Championing the cimbalom in American music – interview with Chester Englander

Chester Englander performing John Adams’s Scheherazade.2 (2014) with the Cleveland Orchestra in November 2018. © Roger Mastroianni

“Chester has done more to bring the cimbalom to the awareness of American listeners than anyone I know of. His unique combination of superb musicianship and curiosity for new ideas makes him an ideal collaborator for us composers. Over the past decade I have written specifically for him in three of my most ambitious works, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Scheherazade.2 and my most recent opera, Antony and Cleopatra. The color and atmosphere that the instrument produces when integrated into the modern symphony orchestra is extraordinary. I never think of it as “exotic” but rather as an added timbral dimension to the ensemble of instruments that constitute the modern orchestra.

With his background as an orchestral percussionist Chester brings a secure rhythmic sense to his playing. If I can think that by writing major parts for him I’ve helped in a small way to flag his talents and the instrument itself to the attention of my other composer friends, that would be a great pleasure. I value both his artistry and his friendship greatly.”

These words from the composer John Adams introduce us to Chester Englander, the wonderfully multi-faceted percussionist, whose expertise includes mastering the cimbalom, the luminous percussion-stringed instrument of Hungarian origin, first fashioned by József Schunda in Budapest in 1874. Like other versions of the dulcimer, the 4.6 octave instrument is played with hammers, lending the cimbalom an absolutely bewitching tone.

Although the instrument has made its occasional appearances here and there, most notably in Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite (1926/1927) alongside a few other pieces of concert music as well as some cameos in progressive rock, the cimbalom has hardly ever been a mainstream thing. Thus, when we sat down for a chat with Englander, the first matter for us to discuss naturally concerned his unexpected journey to become one of the leading Cimbalom Artists of our times.

To begin with the beginning, Englander’s involvement with the cimbalom goes back to his days in Los Angeles, where he worked as a regular guest percussionist for the LA Philharmonic from 2005 to 2013. Given that the orchestra performs lots of contemporary music, the ensemble’s three contract percussionists as well as their extra colleagues all end up with a fair amount responsibility.

”Back in 2009, the LA Phil New Music Group programmed a suite from [Frank] Zappa’s Yellow Shark,and one of the movements they were playing is called The Girl in the Magnesium Dress,and within that movement, there are three percussionists involved, and one of the players has to take responsibility of a hugely difficult vibraphone part and twenty one measures of cimbalom. When I was asked about it, they basically said, look, if you want to play this gig, you’re going to have to play some cimbalom, are you comfortable with that? We can rent you instrument to practise on and we take care all the logistical stuff, you’ve just got to learn the part; do you think you can do it? I looked at the music and thought, hey, I want the gig, I’ll do it! At the time I thought it wasn’t that difficult. Looking back to the cimbalom part now, many years later, I’d say it is actually kind of hard.

Anyway, I’ve always been relatively fearless, just because the financial inspiration tends to drive my courage [laughs]. So, I said yes to the job and on that same night, I had this this moment of clarity, where I was, like, I should really get my own cimbalom and learn to play the instrument, because there are so few people who do it in America. And if I’ve got the LA Philharmonic calling me to play the cimbalom, then that’s going to give me the credibility with every orchestra in the country. So, it was really a financial decision rather than artistic decision. I just felt the need to generate work. I didn’t really know anything about the instrument, except that there was the Háry János suite and apparently this Zappa piece and a few other pieces.

So, I went on eBay to look at cimbaloms there, as one does when you’re a moron, and I found what I thought was a good instrument. Now, there was a man in town, who was a recently retired studio percussionist, an A-lister in the LA studios for decades, Tom Raney. I knew him a little bit, just because we had worked together once or twice, and I knew he was a cimbalom guy, so I send him a link to the action saying I was thinking about getting into the game and needed his advise on buying this instrument. ’Don’t buy that instrument, buy my instrument’, he replied. He had already been selling his instruments, but he hadn’t offered the cimbalom for sale, but he said, ’You know, now, that you’re reaching out to me, I feel it is the time for me to pass the torch by passing this instrument on to you. I’m happy to sell you my instrument, all my hammers, my road case, all my music, everything cimbalom-related for $5000. You can have the instrument right away and just pay me over time, there’s no rush on the cash, don’t worry about it. I’ll have our cartage service deliver the instrument to your studio tomorrow.’

Now, the instrument I found on eBay had been around $850. I had already told my wife, Rachel that I was thinking about investing in it. And she had been very supportive about it.

