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Fullerton Hosts Beck’s ‘Spark’ in Its West Coast Premiere

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Composer Jeremy Beck slipped a compliment into his “Spark, and Flame (Ash),” which will be given its West Coast premiere today by the Cal State Fullerton University Orchestra.

He was teaching at the University of Northern Iowa when he wrote the piece for the university chamber orchestra’s tour of Russia in 1997.

“There’s a small interlude that incorporates the Shostakovich motive--D-S-C-H [D-E-flat, C and B]--which he used in much of his music [as shorthand for his name],” Beck said in a recent phone interview from his Cal State Fullerton office. “It’s a gentle greeting for the Russian audiences.”

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Conceived as an overture or concert opener, the title came to him as he was writing the work.

“As I was coming up with ideas for the piece, I came up with these opening sputtering, nervous ostinatos, surrounded by short chords. They reminded me of sparks, and that led to the title and the unfolding of the composition.”

The work moves from those opening sparks, bursts into flame, moves through a reflective section in which the Shostakovich motive is quoted, builds to a high point before subsiding into a final quiet portion--"burning itself out.”

Born in 1960 near Cleveland, Beck grew up in Quincy, Ill., and moved to New York to study at the Mannes College of Music. He earned his master’s degree from Duke University and his doctorate from Yale.

“I had pretty much decided in high school that I wanted to compose,” he said. “That was what was most compelling to me.”

While studying at Mannes, he played guitar and bass in rock bands.

“We played clubs. I was writing songs. I really led these parallel lives. When I started to reach 30, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to keep playing in clubs like this?’ So the decision [to switch to classical music] was more practical than anything else.”

After Yale, he taught at the University of Iowa and Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pa., before coming to Cal State Fullerton in 1999.

His parents are teachers. So teaching feels natural to him.

“I find teaching helps to keep me fresh. Because I’m working with students, not even composition majors, but young musicians, their curiosity and interest in things that are maybe old for me, but new to them, keeps me interested in refreshing ways.”

Another way is pondering the age-old question of whether composition can be taught.

“The easiest way of teaching composition is teaching the technical elements--the range of instruments, the history of music, things like that. But helping students find their own voice, that’s more elusive. I ask them a lot of questions.... I have them articulate answers to me and therefore to themselves.” * Kimo Furumoto will conduct the University Orchestra in the West Coast premiere of Jeremy Beck’s “Spark, and Flame (Ash)” tonight at 8 at the Little Theatre, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Also on the program will be works by Offenbach, Vaughan Williams, Bartok and Dvorak.. $8. (714) 278-2434.


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