Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the
September 5, 2001 edition of U.S. Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Soclair Brooks Barn: Leisurely Listening
In a telephone interview Edward Brewer, music director
of the Soclair Music Festival, sounds like the embodiment of the
he directs: leisurely, relaxed, comfortable, undoctrinaire, and given
to the unexpected. Soclair’s Concerts-in-the-Barn wraps up its 2001
season with a program of early 18th-century music by the Soclair
The concert takes place at Soclair Brooks Farm in Lebanon on Sunday,
September 9, at 4 p.m. Performers include Kirsten Blase, soprano;
Elissa Berardi, recorder; Rosalyn Clarke, cello; Virginia Brewer,
oboe and recorder; and Brewer himself, harpsichord.
Inaugurated in 1975, Soclair’s season has settled into a low-pressure
set of four chamber music concerts, one each month from June to
on the estate of June and Ira Kapp. In a wooded setting on rolling
terrain, performances take place in the barn, still hung with ribbons
won by champion horses. Listeners sit on steel folding chairs in the
barn, or outside under the trees.
The acoustics, says Brewer are admirable, making for a clear sound.
"You don’t have to do anything to tinker with an old wood
he says. "Wood is good for sound. And the ceiling is high enough
to give space to the sound. On extremely hot days, it gets a little
warm, but the barn opens on three sides. This is a summer festival,
and we’re not air conditioned. When it’s warm, we are warm. Soclair
has the liabilities that go with an outdoor setting. When it rains,
the barn is OK inside, and we don’t have outdoor seating."
The festival was a by-product of the Kapps’ year-long stay in England
in 1973. Having attended small music festivals at manor houses in
the English countryside, they realized that their Lebanon property
was an equally suitable setting. When they met Virginia and Edward
Brewer, musicians-in-residence at the Delaware Water Gap Recreational
Area, they knew they had a link to musicians who could bring their
wish to reality.
Initially located at the Clinton Museum, with a two-concert season,
Soclair doubled its number of concerts, but has no intention of
the size of its audience. Indeed, the barn’s capacity of 104 seats
is less than what the museum accommodated. It also has a considerably
smaller performing area. But keeping the festival manageable and
is a high priority "We can go to seven or eight performers,"
says Brewer. "A double quartet is very tight. The cellists need
room for their bowing. We usually stay within a three to six performer
Soclair has developed a loyal following. Reserved seats tend to sell
out by subscription. What’s left goes to people on waiting list.
cancellations permit aspirants to get into individual concerts.
people who come to Soclair are not typically an adventuresome
says harpsichordist Brewer "We don’t try to program far-out
though I try to stretch myself musically. It’s not quite a string
quartet crowd, but it’s unusual when we go into the 20th century."
I ask Brewer to account for the appearance of Eighth Blackbird at
Soclair in July. Eighth Blackbird is a cutting-edge contemporary music
ensemble whose repertoire reads like a "Who’s Who" of
music. The oldest piece they played was written in 1985. Without
Brewer says, "Eighth Blackbird is unusual. Old for them is 15
years ago. But they have a presence on stage that’s captivating.
fine instrumentalists, who happen to use the vehicle of contemporary
music. It turned out to be a spectacular day."
Brewer was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1937 to a mechanical
father and a housewife mother. The family was not notably musical,
but they were sensitive to musical matters, and it was Brewer’s mother
who realized his unusual musical talents.
"My sister was taking piano lessons," says Brewer, the
of three children. "I was five and was listening to her practice.
She played a wrong note. I called out, `It’s not an A. It’s a B.’
Someone had showed me around the keyboard and I knew what `A’ sounded
like. My mother realized that I had perfect pitch and found a teacher.
I played piano till I was a senior in high school. I quit because
I wasn’t going into music anyway, and I wanted a good time. I didn’t
want to be always preparing for the next competition."
At Oberlin, Brewer sang in the college choir, and
in his sophomore year that he wanted to go into music. "I took
piano lessons as a sophomore," he says, "but my technique
wasn’t good enough for a piano major. I was interested in choral work,
but that was not a major. So I majored in organ. Organ doesn’t take
the finger dexterity needed for piano."
