“Music has always been connected with the art of storytelling,” says Jeff Beal, the Emmy-winning composer of the score for “House of Cards” and numerous other television shows and films. “It accompanied Shakespeare’s plays and, before that, the stories that were told around the campfire.
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“In a lot of ways,” he continues, “I’m a storyteller by nature and so I easily relate to television, which is the modern medium that weaves stories and dramas. At the same time, I’m also proud the music that was written for ‘House of Cards’ is also suitable for the concert hall, and that in bringing it to concert halls we’re creating a big stir and bringing in a new audience.
“I feel a bit like an evangelist for the cause of the symphony orchestra and symphony culture, and perhaps I’m doing a little something to help promote that cause.”
The project Beal refers to is the adaptation of pieces from his score for the hit Netflix show into 80 minutes of music that he calls the “House of Cards Symphony,” performed as footage from the series is projected in the background.
“The visual imagery doesn’t [overwhelm] the music and it enables people who don’t know the show to enjoy the concert and music with the visual imagery as an added aspect,” explains Beal. “And those who do know the show can relate to it from a new and different angle, through this symphonic performance.”
Beal first conducted “House of Cards in Concert” with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, and afterward in Poland, the Netherlands and Denmark. And this Thursday it will be performed at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem.
The production is presented by the Israel Camerata Jerusalem, in collaboration for the first time with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Several jazz musicians are also participating.
In addition to conducting duties, Beal will solo on the flugelhorn while his wife, soprano Joan Beal, will appear as a vocalist. Both are graduates of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.
Jeff Beal started off as a trumpeter, and then gradually moved into orchestration and composing. So I ask him if he considers his “House of Cards” composition as classical music.
“Time is the curator that decides what enters the classical music canon,” he responds. “The music that Henry Purcell composed for the plays of Dryden and Shakespeare entered the canon, as did Prokofiev’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’ [for the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film]. I guess the important test, at the end of the day, is whether the music is good. I think that good music for orchestra can find its place in the concert halls, and perhaps in the classical canon.
“At the same time, the connection to a popular medium helps the audience – including a new audience – to find its way to this concert hall. I would guess that the audience for this kind of concert includes ‘traditional’ classical music fans who come because a symphony orchestra is playing a new work and they’re intrigued by that; a big group of listeners who are fans of the show and want to reexperience the story and the drama in another way; and a bunch of folks who are curious to know what it’s all about.
“Bottom line, whether it’s the National Symphony Orchestra or the Camerata production, there will be people in the audience who’ve never been to a classical music concert before.”
Would you agree that music for films, television and plays is popular because it’s usually written in a tonal language, while a lot of artistic music since the 20th century is atonal and complex, and is said to have lost touch with its audience?
“That’s interesting. Within the music for a film or a TV show you can write elements that are dissonant or atonal, or that seem unpleasant to the ear, but within the context of the plot it makes sense and works fine. It’s true that, for the most part, the music that goes with a movie or TV show or play is mainly tonal and doesn’t present the kind of conflicts and challenges posed by artistic avant-garde music.
“The concert hall has also largely adopted a return to tonality along with its artistic side. I’m into science, too, and I studied acoustics along with music. I have an affinity for the mathematical aspects of tonality and feel that, somehow, the laws of nature dictate that tonality remain at the foundation of music. But today, that tonality has been expanded and elements of what the 20th century created and taught us have been brought into it. To a lesser extent, you’ll find such [atonal] elements also in sections of ‘House of Cards’ and in the symphony, to create certain dramatic effects. I’m a big believer in the power of the story, which gives the music context and additional meaning.”
A proud populist
Beal proudly calls himself a populist, but not in the negative sense of the word. “I think that the things that make up the core of the music can be great and outstanding, but still very simple. Not simplistic. Not dumb – simple. For a movie or TV show you have to keep it simple and communicative, to get to the essentials, and therefore you have to be very precise in the way you write the music and the tools you use.
“Melody, of course, is the main thing, but there’s more to it. Some of the dramatic tools that are used, say, in opera also find their way into composing for film and television. It’s a very important medium today.”
Although Beal has visited Israel before (“I love the place, without being Israeli or Jewish”), Thursday’s concert will be his first time on stage here. “I’m very intrigued about performing here,” he says. “The television show was a big success with a wide audience of experienced and sophisticated viewers. Part of the experience of performing the ‘House of Cards’ symphony around the world is to try to understand how the show is experienced by viewers in different places.
“There’s something universal about this political drama that speaks to everyone,” he says. “There’s something about the characters, their motivations and impulses, that harkens back to Machiavelli and Shakespeare. To the human story in general. It’s fascinating to create characters who are villains and antiheroes and, through the story, to explore who we are – including all the difficult, weak and scary aspects within us.
“The show touches on all of that, and maybe so does the music itself. Maybe it’s in this context that in the symphony there’s a movement called ‘Russia’ that’s dedicated to the Russian composers who are musical models to me, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and it relates to some of the frightening experiences they had as well as to my classical roots.”