NEW KID ON THE CLASSICAL MUSIC BLOCK by Donny Levit
The SOMA Salon is bringing it all home
On a late afternoon in February, a snow squall materialized in the air, briefly creating a hyperlocal snow globe in Maplewood. But the strange weather cleared out quickly, just as four classically trained musicians tuned their instruments and readied themselves for their intimate performance. Set in the living room of Matters Magazine publisher and editor in chief Ellen Donker and her husband Robert Depue, the chairs filled with friends, neighbors, classical music newbies, life-long aficionados, and everyone in between.
Oh, and pasta was on the menu. No, not the type served on a dish. The diverse set performed by the quartet included a piece titled “Linguine,” a jazz-inflected composition for bassoon written by Ray Pizzi. The composition capped off a compelling, quirky, warm, and at times rather funny set. And Jill Sokol, who founded the SOMA Salon music series, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t remember the last time I played chamber music and had such a good time,” says Sokol, a professional flutist who’s been a Maplewood resident for more than 13 years: “I feel so lucky to be able to create something right here.” In addition to being the second flutist at the Hudson Valley Philharmonic and Garden State Philharmonic, she is a seasoned teacher, serving as an adjunct professor at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.
And now, she’s hoping to establish the SOMA Salon concert series as the newest artistic fixture of the community.
When live performances finally resumed in 2021, Sokol found herself behind the steering wheel once again, driving long distances to her contract jobs. “I miss my kids this week, you know? I’m missing their bedtime,” she says, while driving to one of her jobs during this very interview. “I decided that I wanted to create something closer to home with these incredible musicians.”
Sokol’s description of the musicians is spot on. While the February performance was only the second salon event, she has already enlisted an arsenal of classical talent. In addition to Sokol on flute, this quartet included Andrea Herr on bassoon, Kenneth Ellison on clarinet, and pianist Anna Keiserman. All four are established musicians and faculty members throughout New Jersey and the tri-state area. In the previous salon, Sokol performed with Elyse Anne Kakacek (singer), Frances Duffy (harpist), and Kirsten Jermé (cellist).
In 2021, Sokol met Marty Jeiven, the father of her neighbor C.J. Jeiven. A long-time industry leader in pharmaceutical research, Marty Jeiven shares a passion for opera and classical music. “When I was 13, I started going to what was the old Metropolitan Opera at 40th and Broadway,” he says. “I used to get up at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday and take the 6:11 train out of Elizabeth and get on line at 7:00 a.m. to stand outside so that I can stand inside. I just developed this incredible love of opera and it has always been so much of a part of my life.”
Jeiven has sat on multiple opera company boards and is currently sponsoring a chamber series for the Atrikk Ensemble in New York City. “My ability in the last few years has been to be able to support organizations; not just to attend performances,” he explains. “It was really important that I make contributions for what I thought was valuable for not just for myself, but for the community at large.”
Jeiven is the sponsor of the newly formed SOMA Salon Concert Series, with Jill Sokol as the founding Artistic Director.
“I really have to give my colleagues all the credit,” Sokol says. “And Marty is just fantastic. He loves music so much, and it brings him a lot of joy to see how much joy this brings to other people.”
In addition to Pizzi’s “Linguine,” the set list in February included “Concertino da Camera,” a composition by twentieth century Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Catalan violinist Jordi Cervelló’s “Arabesque,” and “Danzon” by Cuban-American alto saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer Paquito D’Rivera, who is renowned for his fusion of classical music with Latin jazz.
“All my colleagues help me come up with the repertoire,” says Sokol. “Once you find the pieces you love, everything starts fitting in like a puzzle – a very diverse puzzle. It’s a playlist that you want to hear.”
Not only do they offer world-class talent to the salon, the musicians introduce each piece with a brief explanation about the composer and context for the composition. Those pithy descriptions effectively build a framework for each song, which further enriches the audience’s experience.
Bassoonist Andrea Herr “knows every piece of chamber music for winds that was ever conceived,” says Sokol. The two met at the Hudson Valley Philharmonic, and today both are faculty members at Kean University. Herr held principal bassoon positions in Spain with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia and Opera Teatro Galicia. On Broadway, she has performed with the New York productions of Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, and West Side Story, among others.
Typical of the diverse offerings of this ensemble was Paquito D’Rivera’s “Danzon,” based on a Cuban folk melody. “I think I first played this at a concert that I was putting together at a local library,” says Herr, adding “When picking music for a concert, you always try to have your audience in mind. For an afternoon concert in somebody’s home [...]you don’t want your audience feeling like they need a doctorate in music composition to appreciate it!”
“I met Ken [clarinetist Kenneth Ellison] about 20 years ago at a gig we did in the city,” adds Sokol. “I hadn’t seen him for a long time and then he started teaching at Kean. I wanted to put something together. I did not know Anna Keiserman, but she’s a friend of Andrea’s. And a friend of Andrea’s is going to be a friend of mine. She’s such a good musician. And we all couldn’t stop laughing. I mean, of course we did rehearse as well! But the chemistry was fantastic.”
So what’s the next big step for the SOMA Salon music series? Sokol is hoping to find more spaces to perform. The salon will also be playing an upcoming fundraiser for Ukraine slated for June 11, 2022.
In the meantime, the musicians have their separate commitments to perform and teach. Sokol is looking forward to playing principal flute with an orchestra that will perform with the Who at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Woodstock, New York. And it’s not her first time playing with the band. “When we did Tommy a few years ago, I fell in love with almost every song,” she said. “It’s exciting, really loud, and I get to play with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. But then I get to come back here. I want to give people in SOMA the opportunity to enjoy great chamber music without schlepping on the train to New York City.”
To contact Jill Sokol about all SOMA salons, visit jillsokol.flutist.com/contact. The salon is also looking for future venues for their concerts.
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. You can hear him DJ his indie rock show Under the Influence and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.