photography by Andrea Zucker
A Steinway grand piano is the dramatic focal point of the Evans' living room.
Marsha McKee Evans freely admits she has a one-track mind when it comes to talking about music — and, more specifically, about the Memphis Chamber Music Society. She is the artistic director of this esteemed group, which is now well into its 24th season. “Many other organizations [in town] import world-famous artists,” Evans explains, “but the Memphis Chamber Music Society spotlights gifted local artists who could one day be world-famous and gives them the opportunity to perform.”
As the name implies, “chamber music” is classical music performed in an intimate setting with a small group of musicians and instruments. Evans says holding monthly Sunday afternoon concerts in a variety of different lovely Memphis homes adds greatly to the intimacy and excitement of the Society’s events. In this warm and inviting atmosphere, guests have the unique cultural experience of informally mixing and mingling with the performing artists and fellow chamber music enthusiasts. Longstanding caterers Willena Highsmith, John Wigley, and their staff, and veteran bartender Lafayette Draper, working with his family members, have also helped make every chamber concert a lovely way to spend Sunday afternoons.
Marsha feels greatly indebted to the many gracious hosts who make their homes available for these events, suggesting that in return “when the music starts, it makes the house smile.” For the record, the Society does the heavy lifting, literally, by bringing in the instruments, as well as setting up folding chairs and providing wine and other refreshments for concert guests.
Evans has played the piano since she was a child, modestly suggesting she may have inherited some abilities from her maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Marshall, who could play the harmonica, guitar, piano, and violin. In her own long musical career, Evans was a pianist with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra for 25 years and also taught at Rhodes College. When she and two colleagues founded the Rhodes Piano Trio, they needed a place to perform before their debut concert. Evans’ friend and fellow teacher, JoRee King, contacted William R. Eubanks, famed Memphis interior designer and music lover, who stepped into the breach. He hosted a concert in Carrier Hall, his home at the time, and invited 60 guests for a musical soiree and dinner.
Shortly thereafter, friends began asking, “When are you going to do this again?” Evans decided, then and there, “We can do something with this,” and so the Memphis Chamber Music Society was born. It should be noted that Eubanks now bears the title of founding president emeritus of the group; he and his close friend, Dr. John Ferguson, have generously continued their strong support of this organization by hosting 21 concerts.
For his part, the Society’s current president, Dr. Benton Wheeler, has hospitably hosted at least nine concerts in his stately home, Beverly Hall. Others have helped behind the scenes in so many different ways. Evans’ friend, True Redd, designed the group’s stationery and logo and has handled printing its brochures and programs through the years, while treasurer Kathy Olsen is a whiz with the finances.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to attend a rehearsal for a program of Brahms sonatas at Evans’ Cordova home with Victor Santiago Asuncion playing piano and Soh-Hyun Park Altino as violinist. Both artists are faculty members at the University of Memphis’ Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. In the course of the evening, we were privileged to chat with the musicians and their students and friends, as well as a distinguished guest, Michael Gilbert, music director of the Eroica Ensemble. I was so taken with the beautiful décor and setting of the Evans home that I asked if I could return with our photographer to take pictures.
Upon my second visit, Evans told me her family moved from East Memphis to Cordova 20 years ago. John Millard had designed the contemporary-style house, with part of its glory being that one “can walk in the front door and look straight through to the gorgeous woodland scene beyond.” Evans laughingly confides that “as a musician, when I first came in, I did an acoustic check by clapping my hands and listening to hear a reverberation.” The house obviously passed the test, and it seemed only natural that she would turn to her good friend and fellow Memphis Chamber Music Society supporter, Bill Eubanks, to help with the décor.
Eubanks added mantels, moldings, and beams, all the while working with the Evans family’s antique furniture, oriental rugs, artworks, and porcelain pieces. The result is a magnificent, high-ceilinged showplace that has the warmth and coziness of a country getaway.
When asked in particular about the striking beams in the living room, Evans says, “Oh, they aren’t old, we just ‘distressed’ them by beating them with a hatchet,” giving whole new meaning to the term ‘hatchet job’! Not surprisingly, the house boasts two grand pianos. The one in the music room once belonged to Evans’ grandmother, while the other in the living room was a thirtieth wedding anniversary gift from her husband, John, and is signed by Henry Steinway.
Music-themed décor and memorabilia fill the house — from wallpaper printed with mandolins to framed letters from Clara Schumann and Edvard Grieg. The latter letter was given to her by good friend and fellow Memphian Suzy Mallory, whose father, Robert Hastings, once headed the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Board.
As we leave, I am told the kudu, an African antelope whose head is mounted on the wall in the entry, was shot in Zimbabwe with a longbow by John Evans, an avid sportsman. Marsha says the surrounding woods were teeming with deer, although she is quick to add, “John doesn’t shoot our neighbors”!