Coming up next week on the 22nd of June, the Lancashire Chamber Orchestra and I will be performing the string orchestra version of a piece called “The Tall-Eared Fox and the Wild-Eyed Man,” by Michigan based composer Evan Chambers. It is a joyous hoot of a work, replete with manic fiddling, bagpipe music and everyone in the orchestra using pencils to imitate the sound of a hammer dulcimer. Evan’s most recent work is a huge song cycle for orchestra called “The Old Burrying Ground” that was performed at Carnegie Hall in February and has now been recorded for Naxos.
TEF&WEM is a much earlier work, originally the finale of a string quartet called Three Memories. I heard the piece at the Sandpoint Festival in about 1992, where both Evan and I were studying and I thought it was a riot. Years later, when I was in the Masala Quartet we decided it was time to do a modern American work, and I suggested Three Memories based on that one hearing. I rang up Evan, and he told me he hard replaced the first two movements of what was originally a three movement work with a single slow movement called Lament. I was a little bummed at first, as I liked the original movements- they were in a nice, thorny, Bartok-ian style which made a nice contrast with the over-the-top humor of the finale.
However, once we got to work on Lament, we quickly recognized that Evan had been right (damn composers, seems like they’re always bloody right about their own music). It’s style connected much more organically with that of TEF&WEM, even though it seemed clearly to be a later work. Even more importantly, I think it is a hugely moving piece.
After our first performance in February of 1998, Gerhard Samuel asked if we would do the piece on the CCM Contemporary Music Ensemble concert at the 100 Days Festival in Portugal that spring as part of our upcoming tour. Funnily enough, we’d had one or two snotty comments from CCM administrators (imagine that, a snotty comment from a school administrator) about Evan’s resolutely tonal style. One associate dean asked why we were “wasting our talent on such trite music.” CCM was always a very New Vienna School school, primarily because of the legacy of the La Salle Quartet (the leading interpreters of the quartets of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern from the 50s through the 80s), who were in residence there for about 40 years. Gerhard was himself a serial composer, albeit much more Berg-ian in his willingness to mix a tonal vocabulary with serial ideas and open to the influence of jazz see his Requiem for Survivors, which you can hear in this podcast on his music and music making). Still, I was surprised and impressed that Gerhard could so easily and so enthusiastically embrace a work in a style so alien to his own (as I got to know him better over the years, I would not have been surprised at all). He had that rare ability to separate his own tastes and preferences as a composer from his ability to evaluate someone else’s music on its own terms.
Anyway, as we approach the performance of the TEF&WEM next week, I though the LCO musicians would be interested to hear what precedes all the glorious silliness that movement entails. The direct and simple musical language belies a daunting degree of sophistication and craft- it is a hugely challenging movement to put together.
This was the Masala Quartet’s first performance of “Lament” from “Three Memories,” recorded live at Corbett Auditorium in February of 1998. Violins are Kio Seiler and Evan Richey (then Rosenberg), viola is Sheridan Currie (then Kamberger) and cello is me. Sorry for slightly dodgy sound quality, only a cassette copy was available (boy does that date us).