Anyway, later that evening my wife and I were driving for a dinner somewhere in LA, and I said to her, ’Rachel, listen to this! Tom Raney wants me to buy his instrument. It’s the best instrument in town, and I’m set.’ And she was, like, ’Oh, that’s awesome, how much is it? ‘$5000’’, I replied. And then she said, ’What are you talking about, how could you make that deal without telling me first?!’

I then explained myself saying, ’Look, I’ve got a vision; I can see into the future and I believe that this is the right move. Rarely in my life have I been so certain that something was the right move, but this is the right move! If I’ve got this cimbalom, I would get offered work I would not have been offered otherwise, so this is an investment for the future.’ And she looks at me and says ’You better get some work.’ So the pressure was on.”

As it often happens, chance, or as some prefer to call it, fate, has its part to play in bringing the right people together at the right time. In this case, it happened to be no other than John Adams who was conducting the orchestra in those Zappa selections.

”I had come to know John a little bit over the years, because back then he was already actively involved with the LA Phil, both as a composer and a guest conductor. I had played Harmonielehre with him and I was on the premiere of City Noir with Gustavo Dudamel.

So, we got to the first rehearsal of the Zappa; I had my new instrument, and I was prepared. At that point, I only knew how to play that one thing on the cimbalom, but anyhow, the rehearsal went fine, at least to my estimation. At the break, John came over to me and said ’It’s good to know that there’s someone around here who knows how to play the cimbalom. How would you like me to write something for you some time?’ And I thought that’d be amazing.

Of course, at the time, I was like, talk is cheap, we’ll see if this actually happens. But a couple of my colleagues in the ensemble, my fabulous pianist friends Joanne Pearce Martin and Vicki Ray overheard the conversation, and they were really excited. That said, I wasn’t going to give much thought to it, but of course, it was still pretty cool.”

The performance went fine, but there was no more talk between Adams and Englander at that point. The percussionist now had his instrument, but there were no further cimbalom gigs ahead in the foreseeable future. Fast-forward a year and a half, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was scheduling a concert in the memory of their Executive Director emeritus Ernest Fleischmann, who had passed away in 2010.

”I think it was late February or the beginning of March of 2011, I had just played a youth concert with the LA Phil, and their then-personnel manager Jeff Neville came to me after it was over and said ’Hey we’ve got another cimbalom job for you if you’re interested. It’s for Stravinsky’s Renard, and we’re supposed to play this in four weeks. Do you think you can play it?’

At that point, I hadn’t actually looked at the part. I knew of the part, but I was totally green to it. So I said that I needed a day to think about it.

I remember I went out to lunch with a friend of mine Ted Atkatz, the former principal percussion of the Chicago Symphony, who, at that time, was also a freelancer for the LA Phil. I told Ted about the offer and he was like, ’You’re going to say yes to that gig! You can’t turn this down, this is your big break; I’m not going to let you turn this down!’ And I thought, maybe he’s right, maybe I shouldn’t be afraid.

Later on that same day, in rehearsal, I also talked about it with an another friend, Brad Dutz, a fabulous studio percussionist and one of the most creative people I know in my life. And he said ’At the break of this rehearsal, you’re going to get on the phone and you’re going to call them and tell them that you’re taking the gig; there’s no way you’re turning this down!’

And I thought, damn, I guess I’d better take the gig. So I marched over to the personnel manager’s office and said to Jeff that I wanted to play it.”

Written in 1916, Stravinsky’s one-act burlesque tale sung and played is scored for four singers and an instrumental ensemble of solo winds, two horns, trumpet, percussion and string quintet, with a prominent cimbalom part embedded.

”When I finally got the music, I did the math and figured out that by putting in three hours of practice every day, it would give me ninety hours, or so, to learn the part. I decided to be healthy about it and freak out too much, and I got it done. I basically learned the instrument by learning Stravinsky’s Renard. The Zappa I don’t really count, because it was more basic, but in Renard, you’re driving the bus, you’re the engine of the vehicle. And with Esa-Pekka [Salonen] conducting, it was a big deal.”

Now, I have my weaknesses, but one of my strengths is that I’m not afraid to fail. I’ve failed many times and I’ve survived. You’ve just got to step in the arena and do your best and be satisfied with that. I remember so well the first day of the rehearsals of Renard, because I didn’t tell any of the percussionists of the LA Phil that I was playing the cimbalom. In rehearsal, I just blew them all away. It was so satisfying, because I was the huge surprise. And Esa-Pekka was all smiles with it. It was a revelation for a lot of people that I really played it legitimately. That was really the beginning for real of my confidence with the instrument. If I could learn Renard, with enough time, I can learn anything.”

