At home, chamber music in South Jersey hits all the right notes

Paul and Janet Somers host shows for around 40 people. They don't sell tickets or charge admission. Instead, attendees reserve seats in advance and give the musicians what they would have paid a concert at a larger venue.

MAURICETOWN, N.J. - When classical musicians Paul and Janet Somers thought about moving to this rural southern Cumberland County town about 10 years ago from a New York City suburb, they didn't allow the dearth of high culture in the region to scare them off.

Instead they decided to reinvigorate their favorite genre - chamber music - right here, and build a home suited to presenting the age-old form of entertainment to small groups of listeners.

Now on the cusp of 50 "house concerts" later, the Somers and their Maurice River Music salon series seems to be more popular than ever.

"I think we only have three seats left for our next one and it's not happening for another month. It's a good feeling that this has been so well-received over the years . . . that people with an appreciation for the music will drive from far and wide to hear it," said Paul Somers, 74, a former music critic for the Star-Ledger in Newark, who lived in Westfield and played classical piano and harpsichord professionally before arthritis and injuries from an auto accident sidelined him. His wife, also 74, still plays the flute professionally.

And that the audience of only 40 people will hear it in precisely the manner for which chamber music was intended, was what Paul Somers had in mind when he came up with the concept for his salon.

"It is how the music was meant to be heard," said Somers, who built his home at the edge of a hardwood forest off Buckshutem Road.

What would be the home's living room is sans a couch, television, and the usual decor and houses only folding chairs to accommodate 30 to 40 people, a grand piano, and a harpsichord and enough additional space for a small cadre of musicians.

"If we want to watch TV, we go in the bedroom," Somers said.

In the manner of such house concerts - a concept that has been around for awhile but has become even more popular in recent years across all genres of music - people hear about upcoming performances by word of mouth or from listings in the events columns in regional publications.

But the salon is not a business for the couple.

No tickets are sold, no admission is charged, and they don't keep any of the money that is donated by the concertgoers. Attendees must register by telephone in advance and many seats are taken by those who come repeatedly for the performances from as far away as Philadelphia and Toms River.

"We have many people who sign up in advance for the entire year," Janet Somers notes.

At the end of the concert, an old beach hat is passed around and attendees are asked to put in what they feel they would have paid had they attended a similar performance in a larger concert venue. Most people contribute around $20 each and all the money that is collected goes directly to the performers, Paul Somers said.

"I guess you could say we actually lose money on the whole thing because we serve coffee and my wife always makes cookies or some other dessert as refreshments," Paul Somers said. "Often people will also bring a snack to share with the group."

Chamber music is a form of classical music that was first created during the medieval period, primarily for a small group of instruments - not a full orchestra. Performances were usually for aristocrats and took place in palace chambers. Known as the "music of friends" because of its intimate nature, in more recent times it has migrated to larger venues like concert halls and churches.

The musical form has been described as "conversational" because performers - usually four in number - play in a motif in which one instrument introduces the melody and the others seem to respond in a corresponding manner.

The next performance being presented by Maurice River Music is on Sunday, Jan. 15 and will feature renowned pianist Clipper Erickson. Erickson will be returning for a third time to the Somers' salon and will be performing music by Modest Mussorgsky and Nathaniel Dett.

Erickson made his solo debut with the Young Musicians Foundation in Los Angeles at age 19, studied at the Juilliard School, Yale University, and Indiana University with noted British pianist John Ogdon. He began to win prizes at international competitions at a young age for his interpretations of well-known pieces.

He has performed as a soloist with orchestras such as the Bay Atlantic Symphony, and in recitals at famous concert venues like the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and Weill Recital Hall at New York's Carnegie Hall.

Future salon concerts will feature return appearances by mezzo-soprano Daphne Alderson and pianist Norma Meyer on Feb. 12; Meyer and special guest artist Ranaan Meyer, bassist with Time for Three, on March 5; and the Bay Atlantic String Quartet, violinists Ruotao Mao and Nancy Jan, violist Ana Tsinadze, and cellist Elizabeth Mendoza on April 30 in celebration of the salon's 50th presentation.

Miles Cohen, artistic director for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, said he celebrates venues like Maurice River Music and others in the Philadelphia region because they often "introduce people" to classical music - and in particular chamber music - who may not have otherwise had an opportunity to hear it.

"There is no wrong way to present this music," Cohen said. "But certainly informal venues like this are great ways of getting people, especially young people, interested in and in front of a performance of classical music. And in a world where we have so little musical education in schools, this is becoming an important way to do that."

If you go: At Maurice River Music, seating is very limited and advance reservations are required. Donations to assist covering expenses are accepted. To reserve seats and get directions or to receive more information, call 856-506-0580 or email at info@mauricerivermusic.com. Visit their website at www.mauricerivermusic.com.

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com @JacquelineUrgo

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