Daniel Brewbaker at a vineyard in Austria.
The Man With Qualities: Remembering My Friend, Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017)

The Man With Qualities: Remembering My Friend, Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017)

I feel as though I knew Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017) long before I actually met him.  Our good friend Doreen Rao would say, over and over again, “You must meet Daniel.”  Or she would occasionally start talking about him as though I already knew him. To say that he had achieved a certain kind of legendary status in my mind before we even met is no exaggeration.  Now, after his untimely death, while it is still too fresh for me to contemplate, I’m trying to remember everything I can about our friendship.

Disclaimer: I only knew Daniel for 15 years. He lived in New York, in Napa Valley, at Yaddo, at Wurlitzer. He traveled and sometimes lived in his hometown of Elgin, Illinois, where he spent his final few years. I’m sure there were others who knew him better, longer, in different ways. We shared a close community of friends from our Choral Music Experience (CME) and Boosey & Hawkes worlds, and I had the privilege of copyediting much of his published choral music.  But I do believe that we shared special bonds—as composers, as Boosey & Hawkes and CME composers, as Midwesterners, as sons, and as, well, just as guys.

When the time finally came for us to meet, I began to understand. This was a rare man indeed. We met in 2002 at the CME Choral Teacher Training Institute, held that year at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. By then, I had heard other stories about Daniel from New Yorkers who knew him and his music.  When I asked conductor Francisco Nuñez about Daniel, he just smiled and said, “Daniel……you don’t know Daniel? You have to meet him.”

It was a late night in Maynooth after a whole day of teaching and singing. A group of us had found an empty room in a dormitory with a few bottles of wine and this man, my age, with what my children immediately dubbed a “perpetually astonished” look, was in the front of the room, reciting Pushkin poetry in Russian from memory.  Oh my.  At various times I heard him recite dozens of poems for memory: Yeats, Cummings, Sandburg, Pushkin. I think he was always no more than a few seconds from breaking into poetry. Maybe a millisecond.

All week we had been studying and rehearsing Daniel’s Irish Cantata, Out of the Mist, Above the Real. The music was penetratingly beautiful and seemed to be steeped in its Irishness.  But Daniel was from Elgin, Illinois.  He was educated at the University of Illinois and The Juilliard School in New York. I later found that he had gone on a pilgrimage in Ireland while the piece was in its conception phase. This piece became a romantic soundtrack for my daughter Lindsay and her husband Chris Lees, as it wove its way from the Dublin CME performance to their proposal and their wedding day.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.

Daniel was passionate about, well, everything.  When he liked a poem, he memorized it. He fell in love, poem by poem.  But that’s the way he was about most things. Every time I asked him what he was reading, he would say The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I would answer that he had read it before. And his response was always the same: “But Lee, it is so wonderful!” If he loved a cup of coffee, then he adopted that coffee shop as his own, and Mike as his own personal barista. If he had a great glass of Prosecco, it was always going to be Prosecco. He enjoyed—friends, music, dinners, celebrations, ceremony, performances—like no one else I’ve ever met.  He was loyal to his friends, and it took a lot to turn him away.  He was a man who lived in perpetual astonishment or, one might say, in italics.

When I asked Daniel to write a choral piece for my New Classic Singers, I apologized for the inadequate fee. He answered that this was his “coming home to Illinois piece,” setting Carl Sandburg poems and dedicating the work to his Illinois family and friends. We agreed on a length of four to five minutes for the piece; I was so excited that he would be writing for our group.  Eventually, the piece stretched to a four-movement, twenty-minute piece.  Fortunately, knowing this was probable, I had saved room on our program for something longer. Daniel often complained about being perpetually behind in his writing (like many composers). We agreed that if he held to the proposed length of his music, he’d never be behind.  But that wasn’t Daniel.

Because Daniel lived FULLY. Not excessively, but fully. I think he fully enjoyed every meal we ate together, whether it was a modest meal of take-out chicken in his kitchen or mine or an expensive meal in an Italian restaurant. Each bottle of wine, each glass of Scotch, every bowl of nuts was the best.  And he always took the time to remark about how wonderful it was. He was the most gracious guest and host. He came to my mother’s Passover seder twice, with each trip up to Milwaukee and back to Chicago filled with the eager anticipation and then the avid memory of the occasion, the conversation, the food.

Daniel Brewbaker and Lidia Bastianich holding glasses of red wine at a dinner table.

Among Daniel Brewbaker’s dearest friends was the celebrated and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich. Here they are sharing red wine and a meal at Bastianich’s New York restaurant Felidia.

Like most composers, he loved listening to performances of his music and loved the people who performed it. But he also loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else. I can still hear his imitations of musicians he had known—especially his teachers Roger Sessions, Elliott Carter, and Gordon Binkerd. All the imitations had a similar accent, but they were performed with glee and captured essential wisdoms he had gleaned on his path. What he loved about living in Manhattan was how close he was to great art, culture, and music. And to people.  It seemed Daniel knew everyone in the New York music world.

Daniel loved the world of being a musician, whether it was in New York, Napa Valley, Elgin, Chicago, or anywhere else.

Daniel was a devoted son.  We talked often about our relationships with our mothers—since we were born only three days apart and had mothers of a similar age.  As his mother, Ruth, grew increasingly infirm and he was torn between his New York life and his Elgin mother, we talked often about the choices he faced. As an only son, he was keenly aware that her world revolved around him and he did his best to be there for her in her declining years.  As she lay dying in their Elgin home, he asked me to come say Kaddish for his mother. For Daniel, a born Midwestern Lutheran and an avowed Buddhist, there was no limit to the accumulation of the spiritual wisdoms he loved.

He never failed to tell me how lucky I was in my life, especially my dear children, whom he loved. He was in love with many people—other composers, teachers, women—and freely expressed that love. And he was well-loved by his childhood friends from Elgin, who proudly revered him as their native son composer.

I could go on (more than I already have).  He was a dear friend. He was a gifted and talented composer, with the lyrical inspiration and the well-honed craft to back it up. 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 even loved counterpoint in an age which often doesn’t.

In a world which might value achievement more than soul, quantity more than quality, and prose more than poetry, Daniel was those things for me and I think anyone who met him. Celebrities were drawn to Daniel, and he to them. I think all of us knew how special he was.  He was, truly, The Man With Qualities. At the end of the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote says, “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.”  I think for Daniel, it was adding some measure of poetry to the world.  He certainly added it to mine.

Lee Kesselman, Robin Kesselman (holding a doublebass) and Daniel Brewbaker.

Daniel (right) with me (left) and my son Robin Kesselman (Principal bass, Houston Symphony) in Elgin, IL December 2015

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2 thoughts on “The Man With Qualities: Remembering My Friend, Daniel Brewbaker (1951-2017)

  1. Wayland Rogers

    Lee, that is such a marvelous tribute to a clearly extraordinary person. I only knew him tangentially through Doreen, you and Andrea, and spent only a few short moments with him here and there. I regret not knowing him better. My ccondolances to all who knew and loved him.

  2. Joan Kennedy

    Daniel (we called him Danny) and I were in the same classes in 7th grade at Larsen Jr High School in Elgin IL. As 7th graders we shared all classes together. We were both in the band as well. Daniel was actually my very first “boyfriend” in Jr High. He was good at everything he did and of course and incredibly nice person. He was taken far too soon and will be misses by everyone who knew him. Your tribute is beautiful.


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