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

series

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

Ensemble.

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

September

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

building,"

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

enlarging

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

intimate

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

range."

Soclair has developed a loyal following. Reserved seats tend to sell

out by subscription. What’s left goes to people on waiting list.

Sometimes

cancellations permit aspirants to get into individual concerts.

"The

people who come to Soclair are not typically an adventuresome

audience,"

says harpsichordist Brewer "We don’t try to program far-out

things,

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

contemporary

music. The oldest piece they played was written in 1985. Without

apology,

Brewer says, "Eighth Blackbird is unusual. Old for them is 15

years ago. But they have a presence on stage that’s captivating.

They’re

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

engineer

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

youngest

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

decided

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

Salzburg.

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,

Germany,

with Helmut Walcha, who recorded the Bach organ works for the

"Archiv"

label.

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

modern

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

performers

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

contexts.

"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

sideline

for income purposes. As the baroque movement began to unfold, I

discovered

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

was about."

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

harpsichord."

"I try to create interesting programs at Soclair," Brewer

says, "and keep audiences coming back. I look for a balance

between

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

ensembles

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

effective

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

my program."

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,

September

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

Soclair Ensemble, Concerts-in-the-Barn, Soclair Brooks

Farm, Lebanon, 908-236-6476. Sunday, September 9, at 4 p.m.


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