Lembit Beecher has written Music for Bayside for Quintet of the America’s Memory Project. This commissioned work is based on interviews by the composer with seniors during his visits with them at Bayside Senior Center in Bayside, Queens, New York.
Others works that are part of the project are Abuelas, Nanas and Grandmamas Unsung by Carl MaultsBy, who worked with seniors at Elm-Cor Senior Center in East Elmhurst, Queens and Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin’s Lullaby and Memory, the product of his timewith seniors at the Salvation Army in Jackson Heights. More about the project and composers at http://www.quintet.org/.
1. When did you first realize you were a composer?
That sounds so definitive! I always have liked making things and building things and creating things. I started improvising at the piano and composing a little sometime in junior high school, but it was not until after college that I began to think that perhaps I could make a life out of composing and even later when I began to think I could actually make a living through it.
2. Who were some of your early influences? Who are some of your current influences?
I was a pianist growing up and played a steady stream of Chopin, Brahms and Schumann, so I first really fell in love with romantic music, some of which I'm not particularly interested in now, (like Smetana's Moldau)and some of which I still quite like (the first Tchaikovsky Piano Concert). But as a composer I remember being influenced by early 20th century music like Kodaly songs and Scriabin piano pieces as well as Bartok and a little bit later on Stravinsky. I also listened to Estonian Music, like Arvo Part, and Eastern European folk music of various sorts. More recently I've been listening to Beat Furrer, Gyorgy Kurtag, Thomas Ades and a lot of Bach cantatas.
3. How has your music evolved over the past few years?
I think I have been getting more sensitive and refined in my use of timbre. I have also been getting more comfortable limiting myself. I used to want to put everything into every piece, but at a certain point I realized that the pieces of mine that I liked best were the ones that were more focused. Understanding how to balance a free flowing approach to composition with a sense of order is an ongoing process that I very much enjoy.
4. What is your favorite type of ensemble to compose for?
I think my two favorites are string quartets and chamber cantata groups (a handful of strings, a couple winds, vocalists and a small choir). I am also really excited by the potential of chamber opera.
5. Tell us about Music for Bayside, and something of how it was created. What was it like listening to the stories of the residents of Bayside Senior Center and being part of the Memory Project?
It was a great experience to meet the folk at Bayside Senior Center. I had written an earlier piece called "And Then I Remember" which was a sort of documentary oratorio based on my grandmother's stories, so I had had some experience using interviews as the basis for composition, but the experience at Bayside was its own special and intimate thing. I love the process of interviewing people who aren't in a hurry: how connections between people can turn from awkward to personal within the course of a few minutes and how conversations can change from the mundane to the incredibly serious within the manner of seconds. I particularly enjoyed talking to Terry Calderon at Bayside who had a beautiful story that began with her parents meeting Turkey many years ago and ended with her own husband’s death much more recently. Hearing stories like this makes me look at my own life in a different way.
6. Did images from the seniors’ stories suggest the music or vice versa? How important is narrative in your music?
I was deeply influenced by the interviews, but not always by direct images in the stories. My piece, "Music for Bayside" is in four movements and for the most part the movements are each inspired by moments in the interview process. For example, the opening movement was inspired by an exchange that took place between Sam, a retired furrier and Matt (the oboist for Quintet of the Americas) and Nick (the clarinetist). Sam told Matt that his favorite musician was Benny Goodman so Matt called Nick over to play a little clarinet. Nick played "In a Sentimental Mood," a Duke Ellington song that Benny Goodman often played. The expression on Sam's face as he listened to the first few notes was just magical and the first movement of my piece is a sort of poem based on that moment. It uses the first few notes of “In a Sentimental Mood" and swirls them around, again and again.
7. You’ve written a lot of chamber music, many pieces with titles that suggest memories and remembering. Tell us about some of your other works and how they came about.
