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Minnesota Orchestra to premiere Beamish cello concerto

From now on, whenever I hear something about composer Sally Beamish I will think about a nun smoking a cigar.

Beamish, a Londoner now living in Scotland, was in the Twin Cities a little over a month ago to attend the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s farewell concert for conductor Douglas Boyd, who was ending six years as a SPCO artistic partner. During that visit, she talked to me about her new cello concerto that is getting its premiere this week by the Minnesota Orchestra.

But Beamish also told me about her aunt, actress Sylvia Beamish, who got fired from a London production of “The Sound of Music.”

“She was playing a nun and understudying the Mother Superior who sings ‘Climb Every Mountain,'” Beamish related. “She achieved notoriety by going into a pub in her nun’s outfit and having a cigar and a whiskey. She got the sack.”

A nun with a cigar: The image lingers.

Beamish is a composer who rose to it through performing – viola, in her case. Performing led to friendships. Conductor Boyd is, for instance, is an old friend who has conducted a number of Beamish’s works and, as an oboist, performed her oboe concerto. So it was not a great surprise that he programmed Beamish’s “Under the Wing of a Rock” for viola and orchestra as part of his farewell concert.

For this week’s Minnesota Orchestra premiere, Beamish has written a new concerto for her childhood friend, cellist Robert Cohen.

“We’ve known each other since we were children,” Beamish explained. “I wrote a concerto for him quite a while ago, and he wanted something to celebrate his 50th birthday.

“I was talking to (Minnesotra Orchestra Music Director) Osmo Vänskä about it – he has conducted a couple of things of mine in the past – and he decided to commission it. So here we are.”

The concerto form is Beamish’s strongest suit and there’s a descriptive element to a lot of her work, sometimes incorporating folk and ethnic elements. She’s also a wonderful writer of words, especially when it comes to describing the hues and emotions of her work. I’d never try to top her description of her new concerto, titled “The Song Gatherer,” but you can read it here [PDF] as it appears in the orchestra’s program notes.

What she has done, she says, is an effort to capture some elements from her good friend’s past and present, including a Yiddish lullaby to reflect his Polish ancestry, melodies from Africa, where his grandparents fled to escape the Nazis, and raucous dances that reflect her memories of playing quartets with him when he was child and watching him stamp his feet with glee.

The program, which is only being performed Thursday at 11 a.m. and Friday evening, also includes Sibelius’ nine-movement “Pelleas and Melisande” suite and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 (“Reformation”). Go here for details.

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