John Adams and Chester Englander after the world premiere of Scheherazade.2 with the New York Philharmonic. © from Chester Englander’s personal collection

Learning the next big thing was indeed not far off. A couple of months later, Adams and Englander would meet up again, and the rest is history.

”John came back to LA in May, and we played the world premiere of Gabriel Kahane’s fabulously beautiful Orinoco Sketches. Before the first rehearsal, he came up to me, we greeted each other, and he said that he had heard about Renard and that it went great and then he said ’Oh, just so that you know, I’m writing this piece, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and I’m going to write a massive cimbalom part for you. ,I’ve already got your email, so I’m going to be in touch soon. I’ve never written for the instrument before, so I’m going to need your help. I’ll start sending you excerpts from it as I’ve got it rolling. You’ll be hearing from me soon.’

I was like holy crap, this is actually happening. So that was really the beginning of this beautiful relationship with John. And it’s been a blast!”

Following the terrific, two-an-a-half-hour passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, premiered in Los Angeles in 2012, Adams picked up the cimbalom again for his next big project, the four-movement dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra, Scheherazade.2 (2014). Written for Leila Josefowicz, the score features another extensive cimbalom part, exquisitely integrated into the orchestral fabric. Since their 2015 world premiere performance with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, Josefowicz and Englander have played the piece together fifty times, with eighteen different orchestras.

In conjunction with a series of performances with the Cleveland Orchestra in the fall of 2018, Adams shared some of his first thoughts about including the instrument in a new latest project that would eventually become Antony and Cleopatra.

”When we were in Cleveland, John and Leila came over for dinner one night during that week and at one point, when I was showing my studio to John he said to me, ’I’ve got this new piece in mind, I might add something for you, but I might not, I’m not sure.’

Then, some nine months later, in September 2019, Leila and I and John, we had just done Scheherazade.2 again, this time in Philadelphia. I was on a plane to Europe to play percussion with the Pittsburgh Symphony. We hadn’t taken off yet, and I got this email from John with a screenshot of his Digital Performer with a cimbalom track, and all it said was ’You’re on. Block off the fall of 2022, you’ve got another big part coming.’

Honestly, it was such a blessing during the pandemic. I mean, when you’re not playing at all, and you know that there’s this huge thing coming, it’s like a beacon in the darkness. You just have to keep your head in the game, because you know you’ve got something big on the horizon; just because you’re not playing now doesn’t mean that you cease to be an artist.

John would then send me these emails once every couple of months saying ’I’ve been thinking about you, since I write something for you almost every day.’

I’ve gotten to a point with John, where you’re the vessel and you just receive things; you’re not asking, you’re not taking, you’re just receiving and whatever timeline that occurs on is not up to you. And I’m very comfortable with that. I’ve been so fortunate, and I feel a part of the reason why I’ve been able to maintain those kinds of relationships with people like John or Leila or conductors, is that I don’t ask, I just receive.

I never like to pressurise situations. Maybe there were times when I might have added to a result that would have been more suitable to me by being more forward and more aggressive with my desires. But I don’t go there unless it is absolutely essential; in which case it’s going to be detrimental to them if I don’t push on the issue. That has happened, but it is rare, very rare. Hopefully that lack of pressure translates to invitation.”

A freelancer for his whole professional career, Englander has enjoyed long-standing relationships with the top US orchestras, including, most notably, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. In addition to all the manifold musical interactions between players, there is a lot of psychology at play within each orchestral section as well, starting with the assignments of parts between the contract musicians and the extra players.

”I’m sure each principal player would say they have their own personal way of accessing the strengths of the personnel. Now, I’m not speaking on behalf of, or reflecting on, any one principal I’ve ever worked with, but generally speaking, I would say that in a situation where you have three or four contract musicians and one extra player, a lot of times in those situations the principal will assign the four hardest parts to the contract musicians, even if the sub player is younger and stronger, because they don’t want to disrespect the older musicians.

In days of old, let’s say the ‘80s and before, usually you would have the snare-drummer, the mallet player, the cymbal player and the accessories player. That was very standard back in the day. In the New York Philharmonic, Walter Rosenberger used to play all the xylophone parts, Buster Bailey to play snare drum, Arnie Lang played cymbals.

In the Cleveland Orchestra, from the sixties to the two-thousands, when my teacher, the late Richard Weiner was the principal, for most of the time, he would mostly play the snare drum and the xylophone. He was very honourable about it, always trying to play the hardest parts. On those occasions when he didn’t play them, Tom Freer generally picked up the principal part. Then Don Miller was the bass drummer and Joe Adato was the cymbal player.