I've already mentioned "And Then I Remember," my documentary oratorio based on interviews with my grandmother about her childhood in Estonia, survival of both the German and Russian occupations during WWII, and her immigration to the United States. These were stories that I had heard all my life, and I felt like I really wanted to share the stories and share the experience of hearing those stories. Shortly after my grandmother died last year, I wrote a string quartet called "These Memories May Be True," which was part homage to my grandmother's legacy, but also as an exploration of what Estonia and Estonian culture meant to me as a child. (Though I grew up in California, my first language was Estonian and throughout my childhood we talked a great deal about Estonia, which was still under Soviet occupation until 1991.) Right now I'm working on a chamber opera with the librettist Hannah Moscovitch that focuses on the tension between wartime relationships and civilian life.
8. How did you meet Quintet of the Americas?
I've known their clarinetist Nick Gallas for at least 3 years. In addition to being a good friend he had performed a number of my pieces with various groups around the city and he put me in touch with the rest of the quintet.
9. Do you have any plans to record your music?
Yes! I am lucky to have a good DVD recording of my documentary oratorio "And Then I Remember" (Available for free streaming on vimeo: http://vimeo.com/channels/114262). Later this summer the Jersey City-based music group Con Vivo will be recording my "Small Suite" for solo viola with clarinet, bassoon and double bass on their inaugural CD. And later this Fall I am hoping to record my string quartet "These Memories May Be True."
10. What does the future hold for Lembit Beecher? Is there a sort of dream project that you would like to be able to create?
Next year is looking to be very exciting. Gotham Chamber Opera will premiere my new chamber opera "I Have No Stories to Tell You" on February 26th and 27th, 2014 at the Met Museum. I'm organizing a concert of Estonian and Hungarian music based on folk song that will be performed in New York, Philadelphia and Vermont in October and "And Then I Remember" will be performed in San Francisco by the Blue Print Ensemble in November. I am currently the composer-in-residence of Opera Philadelphia, Gotham Chamber Opera and Music-Theatre Group so I'm very lucky to be able to dream up projects and have some venue for workshopping and possible production. The next project I'm thinking about is chamber opera collaboration with a really fantastic graphic artist/illustrator.
In the Fall of 2011, Lembit Beecher was appointed for a three-year term as the first Composer In Residence of the Opera Company of Philadelphia in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera and Music Theatre Group of New York. Born of Estonian and American parents, he grew up under the redwoods in Santa Cruz, California, a few miles from the wild Pacific. Since then he has lived in Boston, Houston, Ann Arbor, Berlin and New York, earning degrees from Harvard, Rice and the University of Michigan. This varied background has made him particularly sensitive to place, ecology and the strong emotional relationships that people forge with patterns in nature. He is also interested in memory and the various ways we tell stories, from emotional personal narratives to crisp and clean documentaries. Recent pieces have focused on reflections of the immigrant experience and the integration of recorded interviews with music. While a fellow at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities (2008 – 2009), Lembit wrote And Then I Remember, a multi-media, documentary oratorio based on the World War II stories of his grandmother (https://vimeo.com/channels/114262). And Then I Remember won the 2010 Opera Vista competition leading to a fully staged production in March of 2011 in Houston, Texas. Active also as a pianist and conductor, his work has been performed at the Tanglewood, Aspen and Cabrillo Music Festivals and he has received awards and grants from the American Music Center, ASCAP, New York Youth Symphony, NewMusic@ECU, Society for New Music and Austin Peay State University. Lembit served as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison University for theFfall of 2009. Visit him at http://www.lembitbeecher.com/.
Lembit Beecher’s appearances with Quintet of the Americas are funded in part through Meet The Composer's MetLife Creative Connections program.
Leadership support for Meet the Composer's MetLife Creative Connections program is generously provided by MetLife Foundation. Additional support is provided by The Amphion Foundation, Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, BMI Foundation, Inc., Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, Jerome Foundation, mediaThe foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Virgil Thomson Foundation, Ltd.