Brewer was the beneficiary of a junior-year-abroad program in
Says Brewer: "For me it was wonderful. I met European organists
in north Germany and in Paris. It was a big contrast with Erie."
He also relished his direct experience of European affairs. "It
was 13 years after World War II. Vienna was a four-power city. There
was no peace treaty yet. Gypsy camps were nearby. We took a ship to
Europe and drove from Cherbourg across France. As we went across the
country it looked as if France had lost the war."
Brewer did his graduate work on organ at the University of Illinois
in Champaign-Urbana and then studied for two years in Frankfurt,
with Helmut Walcha, who recorded the Bach organ works for the
Brewer and his wife, oboist Virginia Brewer, are the parents of two:
Barry, 29, a rock musician; and Diana, 27, a soprano who also plays
violin and viola. Diana has sung at the Barn in music of the baroque
period and earlier.
Conversant with the authentic musical instrument movement, Brewer
persuaded his wife to try the old instruments. "Things didn’t
get off the ground at first," he says. "It takes a long time
to learn to play period instruments. They’re very different from
instruments Three years after Virginia started on baroque oboe, she
began to perform on it, but she felt she was pushing It was 10 years
before she got comfortable. The leading authentic instrument
now are good performers who started to play old instruments early
on in their careers, when they were young enough to be adaptable.
They play both modern and authentic instruments."
Brewer performs with his wife about 10 times a year in various
"Period instruments are our basic love," he says, "but
we still continue with modern instruments. For me the most exciting
performances are with period instruments. As a harpsichordist, my
dates stop at about 1750."
In addition to performing, Brewer rents harpsichords and portable
organs. "Like many performers," he says, "I have a
for income purposes. As the baroque movement began to unfold, I
the need for reliable high quality keyboards." Brewer’s enterprise
can be located at www.baroquekeyboards.com.
Despite his attraction to the early instrument movement, Brewer is
critical of its excesses. "Thirty years ago the focus was often
on being correct, and performers lost sight of what the performance
Programming at Soclair has shifted somewhat since the beginnings of
the festival, Brewer says. "Originally, the thrust was primarily
baroque. I conducted and was involved in every concert. Now I play
not more than once a season. It’s not modesty. It’s good programming.
It shows diversity. After all, this is not the Ed Brewer show."
Brewer’s programming also restricts his wife, Virginia, to performing
only once a season. "And not necessarily with me," he says.
"When she plays 19th century music, there’s no place for a
"I try to create interesting programs at Soclair," Brewer
says, "and keep audiences coming back. I look for a balance
continuity and familiarity, and taking an adventure. Because of the
balance of the program the audience knows it’s going to hear something
pleasant, but we keep it fresh. In the course of the summer, there’s
usually a string quartet. With string quartets, I avoid the baroque
because in the baroque period there were no string quartets. I like
to have quartets play music written for them."
"So you avoid having a string quartet play Scott Joplin?"
I ask. Brewer says, "There’s no problem with Scott Joplin. It’s
nice to have fun."
Brewer leans towards programming established groups, rather than
of freelancers. "Established ensembles have a track record and
are comfortable with themselves as groups. Performers need to know
where each other is coming from."
Brewer, who lives in Leonia, has arrived at a practical test for
programming. The "watershed," as he calls it came a decade
or so ago. "Often, I would offer a program, and then not come
to a concert because of the trip," he says. "Then I started
to think of programming in terms of what I wanted to hear. It had
to be something that made me willing to get off my butt and drive
an hour. If I’m not willing to do that, a piece has no business on
Of the candidates for appearance at Soclair, the group where Brewer
has the greatest control is the Soclair Ensemble, of which he is an
integral part. "It’s not a fixed group," he says. "It’s
whatever I do. There’s a core group of six or eight people who have
performed together, not all of whom show up at any one time. Usually
we have one outsider in the group. For the concert on Sunday,
9, Kirsten Blase is the outsider. We usually have Soclair Ensemble
play the last concert. It’s a nice way to tie up the summer."
— Elaine Strauss
Farm, Lebanon, 908-236-6476. Sunday, September 9, at 4 p.m.
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