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Resurrecting a melody

By Betsy Goolian

A CD of The Old Burying Ground has been released this summer on the Dorian/Sono Luminus label.
SMTD faculty member Evan Chambers.

SMTD faculty member Evan Chambers.

In February of 2008, the University Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Kiesler conducting, toured the Midwest en route to final destination Carnegie Hall. On the program:  Mahler’s magnificent Symphony No. 5 and a new work, The Old Burying Ground, by composer and SMTD faculty member Evan Chambers, commissioned by Kiesler expressly for the tour.

A CD of The Old Burying Ground has been released this summer on the Dorian/Sono Luminus label. Recorded at Hill Auditorium, it features Kiesler and the USO, folksinger Tim Eriksen (Cold Mountain), tenor Nicholas Phan (BM ‘01), soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, and Evan Premo (BM ‘08) on double bass. The words of poets Keith Taylor, Tom Lynch, Richard Tillinghast (all UM English faculty or affiliates), Paula Meehan, and Jane Hirshfield are threaded throughout the two complete song cycles coupled with powerful orchestral movements.

Chambers got the first inklings for the work during a stroll through a cemetery in Jaffery, New Hampshire, some years ago, as he read the inscriptions etched on the headstones. “I was floored by the power of the epitaphs,” Chambers said. “I wrote them down, but didn’t know what I would do with them.” What evolved is a hauntingly compelling musical portrait of the imagined voices of residents who inhabited rural New Hampshire two hundred years ago.

The February 2008 tour just happened to coincide with a record-breaking winter storm. When Tim Eriksen was stranded in an airport, the composer stepped forward to sing Eriksen’s part during a rehearsal. Nicholas Phan wrote in his tour blog, “We watched and listened as Evan transported us out of the horrible day, storms and all, and brought his own musical creation to life.”

Phan wasn’t the only tour member affected by the experience. In “Michigan’s Song of Itself,” an essay in April 2008 The New York Times, poet Thomas Lynch wrote, “It was a brilliant night! The great hall packed, the music transcendent, the voices resplendent, the ovations longstanding.” Poet Jane Hirshfield penned a new work, French Horn [The New Yorker in February 2009], to mark her own impressions of the evening.

As one reviewer wrote of the new CD, “This powerful piece of music is a guaranteed top selection in the play lists of the traditional classical music listener, and bridges the gap to reach music lovers of all genres. The folk undertones paired with the poetry and intricate orchestral composition truly give new life to those interred at The Old Burying Ground.”

CD release date: June 29, 2010