Kane County History: Remembering Elgin High Grad, Renowned Composer Daniel Brewbaker, 1951 – 2017
- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was contributed by Elizabeth Marston, director of the Elgin History Museum.
Daniel Brewbaker, renowned composer holds the distinction of being the first American commissioned to compose a work for the legendary Kirov Orchestra and Chorus in St. Petersburg, Russia. His composition, “The Poet,” received its premier at the White Nights Festival in June of 1999, conducted by the notable Valery Gergiev.
Born in Elgin in 1951, Brewbaker studied piano at age 4 and trumpet while in school. He graduated from Elgin High School in 1969 and completed undergraduate study at the University of Illinois.
He then earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the Juilliard School of Music. Early in his career as a composer, he served as an educator on the faculties of the Juilliard School and several colleges.
His first composition, “Psalm 39,” premiered in 1970 at the University of Illinois, beginning a body of work that grew to nearly 60 works, establishing him among contemporary American composers.
His music has been performed worldwide. In 1985, he guest conducted Plenos Poderes in Guadalajara, Mexico. His awards include the Nadia Boulanger Award at the Ecole des Artes Americanines in Fontainebleau.
He received first prize in the Lilli Boulanger International Music Competition in Paris, France. In 1988 and 1994, he served as composer in residence at the Camargo Foundation in France.
His music reflected his deeply spiritual and somewhat mystical nature, communicated to the listener with powerful effect. At a time when many composers have striven for novelty, he wrote music that was unashamedly direct and movingly melodic, echoing his Midwestern roots among European influence.
In 1995, his Concerto for Cello entitled “La Serenissima” premiered at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and later recorded by Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2000, Brewbaker’s choral work “Cincinnatus Psalm” was performed by the Cincinnati Orchestra and Chorus, and conducted by James Conlon at the century-old May Music Festival in Cincinnati. Brewbaker expressed his feelings about the work as part of the introduction to the performance.
“I like music that moves me, involves me intellectually, emotionally, and physically,” he said. “So I would hope to engage listeners in my music on those levels.”
He said the piece “Scheherezade,” which he first heard when he was about 10 years old, “opened up the world of imagination and the world of travel and adventure … and filled me with this inexplicable sense of joy and of being alive.”
Brewbaker’ and his music are very much a product of the American Midwest, although he has been steeped in the great traditions of European art music.
In 2004, Brewbaker was commissioned to write a violin concerto for Vadim Repin, one of the world’s leading violinists, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This work premiered in June of 2005 at an American Symphony Orchestra League convention that was held in Washington D.C.
Daniel Brewbaker maintained a close connection to Elgin. He composed for local organizations including Sherman Hospital, Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and Holy Trinity Church.
The final movement of his work Concerto for Cello, La Serenissma was performed by cellist YoYo Ma at an Elgin Symphony Orchestra concert. This was a special recognition for Brewbaker in his hometown.
In 2003, he composed “Psalm 51” for the 100th anniversary of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Elgin, where his family had been lifelong members. In 2016, he was inducted into both the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame and the Elgin High School Hall of Fame.
Brewbaker’s friend and colleague Lee Kesselman remembers him is this way:
“He was a gifted and talented composer, with the lyrical inspiration and the well-honed craft to back it up,” she said. “I admire and love his music. His music had an ardent, unforced lyricism, and extravagant harmonic language. He even loved counterpoint in an age, which often doesn’t.
“He was a voracious lover of life, in all its facets. He was not the most practical person I’ve ever met, but he lived with grace, style, and appetites for the beauty of life and its joys.
“One was never at a loss for conversation when he was around. One had the feeling that every dinner, every concert, every party was the event of a lifetime for our friend Daniel.”
Daniel Brewbaker died in 2017 after a two-year battle with glioblastoma multiforme. He is featured in the Elgin History Museum’s new exhibit, Education for All: 150 Years of Elgin High School.
Brewbaker And The Elgin High School Exhibit
Elgin History Museum’s new exhibit, Education for All: 150 Years of Elgin High School, includes a pair of cowboy boots Daniel Brewbaker bought in Santa Fe in the summer of 1992.
Daniel’s friend, Chuck Mink, writes about the boots:
“He came out to visit me there in his usual style, driving a hot convertible with his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand around the shoulder of a beautiful girl,” he said. “The painstaking decision on these particular boots came after close to two weeks of fretting about it. However, the decision on what belt buckle to match them probably took four weeks.
“He was very particular about his clothes. What he didn’t seem to realize was that he was so handsome, he would look good in ANYTHING! The Santa Fe summer was one of the best of our lives, filled with sagebrush, coyotes, Native American Pow-wows and Dan’s dazzling talent for living.”
About The Elgin History Museum
The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and at 2 p.m. some Sundays for special programs. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for students.
Visit Old Main and view two floors of interactive local history exhibits with topics from the Elgin National Watch Company to the Elgin Road Races.
Read The Kane County History Series!
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