhythmically intricate, and makes nods to the past while sitting squarely in the present. He is a prizewinner in the 2010 National Opera Association’s New Chamber Opera Competition, Boston Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 Commission Competition, and the 2012 Aliénor International Harpsichord Composition Competition. When he’s not releasing new recordings of his work or receiving accolades from national and international competitions, he practices intellectual property (copyright and trademark) law, entertainment law, and general business law in Louisville, Kentucky.
Ion Sound Project opens with its strongest piece, In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Pulsing, jazz-inflected rhythms propel the work forward, recalling Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches in spots. Bright shifting harmonies in tandem with those syncopated rhythms pull the music this way and that, occasionally giving the listener the feeling you get when you are walking up (or down) a flight of stairs in the dark and you think there is one more stair, but there isn’t. Held together by the fluid playing of Frankenberry, this juxtaposition of largely accessible and recognizable pitch and rhythmic material with the occasional sharp left makes for compelling and interesting listening. Up next is by Beck’s Cello Sonata No. 2. , performed by Elisa Kohanski. The delicate and understated first movement starts quietly and builds to its animato namesake before returning to its hushed beginnings. The second movement features long melancholic melodies with sparse accompaniment in the piano before perking up with rhythms and harmonic language akin to In Flight Until Mysterious Night.
Soprano Margaret Baube Andraso joins ISP for In February, a work written in 2002 with text by the composer. For soprano, clarinet, violin, and piano, this one-movement song of love lost opens with a slow ostinato in the piano into which the other instruments weave. The simple melodies, accompaniment, and pacing make this a piece that could be at home in theater or film as easily as on the concert stage. Gemini for flute, cello, and piano features independent lines leading to tutti accents on upbeats that could be (at least rhythmically) straight out of any number of rock tunes from the ‘80s and that betray a contemporary classical style that formed in that period without sounding dated or borrowed. The ironically titled Slow Motion for piano and vibraphone takes cues from the collaborative work of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Percussionist Eliseo Rael deftly trades polyphonic strains with Frankenberry, parts winding around one another before briefly coalescing in chords and accents that stutter step around, dressed in colorful harmonies. A less active choral section provides a respite from this activity before returning to the manic, quasi-improvisatory material from the top.
Third Delphic Hymn is a showcase for the evocative playing of violinist Laura Motchalov. Her ability to cleanly perform multiple lines at once sounds at times like two distinct players and is quite effective. This brief work is the oldest on the album (the original version for viola was written in 1980), but it is nonetheless a highlight both in terms of performance and composition, and I’ll admit to being disappointed that it ended so soon. This is not to say it was an inappropriate length, but that I was left wanting more. The final work on the album, September Music, initially picks up on the melancholy of Third Delphic Hymn in its modest tempo and longing harmonic language, and these characteristics continue for the most part in the second movement. The insistent third movement eventually displays many of the characteristics of the other works on the recording. Tutti climaxes rebounded from duo and trio excursions. Colorful clashes in the clarinet and flute, performed by Kathleen Costello and Peggy Yoo respectively, are answered by dramatic responses in the strings.
Ion Sound Project is a thoroughly engaging CD from top to bottom. Ion Sound Project (the group!) does a great job of presenting Beck’s work here, whether in solo or ensemble settings. Though architecturally rigorous, Beck writes clearly and without pretense, and while one might listen for the technical elements of his work, I think that would be missing the point. Well-wrought music should be architecturally sound as a matter of course, but checking that compositional tick-box alone does not necessarily a great piece of music make. If you’re interested in music that is for the most part harmonically tonal and rhythmically diverse, you’re sure to find a great deal of satisfaction in the world of Jeremy Beck.