Robert Beaser is one of our very strongest composers. For full disclosure, let me say that I have known Beaser since our student days at the Yale School of Music in the 70's and we were co-music directors of the New York contemporary music ensemble Musical Elements almost from its inception (for the record, Bob joined up in the second year) until we gracefully bowed out of the scene in the 90's. We remain friends.
I will make the following categorical statement about Beaser's music- there is not a note that doesn't need to be there and there is an inevitability present that is overpowering. His penchant for the fine act of development and variation is always present. Large scale architecture and a sense of pacing is unfailingly well done; the forward ride, while always having clarity, allows for and encourages surprises. But I leave the best for last- Beaser's pieces always SING, and of course I am not just speaking about those pieces that involve a singer and words. His music, like all the very best, combines body and soul. His rhythm partakes of the vernacular (like Bernstein or Copland) but raises its potential and possibilities which is of course what a fine composer does, like Hayden and Mozart did with the Minuet or Bach with the gigue. His materials are always strong and memorable and he is one of the best orchestrators we have. His integration of American folk music is not a contrivance but rather a stepping off point for controlled riffs on well-known materials (e.g. Mountain Songs). If I must make a criticism it would only be that sometimes his orchestrations are so beautiful they verge on being too sweet, just a tad over the top, like putting honey on top of a rich dark chocolate sauce-but then some make the same comment of the music of Messiaen, so perhaps this is more a matter of taste than critical judgement.
But this facility and all others is always put to the best service, as in his orchestral works including Piano Concerto, Song of the Bells, Double Chorus, and his magisterial Guitar Concerto (try orchestrating around a guitar!). These pieces glisten and reward numerous hearings. Let me mention a few other pieces to fill out the picture. The early Seven Deadly Sins, written for the witty and debonaire tenor Paul Sperry, is emotionally deep, vocally riveting, and harmonically rich; and the tunes are catchy as hell without being maudlin or treacly. These same qualities are found in the cycle Songs from the Occasions, but this music is even richer and more personal. The Four Dickinson Songs of 2002 are lean and mean, the harmonic vocabulary more streamlined than ever before, mirroring Dickinson's prim and exceedingly direct New England personality and language. All of these vocal works display Beaser's sensitivity to setting texts just right. Through his partnership with Eliot Fisk he has also made a major and lasting contribution to the guitar repertoire with pieces like Notes on a Southern Sky and the aforementioned Mountain Songs. Lastly, this guy was writing killer works at an early age. His String Quartet and woodwind quintet Shadow and Light were written in his early twenties and are virtually unknown. They display his early modernist stance, sizzle with youthful energy and pizazz, and deserve to be resurrected. Where is the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center when you need them?