By Eric Dundon
In three January 2024 concerts led St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra explores how jazz, blues, and ragtime music relates to and enriches music for the concert hall. In the first concert, January 12, 2024, Slatkin and the SLSO will give the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Jeff Beal—jazz trumpeter and noted composer for the screen and concert hall.
Beal shares his insights into the piece, Body in Motion, which will premiere with violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
SLSO: The world premiere performance is in collaboration with conductor Leonard Slatkin and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. Talk about your relationship with these artists and how they influenced the creation of this new concerto.
Jeff Beal: I had the pleasure of attending Kelly's Forgotten Voices concert at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 2022. Of course, I was impressed by her wonderful playing, but also by her interest in bringing music to underserved communities. Her “Music Kitchen” program has been bringing classical performers to homeless shelters for over 15 years. A few months after the Carnegie Hall concert, we finally met in person. We hit it off personally, and I mentioned in passing I had been thinking about a violin concerto. Kelly knew of my work, and we mutually decided to explore the idea of a collaboration.
I was introduced to Leonard around 2015 by our mutual friend, [composer] John Corigliano. Leonard’s work as a conductor and champion of American music is unparalleled in my book. He’s conducted several of my silent film score works, and in 2019 Leonard gave the world premiere of my song cycle The Paper Lined Shack with the SLSO.
Kelly and Leonard embody an aesthetic which has influenced my piece. They exude joy in making music itself, along with an appetite for authentic artistic expression, and musical risk taking.
Talk about the genesis of this piece. Where did you start?
When I compose a new concerto, I often think of the soloists’ playing and spirit. Early on in our work, Kelly came by my studio and performed for me unaccompanied. It was very useful to understand the type of energy and feeling she commands in her playing. I also loved the fact that she brings a wonderful emotional intensity to everything she plays. I began thinking about water as a metaphor—both visually and musically. I conceived of the opening of the piece with the orchestra in a sense of almost constant motion, like the undulating of waves. Over this shifting texture the soloist could skate.
One image I kept in my thoughts when composing was how life itself always is active and moving, evolving in some way.
The world premiere is part of a series of concerts that explore how jazz, blues, and ragtime have enriched the classical music world. How have these genres influenced your composition process?
I’m very happy this new work is being born in this context. I began my musical journey as a jazz trumpet player. I often have thought of improvisation as a part of my compositional process—both in my concert music, and also in my film music. These unique American genres and styles deserve to be heard in the concert hall. All of the music is composed, but I strove to give it the feeling of spontaneity and surprise in the soloist’s part.
The third movement is particularly full of syncopation and groove music for both the orchestra and soloist. The second movement has a plaintive quality, and an ache I feel relates to blues music. I often use the term “beautiful sadness” as a way of verbalizing what I feel the blues has given me musically.
What challenges does this concerto pose for the soloist?
The use of rhythm and syncopation is a challenge for the soloist. The first movement is deceptively tricky to pull off in the sense that the soloist is reacting to an orchestra which is not “behaving” in the normal role of “accompanist” for the soloist. The two are more active partners, so the soloist’s sense of internal rhythm confidence are required to a great degree.
How does the music embody the title of the piece, Body in Motion?
This title came to me as I was connecting all of the ideas I feel the music represents. Life is a constant struggle against entropy, aging, fatigue, and even despair. The idea of this forward motion is perhaps one answer to these challenges. To me it is the most beautiful as it implies us trying to align our actions and choices towards an embracing of life. The complete phrase is “a body in motion… stays in motion."
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Director.