Every note tells a story for ‘House of Cards’ and chamber festival composer Jeff Beal

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All of Jeff Beal’s music tells a story.

Lately, it’s the story of Machiavellian Washington power couple Frank and Claire Underwood.

For eight seasons, it was obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk.

And Beal made a name for himself putting music to the story of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.

But sometimes it’s, “something I never tell anyone,” Beal says in a phone interview from his Southern California home.

That may be the case with the music he premiers this weekend as the composer-in-residence for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. Friday night’s main stage concert at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion will feature the world premiere of Six Sixteen, a piece for guitar and string quartet that was commissioned by the festival. And Beal has some other work peppered in the program for the next few days, including tonight’s first main stage concert.

So how did the festival get the guy composing music for one of the biggest shows now on TV to come spend a week in Lexington? Bourbon?

Well, the spirit has an appeal, but Beal says the key was actually last year’s composer-in-residence, Los Angeles-based Adam Schoenberg.

Schoenberg helped put together a program of Los Angeles-based composers for the event with festival artistic director Nathan Cole, a Lexington native who is now first associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. That L.A. lineup included a work by Beal.

“He knew I was wanting to get back into composing concert music, and suggested me,” Beal says. “So it’s all on Adam. He was the guy that made it happen.”

Beal says when composing Six Sixteen, he considered the resources he had at hand, including guest artist Jason Vieaux, one of the biggest names in classical guitar today, and the regular festival lineup of elite musicians.

“The first thing you think is, ‘I don’t have to limit myself,’” Beal says. “When you have world-class musicians, you want to play with that.”

Far from a programatic title, Beal says the premier’s name simply refers to the number of strings in the featured instrument, six, and the number in the quartet, 16.

But in terms of giving a piece life and narrative, Beal says that in returning to concert writing after a considerable time composing for film, he can see an impact.

“Music is storytelling, and having worked in film has really honed my skills at storytelling,” Beal says.

He started as jazz trumpet player, which was the focus of his career when he was asked to compose the score for the Oscar-winning 2000 biopic Pollock.

“That job came out of being a jazz trumpet player, it really came out of left field,” Beal says of the work. “Pollock and that score and that music gave me a lot of visibility for my work. It was a real game changer for me.”

And it lead to a distinguished career in film and television music including 15 Emmy Award nominations and three wins, including the instrumental theme to the USA series Monk. He has also scored numerous films, including the controversial Sea World documentary Blackfish.

But the work that gets him lots of notice today is House of Cards, the revolutionary Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a conniving political couple who now reside in the White House … well … we won’t spoil it if you haven’t finished Season 3.

“It’s a carnal grab for power,” Beal says of the show’s story. “There is always an energy, intensity and humor.”

That informs how he writes for the show, enhancing the drama, often creating dissonant sounds to convey a feeling of unease under the action.

“With Monk, the character never changes, so you were trying to come up with infinite variations on the same theme.

“With House of Cards, big changes happen. There are new chapters in the book, and the book has become a series of novels.”

Beal acknowledges he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting into with House of Cards, the first series from the streaming service Netflix. While there were certainly web series that preceded the show, no one had done it on the scale of House of Cards, though in just three years, there are now dozens of high-profile streaming series from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other services.

“I can say in hindsight, this is the thing I have done that probably had more visibility than anything else I have done,” Beal says. “And it’s a streaming TV show. It has no time, no air date, it never opened in a theater.”

But it is award winning and acclaimed, and Beal says has become an important part of our culture, as many films and TV shows have. And he says listeners and composers should embrace the fact that, “this is music that will be heard by audiences all over the world.

“I’m surprised there isn’t more overlap between the film and concert music world.”

This week, in Lexington at least, there will be.

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