Sunday, July 12, 2009

Amazin Ewazen

What a treat it is to see Eric Ewazen's picture on the cover of the upcoming Fanfare magazine, and to read this article about him.

I knew Eric at Juilliard. We both started there at the same time (he was in the doctoral program as a composer, and I was a freshman flutist). I always thought of Eric as a kind of good-natured version of what Brahms might have been like, though I don't really didn't know why at the time. Perhaps it was because Brahms was my standard for greatness (and I suppose he still is).

Like most of the other young composers working in "serious" music during the 1970s and 1980s, Eric wrote serial music. His music, or what I knew of it, had nothing to do with tonality. It was difficult for me to understand intellectually, but, under the organized mask of the times, there was a huge amount of emotional substance, exuberance, lyricism, and a total lack of pretense. I always thought that if atonality was to be the "classical" medium of the future, Eric would be its Brahms. I always believed that Eric would be, above all the composers I knew at Juilliard, the person who would have his (they were all men at the time) music played and enjoyed by the most people.

I remember the satisfied thrill I got in the early 1990s when I read a review of one of Eric's brass pieces that had been recorded, and I got even more of a thrill when I heard his post-Juilliard music. It was all tonal. It was tonal, yet it did bear some resemblance to his atonal music: the same face, but wearing different clothing, perhaps. A lot of Eric's music was (and is) accessible for college-age students to understand, challenging for brass players (of all ages and levels of experience) to play, and very exciting to hear. Here is a movement from his Trumpet Sonata, and a trio for the unlikely combination of violin, trumpet, and piano, and this fantastic marimba concerto.

Little-by-little Ewazen pieces started popping up on brass players' recitals at my local university. Soon it was almost impossible to attend a brass recital without an Ewazen piece on the program. I have since learned that this happens at a lot of other universities. Though he is most popular as a composer for brass and percussion instruments, he writes music for all kinds of instrumental and vocal combinations, and has been commissioned (and is being commissioned) to write music for some very high-profile soloists and orchestras.

It is great, in this world of hype and pretense, to have such well-deserved success come to someone who is made of substance and integrity. The exuberance in his music is real: it simply reflects and projects who he is. He is, as we used to refer to him back in his Juilliard days, "Amazin Ewazen."

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