Now things have really changed. Everyone is expected to be able to play everything and they’ve gotten away from that specialisation. I can’t say which I really like more, I can see the strengths of both. The only time the specialisation can get troublesome is, when you ask some of these older players, who have only played cymbals for the last ten years, to play some of the really difficult contemporary percussion stuff; they might feel like ’whoa, it’s been a while since I’ve had to do this’. So there are hazards, but on the other hand, the guy who has only played cymbals for the past ten years certainly sounds incredible on cymbals. So they each have their plusses and minuses.”

Chester Englander with the Cleveland Orchestra percussion section for Edgar Varèse’s Amériques (1918-21/1927). © from Chester Englander’s personal collection

In addition to trusted colleagues in the percussion section, the role of the conductor is obviously paramount to any musician. From a percussionist’s point of view, what makes a good conductor comes down to communication.

”Don’t tell us what you’re going to do, show us what you’re going to do. All of the very finest conductors have a way of drawing your attention in. Some conductors you watch, others you look, but don’t watch. There’s a difference. Over time, you develop this sort of subconscious understanding of how much you can actually rely on what you’re seeing. You don’t always have to agree, you just have to understand. Those are two different things. A therapist once told me that; you don’t have to agree with people, you just have to try to understand them. And the same is true with conductors.

Another thing that is so important with conductors is that it’s so essential to always to be checking in. A conductor needs to know that they can count on you to check in often enough. Like with Franz Welser-Möst in Cleveland, the last thing that you want to happen is to look up and he’s already looking at you.”

As we talk about the cimbalom repertoire, the name of György Kurtág obviously comes up right away, alongside some of his fellow Hungarians, such as Miklós Kocsár, a famous composer on his home ground, but quite unknown in the US. Henri Dutilleux’s luminous violin concerto L’arbre des songes (1983-85) is a shared favourite, but apart from those, there’s not that much music on our lists. Hence comes the utmost importance of expanding the repertoire.

”At this this point, I’m trying to stay 100% focused on creating new repertoire for the instrument and sort of normalise the idea of the cimbalom as an expressive vessel in American music. In order to make it happen, I’m trying to induce quality composers to think of the cimbalom as an instrument of the standard repertoire.

Every time I play the cimbalom in the presence of composers or an audience or small groups or whoever, the response is always strong. They may like it or not, they may become transpired or mystified by it or they may just be curious about it, anything. But there’s always a reaction! I don’t mean to say this because it’s an ego thing or yearning for people to care, all I’m thinking about is generating good music and good performances with other good artists. And I have to be satisfied with that and trust that, over time, it’s going to make an impact.

I recently did a project with one of my close friends, the violinist Vijay Gupta, where we recorded videos of Kurtág’s Eight Duos and Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel for his Youtube channel. We’d like to think that people will catch those videos and be like ’wow, that’s a level of precision and commitment you just don’t see all the time.’ The historical problem with new music has less often been that it wasn’t of good enough quality, as compared to Beethoven or Brahms or whoever, it’s more that the performances weren’t always good. The artists weren’t always committed. Musicians, who were so wedded to the standard western repertoire, looked at new music as something too elusive or too frustrating to them, and they just didn’t sell it.”

Although he has gotten the repertoire going with a composer like John Adams, Englander’s ambitions run deeper than just getting the big names in the business involved.

”I don’t want to say I am only interested in composers that are already hugely in the consciousness writing for me. I’m not saying that at all. Sakari Dixon Vanderveer, a young composer, and I have been talking about a solo piece. A composer friend pointed me to her, and I heard her music through New Music USA and I was blown away by it. So, I thought she deserves an opportunity. And this is another thing; I really am very interested in giving opportunities to people who deserve them. There are so many composers that get lost to obscurity that have absolute ability. I know I’m just one person, but because I’m one person, I call the shots on what solos I play. I’m excited for what she comes up with!

I have to offer special thanks to my good friend Joseph Pereira, timpanist of the LA Philharmonic, for being the first composer to write a cimbalom solo with me in mind. He truly is a composer who plays timpani, rather than the other way around. His Michelangelo Fragments is a masterpiece of sonic texture and maximizes both the emotional power and extended techniques that the instrument has to offer.

Another friend of mine, Sean Shepherd, is also interested in writing something for me. I like to believe these things will all happen. And if they do, I will give them my all, record them and try to get them out into the consciousness.

So, I need to keep the fire inside going, because championing the instrument is pretty much up to me and the few other cimbalom players out there in America that are doing this with me.”

© Jari Kallio

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