People Behind the Music

My Kingdom for a Cimbalom

By Steve Meixell

Like many before him, Chester Englander was an accomplished classical musician barely making rent. Trained as a percussionist at the Cleveland Institute of Music, he cobbled together a livelihood the way many fine classical musicians do — giving lessons, doing random commercial work, playing occasional soundtrack sessions, subbing often for symphony players who went on vacation or had a baby or got the flu.

He moved where the work was, living in upstate New York, Los Angeles, then back to Cleveland, spending long days and nights also performing for smaller symphonies out in Youngstown, Mansfield, Fort Wayne, Erie, and Wheeling.

All the while, he was flying around the nation at his own expense, auditioning for scant vacancies at major philharmonics that stayed barely out of reach, sometimes for superfluous reasons beyond his control. (When asked for specifics, he won’t even describe the frustration of those years, consciously choosing a positive calm instead of dwelling on negatives.)

For almost a decade after graduation, it was part-time here and there, with no benefits, scraping by, hard to plan even a month in the future. Still, he hung in there. He wed happily and started a family. He remained steadfast in his daily prep, with an unwavering belief in classical music’s transcendent value. But tick-tock, he was now in his thirties.

And then…

“I was saved by a cimbalom,” he says with a smile.

Umm, excuse me?

“I was called to sub for the LA Philharmonic New Music Group one week, but there was a caveat. The guest conductor was the noted composer John Adams, and he was doing a piece by Frank Zappa — The Yellow Shark. Besides the normal percussion duties, they asked if I would also learn a small part on the cimbalom within it. Well, I needed the work. Of course, I said yes.”

Had he played the instrument before?

“No. I knew it was zither-like, sort of a dulcimer, played with padded mallets. I vaguely linked its sound with gypsy music or eastern European spy movies maybe. It was definitely a new and unexplored territory for me.”

But Chester Englander always had exemplified the Roman philosopher Seneca’s creed: “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.” So with his usual perseverance, he shifted into overdrive and sped along his association with the instrument.

“As soon as I signed on for the Zappa piece, I went on eBay to buy the cheapest cimbalom available so I could learn quickly and around-the-clock at home. I saw one for eight hundred dollars. Then a guy I know, the jazz drummer Tom Rainey, heard about my situation and said he had a fantastic one with all the hammers and travel bag. It was made in the legendary Hungarian workshop where József Schunda had built the best cimbaloms ever, going back nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. But Rainey said he’d had enough of it — he warned it’s a very difficult instrument to play. He’d let it go for five thousand dollars.” Chester hesitates briefly. “Then basically — well, I had the epiphany.”

The epiphany?

He nods. Even today, nine years later, he seems amazed by it. “Five grand was way, way beyond our budget at the time. But I went to my wife Rachel — she’s a classical violinist in the same boat as me — and I’ll never forget this. I said, ‘honey, I know we can’t afford it, not even close, but we have to, because I’ve seriously had a crystal-clear vision today.’ She kind of rolled her eyes, like, here it comes, this ought to be good. So I tell her about the rather strange inner moment I’d experienced that morning. In a mental flash, but with great certainty, I’d seen my entire musical future suddenly. I said to her, ‘I’m going to help introduce cimbalom as a regular ensemble instrument in western music, and we’re going to see the world because of it.’” He pauses comically. “Okay, I know that’s not like creating world peace or finding the next quantum dimension. But still, we’re talking about a pretty neat innovation in the orchestral world. With a hundred percent confidence, I told her, ‘I swear, I will get paying gigs with this. There will be extra work. It’ll really pay off somehow.”

And how did that go over?

Chester Englander smiles. “Well, she’s a tough sell at times, with a smart wit. But in one of those very cool marriage moments, she thought about it and said ‘hey, if you believe in it that much, who am I to argue?”

So Chester dove in with the expensive purchase. He diligently learned all his Zappa parts in The Yellow Shark, including the cimbalom riff in the movement titled The Girl in the Magnesium Dress. His first performance on cimbalom went fairly well.

In a surprise follow-up a few weeks later, the guest conductor John Adams phoned from his home in northern California. To say the least, Chester the Subbing Percussionist wasn’t expecting the call.

Since the 1990s, Adams has been America’s most frequently-performed living composer. He has written prolifically, including Shaker Loops, The Wound-Dresser, Nixon in China, The Dharma at Big Sur. In 2003, he won the Pulitzer Prize for composing On the Transmigration of Souls.

He told Chester he had enjoyed The Yellow Shark experience, especially the cimbalom. Since conducting the Zappa piece in LA, Adams had been busy creating a new symphonic oratorio named The Gospel According to the Other Mary. In the midst of it now, he had cimbalom on the brain. Adams wanted to further explore its use and was writing parts for it.

Would Chester be interested in being the featured soloist when the work premiered? (Yes!) Would he perhaps collaborate a bit with Adams as he developed those difficult cimbalom portions of the composition? (Yes again!)

To put it in perspective, this was like the popular composer Joseph Haydn asking someone in the 1780s to lend a hand with string runs in his new concerto, or Scarlatti saying, “Wanna help me jam something on this harpsichord?”

Chester hung up after the conversation, turned to his wife and said, “Rachel, remember that epiphany thing we talked about?”

And so the new trail began.

