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Molly Sheridan
NewMusicBox, April 2011

As anyone who shares composer Evan Chambers’s interest in historic cemeteries knows, there is often a very rich world on display just inside the gates. A catalog of family histories, and often their tragedies, is carved into the stonework.

Chambers took his experience of these gravesites, particularly a visit to The Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and set a collection of epitaphs and new poems reflecting the suffering and the peace he found there. The resulting composition is a nearly hour-long work for orchestra and three vocalists—one a folksinger and the other two singing in a classical style.

“The piece is folk-inspired classical done really, really right,” Tim Eriksen, the folksinger featured in this recording, says of the piece in the video embedded above. “I sort of hear it as half way between Rite of Spring and Appalachian Spring.”

Indeed, the classical voices travel comfortably alongside the sweeping strings, and the folksinger (American folk style/Sacred Harp) seems to stir the orchestra, the slight tension in the uncommon juxtaposition agitating the sonic field to intriguing effect. Eriksen’s striking performance proves to be a disc highlight, though the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Anne-Carolyn Bird, and Nicolas Phan all turn in excellent performances. There’s an echo audible in the recording of the solo narrator, his voice likely left to ring through the performance hall, but the intimacy of the text might have been better served by a closer mic’ing.

Chambers’s score is generally lush and sweepingly cinematic, the orchestra allowed to step forward as an equal partner with the narrators and singers. In two of the work’s stand-out sections—“O Say Grim Death” and “Oh Drop On My Grave”—the ensemble shows some percussive bite, pulling the work away from its more reflective course. I found the emotional variety of these darker, sharper expressions particularly engaging.

The selected texts themselves avoid clichés, and instead illustrate a poetic sadness and stoic practicality in the face of death and the indifference of passing of time. “Whatever thoughts there may have been,/whatever worries and struggles—/are lost in the uncut grass,” the narrator says, reciting a poem by Richard Tillinghast. “…The stones yield their names to the weather.”



Kraig Lamper
American Record Guide, January 2011

Evan Chambers’s orchestral song cycle takes its inspiration from “Americans” in a different way. He uses epitaphs in The Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. With Irish and American folksong structures he creates powerfully moving pieces. …emotional and cathartic powerhouse.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.



Blair Sanderson
Allmusic.com, December 2010

Cemeteries may not be the subject of many epic-scale compositions, but the graveyard of Jaffrey, NH, inspired Evan Chambers’ song cycle, The Old Burying Ground, and it is indeed a work of immense proportions. In setting epitaphs he discovered on a walk in 1998 and connecting them with commissioned poems by five poets, Chambers created a reverent meditation on death and memory that touches on musical traditions close to his heart. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this piece is the folk element, which is strongly conveyed through the plangent voice of Tim Eriksen; the epitaphs he sings have the authentic tang of rustic New England. More in the classical European tradition are the songs performed by tenor Nicholas Phan and soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, yet these also summon up the flavor of modern Americana, particularly the lyrical styles of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. The 2007 performance by Kenneth Kiesler and the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra is steadily paced and consistently subdued in expression, and the moods that linger after hearing this 2010 Dorian release are somber and serious, owing to the elegiac tone of the whole work. Sustaining this mode of expression for nearly an hour requires control, which the performers plainly have. However, listeners who grow restless may choose to select a few songs at a time, because absorbing the cycle in one sitting requires a commitment of time and a quiet space for reflection.



Donald Rosenberg
Gramophone, December 2010

Chambers’s orchestral song-cycle lingers on the lyrical poignancy of death

“I love walking in cemeteries,” writes Evan Chambers in a booklet-note for his newest recording—and it’s a good thing he does. His wanderings led him to compose The Old Burying Ground, a work of poignant and fervent beauty that receives a vibrant performance by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra and guest vocalists.

Chambers drew inspiration for his score from epitaphs on tombstones he found in New Hampshire cemeteries. To flesh out the piece, he juxtaposed bits of these texts with verses commissioned from living poets that affect natural and sensitive connections between life and death.

