Christopher C Tew—Musical Biography
I began composing in junior high school after having a few theory lessons at the Summer String Institute, taught by faculty members at Greensboro’s Women’s College (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and members of the city schools’ string faculty: Lucy Still, Kimbal Harriman, Martha Leonard, and Louis LaBella. Ms Still had taught me to play viola a year or so earlier, and in her role as orchestra conductor at Aycock Junior High School and Page high School, she gave me many opportunities to hear those early works and have the more worthy of them performed by my tolerant and understanding classmates.
One such piece was the Elegy for Strings—November 1963 which remains my most performed work. The Elegy was begun the evening before President Kennedy’s assassination, and most of the sketches and structure were completed during the following week.
I attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and continued studying theory with Dr Luce in 1965. I studied composition with M. Thomas Cousins, most famous for his church anthem “Glorious, Everlasting,” composed long before our association. I also met Laura Braxton, my future wife.
When Luce left UNCG after my sophomore year, I decided to attend the newly formed North Carolina School of the Arts (now UNC School of the Arts) where Louis Mennini, brother of Peter Mennin, taught composition. My one semester there convinced me that music would not be my profession, so I returned to UNCG and majored in history. Laura and I both graduated in 1969 and began our life together. I taught junior high social studies, and she attended Duke graduate school and then worked as an industrial chemist.
Beginning in high school and continuing at various times during college and my teaching years, I played viola in the Greensboro Symphony under George Dickieson and M. Thomas Cousins, the Salisbury and Hickory Symphonies under Albert Chaffoo, the North Carolina State University Orchestra under Eduardo Ostergren, and the Duke Orchestra. Dickieson performed the Elegy and a concert overture of mine, the first two works by a student composer to be performed by the university Sinfonia and Symphony. Chaffoo and Ostergren also performed my music, including both the Elegy and overtures for full orchestra.
As Laura’s career led her to more important opportunities outside NC, I continued mixing playing and composing with my jobs. In southern Indiana I played under Gene Davis and Rubin Sher in the Southeast Indiana Orchestra, and they scheduled the Elegy for performance. In my capacity as Property Manager at the First State Capitol State Memorial, I arranged several pieces of American, French, and German folk music for the opening of a newly restored building. Some of the American music found its way into the Finale of A Picture Symphony for Strings.
During our second stay in the area, I learned that Sher had rejuvenated an orchestra at Lousiville’s Jewish Community Center. He called me to his home and, placing a pile of children’s piano books of Jewish folk music on a table said, “Here, Tew. We need something for February, Jewish Music Month. See what you can do,” which became the most abrupt commission I’ve ever had. This resulted in a Rhapsody on Jewish Folk Melodies and another piece, An Overture for Hanukkah, commissioned by Leonard Atherton for the Muncie Symphony Orchestra.
Between those stays in southern Indiana, Laura and I lived in Connecticut where I played with the Fairfield Strings under John Swarz. This group of talented retirees and dedicated amateurs performed the Elegy, and it was with them that the Picture Symphony assumed its final form.
From our second stay in Indiana, Laura’s work took us to Livonia, Michigan. There I played in the Livonia Symphony Orchestra under Francesco DiBlasi and my dear friend Volodymyr Shesiuk, both of whom conducted the Elegy. In subsequent years Shesiuk also conducted the Picture Symphony, the orchestral works A Celebration of Carols, An Overture for Hanukkah, and Atridae, and most recently Froggy for chorus, clarinet, piano, and strings.
Laura’s work next took us to Lake Charles, Louisiana where I played in the Lake Charles and Alexandria Symphony Orchestras under William Kushner, father of playwright Tony Kushner. Kushner performed An Overture for Hanukkah during our short stay.
Laura’s next posting was to Tennessee, and we took up residence in Ooltewah, just north of Chattanooga. While there I played in the Southern Adventist University Orchestra in Collegedale under Orlo Gilbert and in amateur groups in Chattanooga. My playing was limited and eventually stopped by hand and back problems, but I continued composing.
The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Orchestra under Robert Bernhardt performed an excerpt from my Winds of Freedom overture for one of Chattanooga’s Fourth of July concerts, and Richard Hickam, who had organized the East Tennessee Symphony Orchestra in Collegedale, performed Winds of Freedom twice at Fourth of July festivals. Richard Cormier, conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Tennessee and former conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Orchestra and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, played the Finale of the Picture Symphony during one of his concerts and commissioned Froggy and Lux et Umbra, a piece for organ and strings. He was also instrumental in my receiving a commission for The Girls Preparatory School Suite from that Chattanooga educational institution for a four-movement suite to help celebrate its 100th anniversary. Cormier did not live to conduct Lux et Umbra, but it was premiered at his memorial service.
Laura and I returned to Greensboro in 2006; her company allowed her to work from home during her last two years before retirement. I have spent most of the time since working with Volodymyr Shesiuk on performances in Livonia, Michigan and Eduardo Ostergren on performances in Brazil, refining my earlier works, hosting former exchange-student “foster children” when they revisited the US, traveling to visit exchange-student foster sons and their families in Europe, helping my mother and Laura’s brother in their final years, preparing to record as much of my music as possible, and working on 3 Panoramas, a string piece that reflects on a trip Laura and I made to Japan in 1987. Laura has been even busier, but that’s her story to tell.