Farewells, fires & futures: Chaparral Music I premieres

Design by Cleo Maloney

Late last spring, Max Hammond SM ’24 sat down to perform an hour-long marathon run of Chaparral Music I—a work for solo piano by composer Benjamin Beckman SY ’24—in an intimate and colorful debut. Hammond’s years-long friendship with the composer, coupled with a shared love for their southern Californian roots, made for a particularly compelling performance which showcased the pianist’s virtuosity and endurance. 

The chaparral is not a musical genre, but a shrubland sub-biome molded by Mediterranean climates. This climate, characterized by wet, temperate winters and long, hot, sunny summers, is what makes places like Southern California popular among visitors and residents—and crushing crown fires. In his accompanying program note, Beckman meditates on the positionality of the Santa Monica Mountains, life in Los Angeles, and reminisces on his departure from California. He recalls the longing for the chaparral ecosystem during his first-year wistfulness. In 2019, as wildfires descended the hills, encroached on his hometown, and forced his family to evacuate, Beckman took to the piano bench to preserve what he could of a Californian pathos under threat. 

Chaparral Music I, in some ways, resembles a sonata, though it eludes easy categorization. Its sixty-minute runtime is unconventional. The piece has no breaks and the ternary structure is asymmetrical: a sprawling exposition, jolting development, and brief recapitulation. Hammond’s performance is accompanied by over three hundred cues calling for shifting lights that fill the stage in successive blues, burgundies, and chartreuses, making for a visually captivating tour of an Angeleno boscage. 

In the broadest sense, the opening and closing sequences invoke sensations of ambulation. We are invited to join the composer on a saunter (sometimes a quick jaunt) through the mountainside. The climb, which begins somberly, calls back to Leonard Bernstein’s theory of musical bipedalism—an aesthetic detailed in the great American composer’s 1966 classic, The Infinite Variety of Music. Beckman’s opening is picturesque. We imagine overgrown dirt trails and changing landscapes. Later, the pastoral is punctuated by jazz infusions that point to bustling L.A. nightlife.  Later still, the quick paced melodies and ornamentation, undergirded by weighty baselines and syncopated chords, invite images of an industrial, built-up Californian landscape. The piece plays with staccato and extreme dynamics, sometimes startling the audience, keeping the listeners engaged and clutched in a state of anticipation. 

The most dramatic tone shift comes around the 43-minute mark when Beckman chooses to abandon the bipedal dialectic and adopt a straight meter. Here, the piece teases with open and melodious harmonies, grieving the destruction of the hillscape. Yet before we grow comfortable with the solemn rhythm reconstitution, we are thrown back into the running Californian tour. Then the piece ends, fiercely, draped in a backdrop of choked red. 

The multi-sensory Chaparral Music I transports the audience through a Californian kaleidoscope. Concert-goers commented on the piece’s ingenuity and technical demand. Some in the after show announced that they felt as though the experience had been a musical hallucinogenic. Most of us wondered when we might enjoy a Chaparral Music II. Beckman’s next major premier will be of an opera in two acts—a senior thesis entitled Passage—scheduled for this coming April. 

Until then, access the recording from the Saybrook Underbrook here.

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