The musical vocabulary that ambles through the work’s 14 sections is a seamless blend of American and Irish folk elements, with contemporary techniques occasionally adding pungent drama to the sonic personality. But the focus is on soothing and idyllic lyricism, which is shared by a highly colourful orchestra and three vocal soloists: a folk singer whose earthy orations meld and contrast with the more classical decorum of a soprano and tenor.

The performance is a luminous reflection of Chambers’s sympathetic vision. Kenneth Kiesler shapes the score with a keen ear for balance, pacing and nuance, and his orchestra is alert to the music’s tender and majestic sonorities. Folk singer Tim Eriksen gives ardent voice to his verses, sometimes in tandem with Anne-Carolyn Bird, a soprano of radiant expressivity. The tenor lines are sung by Nicholas Phan, who treats Chambers’s demands with the right touches of warmth and bright clarity.



Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, November 2010

It took me a while to getting around to review this CD. The concept of a quasi-narrated work in a traditional musical format with the subject of graveyards seemed unavoidably sentimental. I should have known better. I am not by nature a mystical person, but who can deny the enormous emotional power of cemeteries? It might be a passing glance of sad, proud vets in full uniform visiting old comrades on Memorial Day, or the lyrical beauty of vast Victorian resting places such as Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill, or the awful majesty of sprawling military resting places. And then there is the simple eloquence of early American church graveyards, so rich with the rhythms of this nation’s early history, and the subject of this strong new work by Evan Chambers.

Chambers is a sophisticated composer and teacher (he chairs the composition department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), but he is intensely interested in folk music. He is a prize-winning Irish fiddler, and has studied Sufi and Albanian folk musics, but has a special passion for the vernacular traditions of American music. What makes this particular work so compelling is the daring mix of style and texture that Chambers employs, both musically and in his choice of words to set. The gravestone inscriptions are extraordinary; simple yet often profoundly poetic, tightly packed little kernels of searingly intense emotion. They seem like American style haiku. For Abel Spaulding Jr., died June 11, 1805, aged 46:

Oh drop on my grave,
As ye pass it, no tear
But rejoice for the freed one,
whose fetters lie here

Or for Miss Elizabeth Clark, died December 12, 1798, aged 16 years:

The fairest flower that Nature shews
Sustains the sharpest doom:
Her life was like a morning rose
That withered in its bloom

Chambers also uses contemporary poetry written in a complementarily spare style by five fine poets; Keith Taylor, Jane Hirshfield, Thomas Lynch, Richard Tillinghast, and Paula Meehan. One has to admire his self-confident blending of diverse literary and musical sources. The only slightly sour note for this listener is in the full-orchestra introduction and linking material, which, in its somewhat overwrought manner, seems to clash with the solemn grace of the words, and even, in that context, feels a bit pompous. But this work is very much the sum of its many interesting parts, and in that sense it is a bold success. The performances are excellent: sturdy, rich, and respectful of the darkly alluring subject matter.



Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press, September 2010

Evan Chambers likes to walk through cemeteries. That might strike some as a bit daft, but Chambers, chair of the composition department at the University of Michigan, has written that graveyards are ideal places to meditate on the parade of life and the inevitability of death. They are perfect spots to reflect on our shared humanity, and that’s a pretty good definition of what an artist is supposed to do.

Chambers was so moved with the epitaphs he read on the tombstones in a New Hampshire cemetery that it inspired a major orchestral song cycle, “The Old Burying Ground,” for folk singer, tenor, soprano and orchestra. Lasting nearly an hour, the music includes settings of the epitaphs along with new poems by Keith Taylor, Thomas Lynch, Richard Tillinghast and others.

The work walks a tightrope between American and Irish folk traditions and the art songs of Copland, Barber and Ives. Deftly orchestrated, Chambers’ music reveals a sharp ear for details—sighing melodies for oboe, English horn or flute; a roman candle of brass and percussion, an evocative drone of strings—that perfectly underscore the spare, understated emotions of the texts:

Oh drop on my grave,

as ye pass it, no tear

But rejoice for the freed one,

Whose fetters lie here.

The Dorian label has just issued a sumptuous recording of the piece with the University of Michigan Symphony conducted by Kenneth Kiesler and vocalists Tim Erikson, Nicholas Phan and Anne-Carolyn Bird.






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