The term ‘classical music’ comes with its own preconceptions. It conjures images of hundred-strong orchestras in giant concert halls, and well-dressed, prudish audiences sat in hushed reverence for long-dead composers. What doesn’t spring to mind is a group of mostly twenty-somethings sat cross-legged on a cellar floor, watching a seven-foot tall Dutchman play bittersweet melodies on a battered old piano.
That was the shape of Joep Beving’s first London performance. The towering Amsterdamer is part of a whole new wave of classical composers, changing the face of the genre and opening it up to fresh swathes of fans. In Beving’s case, those fans come from online streams. His quiet, contemplative creations are some of the most played tracks on Spotify, included on thousands of mood playlists and earning a whopping 85 million streams of debut album ‘Solipsism’. Having recently quit his day-job off the back of this phenomenal rise, Beving is now playing a limited tour in support of second release ‘Prehension’. And on May 16th, that tour graced the basement of Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters.
Beving’s performance matched the reflective nature of his music. Turning up his collar and stroking his furious beard, the soft-spoken giant asked if the audience would mind sitting down, and advised them not to applaud after every composition lest they ‘break up the flow’. Then with little more than a subtle flex of his skeletal fingers, he was off. Beginning with new album opener ‘Ab Ovo’, Beving slipped into a set best described as mesmerising. Sliding from piece to piece on a whim, going wherever the mood took him, whilst the audience gazed on in something close to a trance.
For a show consisting solely of a man at a piano, there was a surprising amount to watch. Whether constructed or not, the image of Beving’s colossal physique craned over a tiny upright held the eye like a moody Rembrandt, with his fingers gently dusting the keys. Some clever spark had removed the piano’s front panel too, so with every scale and flourish you could see the hammers dancing. Between that, and Beving’s magnetic presence, there was more than enough to keep the cramped audience lulled for the entire set.
But, naturally, it was the compositions themselves that took centre stage. Beving’s style is defined by simple, spacious melodies and lonely, lingering waltzes. In his own words, ‘space for the imagination and the mind to travel’. His performance of new album pieces such as ‘432’ and ‘The Gift’ fit that description perfectly, tentative and teetering as a childhood dream. Heavily influenced by Philip Glass, Beving also draws from the magic and old-world whimsy of Joe Hisaishi. That storyteller’s touch was strongest in ‘Sleeping Lotus’, an ode to his young daughter, and the impromptu rendition of the emotionally-charged ‘For Steven’. A tribute to Steven Craenmehr, a friend killed in the South By Southwest car accident of 2014, it saw Beving at his rawest. Consistently soul-stirring, with ‘For Steven’ Beving became spine-tingling. Delivering the kind of emotional voltage usually reserved for Oscar-winning movies and turn-of-the-century novels.
Finally, to close the performance off, Beving had the audience stand and gather round his piano for ‘Hanging D’. One his more complex, heavier pieces, it demonstrated the ivory-tickling skills he keeps so wisely reserved, and closed off the night in a suitably cacophonous style.
To see Joep Beving live is a curious thing. It’s not so much a gig as a musical mix between fine art and guided meditation. His rich, descriptive pieces and the setting of the darkly-lit cellar mean there’s plenty of chance for a mind to wander. Shepherded to stray thoughts and far-off destinations by Beving’s delicate hooks. It has been said that music is like emotion-on-demand, and live gigs are where these emotions are peddled. If that is the case, then Joep Beving plies the sweetest of nectars, and to see him live is to glimpse that beauty in the wild.