As Chester grappled to accelerate his skills rapidly (after all, he was now unexpectedly being perceived as a Mr. Cimbalom of sorts), he realized his friend Tom Rainey had been right: it’s a terribly demanding instrument. “It’s like popping open a piano and hammering or plucking the wires, but the order makes much less sense,” he explains. “It’s four-and-a-half octaves total, from low C to second A above the treble cleft. The bottom octave and a half are exactly the same, side by side. Past the second f sharp it gets different. Once you’re on the third line up, the differences are even more pronounced. So the kinetic understanding of where you are is tough to master. Believe me, I needed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in a hurry, so it became very intense. I also learned the proper playing spot is quite small per strike. And the strings all cross each other — it gets mazy, complex, it’s very fast and athletic to maneuver. In short, the physical layout is maddening. No wonder most percussionists never went near it. What had I gotten myself into?”

* * *

The cimbalom was created about 1600 B.C. in Babylonia. Known originally as a santir or santour, it was flat, rectangular, held horizontally from the waist by a neck strap. Eventually, via the Silk Road, it migrated to India, and then gypsies brought it to Romania and Hungary, where it became hugely popular. In 1874, József Schunda redesigned it in Budapest. He constructed it on legs, created a dampener pedal to control the length of notes, and gave it a fully chromatic range, making it suitable as a concert instrument. Soon after, Lajos Bohák reinforced the shell and added resonance by opening it from the bottom and sides. He put a steel structure in the sound board to prevent cracking and increase the sound.

Today it can be played with leather-covered hammers for a bright, thicker, articulate tone, or with wooden hammers for a more brittle percussive strike. (Stravinsky carefully specified which type of hammers he wanted deployed in his cimbalom scores, even changing them within a section to dictate the effect. “At times you have to switch tools really fast then, in mixed meter, with eyes up on the page,” Chester says. “You can never get comfortable on a cimbalom.”

Besides Stravinsky’s Renard (the one-act chamber opera-ballet, 1916), the cimbalom’s highlights in the canon include Zoltan Kodály’s Háry János Suite, Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 1, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, and now John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012 symphonic oratorio) and his Scheherazade.2 (2014 dramatic symphony).

* * *

On Thursday evening, May 31, 2012, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled the world premiere of “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” a nearly 3-hour Passion oratorio composed by John Adams. The national press was complimentary at large (the Los Angeles Time hailed it “a masterpiece”), though some reviewers qualified the specifics. But everyone agreed on one aspect of the performance. The guy on cimbalom was amazing. Zachary Woolfe wrote in his New York Times reaction:

Brilliantly, the backbone of his score is the cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer that is now associated with the folk music of Central Europe but was also a feature of the Middle East; it makes sense to hear it in a biblical context.
Though rare in modern Western music, the instrument, played with brilliant clarity here by Chester Englander, gives “The Gospel” an edge of otherness entirely free of cliché — a genuine exoticism — when its astringent twang rises out of the dense orchestral textures.

In March 2015, Chester was solo cimbalist with the New York Philharmonic for the World Premiere of John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 at Avery Fisher Hall. In his review, Anthony Tommasini reported:

The orchestra sweeps up and crests into a wave of thick, hazy chords and hovering fragments. A prominent part for cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer, lends the entire score an exotic flavor. (Chester Englander was the vivid performer.)

Since 2012, Chester has performed Adams compositions 14 times. For these and many other classical music pieces, he has been featured soloist on cimbalom for 17 renowned orchestras including the Boston Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería (Mexico City), Chicago Symphony, LA Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony, and the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. As both percussionist and cimbalist, he’s been Guest Artist for the Cleveland Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, plus the Oregon, Pittsburgh, and San Diego Symphonies. Englander has performed at Carnegie Hall (New York), Royal Albert Hall (London), Musikverein (Vienna), Concertgebouw (Amsterdam), Symphony Hall (Boston), Philharmonie de Paris, KKL (Luzern), Severance Hall (Cleveland), and Walt Disney Concert Hall (LA).

He also appeared on The Tonight Show with Vampire Weekend, and is now the Head of Percussion Studies at Cleveland State University as well. Some of his performances are available on top music labels, and he’s built his own recording studio at home to provide additional work to a growing audience. Chester’s success, literally, has become out-of-this-world: in 2012, he played on the track Reach for the Stars that was broadcast on Mars when the NASA Curiosity rover landed there.

For a musician who barely had seen a cimbalom before, he has become its modern-day master. It’s of course a testament to Englander’s persistence and rigorous preparation, but also due to his willingness to change and adapt. He took that five thousand dollar risk because he believed in the world of possibility.

Today, as he moves through international airports, checks into fine hotels, and sets up on the most famous stages to rehearse as a headliner soloist, he often pauses to recall the years of relentless practice, the late-night drives he made through West Virginia mountains or Midwest farmlands to get home to Cleveland after wintry performances. And there are times he thinks of the direct musical lineage from Babylonia to India and Romania, from Schunda’s factory to eastern European street musicians to himself onstage in Los Angeles or his rhythms cascading over another planet’s landscape.

Recently a friend told him that he was becoming, at the very least, a paragraph or footnote in classical music’s history. Chester beams at the suggestion. “How cool is that? I guess the cimbalom and I are linked now. We kind of take care of each other. I really love being part of this continuum.”

* * *

© 2018 Steve Meixell

To see Chester Englander on cimbalom:

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