The American composer (although he was born in Harbin (now China, but part of Russian-controlled Manchuria prior to 1905..The significant ethnic Russian population and cultural identity continued long afterward, where there was an established Jewish community) Benjamin Lees wrote big-boned music (especially the symphonies) in a style that's both modern yet entirely accessible. These are great symphonies to get lost in, each one is a completely satisfying voyage worth tacking many times. The "Etudes for Piano and Orchestra" is full of electricity and also lyricism, and one of my favorite works here. Naxos released in 1998 Benjamin Lee's 4th Symphony, "Memorial Candles", which is his best known symphony. I will add that recording when (as usual..) I can locate it!
Here are the booklet notes by the composer:
Benjamin Lees was born on January 8, 1924 and spent his early years in San Francisco, moving to Los Angeles with his family in 1939. He began piano studies at the age of five with K.I. Rodetsky, continuing with Marguerite Bitter in Los Angeles. He attended the University of Southern California after military service in World War II and later began four years of intensive private study with George Antheil. Following a Fromm Foundation Award in 1953 and his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 the composer and his wife left for Europe. He remained there for seven years, creating new works in a village near Paris. During this period, his compositions were performed on RTF, Paris and the BBC, London.
Lees returned to the U.S. in 1962, joining the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore as the W. Alton Jones Professor of Composition. In the years following, major performances of his work were given by the Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Major soloists and chamber groups performing the works of Benjamin Lees have included Emanuel Ax, Gary Graffman, Maureen Forrester, Henryk Szeryng, Ruggiero Ricci, Elmar Oliveira, Peter Frankl, and Georgy Pauk; the Juilliard String Quartet, Paganini Quartet, Tokyo String Quartet, Aurora String Quartet, Budapest String Quartet, the Williams Trio and the Pacific Arts Trio. A pair of compact discs on the Albany Records label — a recital of Lees' complete violin music performed by Ellen Orner, and a release featuring Ian Hobson in three of the composer's major piano works — have gained enthusiastic critical praise. Lees' music also appears on the New World Records and Naxos labels.
In addition to his post at the Peabody Conservatory, Lees has taught composition at Queens College, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Juilliard School. Mr. Lees has been awarded, among other prizes, two Guggenheim Fellowships; the UNESCO Award (Paris) for String Quartet No. 2; the Sir Arnold Bax Medal; Copley Foundation Award, a Fulbright Fellowship; and the Composer's Award from the Lancaster Symphony. Major articles on his works have been written for Tempo magazine by Deryck Cooke, Nicolas Slonimsky, Niall O'Loughlin and Bret Johnson.
Symphony No. 2 (world premiere December 3, 1958, The Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney, conductor)
The first movement opens with a quasi-passacaglia figure given to the bassoons, cellos, and contrabasses, punctuated by the timpani. This figure is employed both as a theme and ground-bass throughout the movement. The principal theme enters very shortly over this ground-bass and is uttered by the violas and an English horn. From the very first, therefore, the mood is dark and there is a feeling of foreboding. Clarinets elaborate on the principal theme, while flute and oboe answer. Suddenly the ground-bass theme is thrown to the trombones, tuba, and contrabasses, with sharp accents and replies from the orchestra. The tempo quickens and a transition follows, in which the brass section engages in a fiery display. The tempo slows down as the second theme is picked up by the flutes. A flurry by the strings and this time the second theme, by strings, bassoons, and brass assumes a more sardonic and twisted shape. A short development of the theme follows which leads directly to the third subject by the winds. Underneath it the second theme is still attacked by strings and trombones. The third subject is now given to the fist violins, a short transition follows, the pace slackens, and the development section unfolds. Near the end of this section the re-transition makes its first appearance, driving relentlessly towards a climax by clarion calls from the trumpets in high C. There is then a gradual return to the first tempo: the feeling of foreboding returning with the emergence of the ground-bass theme. We are now back to the original mood and tempo of the movement. Clarinets, flutes, and oboe join in as before, and the movement comes to a close with a final phrase by the horns and second violins.
The second movement, a Scherzo, is composed of five elements, three of which are heard immediately. There is a furious entrance by winds and strings (element one) culminating in a jolting phrase by the timpani (element two), which leads directly to a passage by bassoons, horns, and cellos (element three). These elements actually comprise one continuous phrase from the very outset, but we must refer to them as three separate elements because of the developments they undergo, separately, later in the movement. Element four is quickly introduced by flutes and clarinets in the form of a theme with staccato accompaniment from the strings, trombone and trumpet.
Element one returns in a rush by the first violins and the tympani closes the phrase immediately (element two). There is a short development of all three elements and the tempo suddenly accleerates. With the violas and celli still developing, the first violins enter with a variation of the development, flutes, piccolo, and xylophone take over, a slackening of the tempo follows and the timpani phrase brings us back to the original tempo of the movement. A soft, short solo clarinet passage darts in momentarily, followed by a statement by the brass section (element five. From this point on all five elements undergo an extended development. The climax of this development is reached by the timpani in a triple fortissimo development of the original phrase, with trombones thundering above it. A dialogue ensues between the timpani and solo horn, the horn representing element three. The tempo throughout this dialogue is slower than the original. The strings announce the return of the original tempo, and there is an immediate forward movement toward an episodic section. After the close of this section the original three elements are heard once more, element four rides above it with winds and trumpet, the brass hints at element five and there is a final rush to the end as the timpani ends the movement.
The last movement, Adagio, opens with a brief, soft passage for the solo oboe, leading into the main theme stated by violas and clarinet. The second part of this theme is given over to the rest of the string section. The tempo accelerates and a short agitated development follows, the bass trombone playing a leading part against the strings. The section closes and a quiet figure by the English horn makes its appearance, bolstered by horns and pizzicato strings. Again an accelerated tempo takes over, there is a flurry culminating in sharp accents from the brass, and we enter into an episodic section consisting of pizzicato strings. Against this background a solo oboe plays softly. There is then a return to the original tempo, and a development of all that has gone before proceeds to unfold. The development is forceful and builds to an emotional climax. Once again, however, the calm mood returns as winds grasp a fragment, and xylophone and harp answer. With great suddenness the tempo quickens and the principal theme is stated with great force by the brass section, backed up by strings. From this point on the turbulence subsides. The trumpets, quietly, prepare the way for a return to the beginning. There is a short preparation by cellos, contrabasses, and timpani, pianissimo. Violas and clarinet state the principal theme, in altered form, for the last time. There are sharp thrusts by the flutes and oboe in E minor, answered quietly by the rest of the orchestra in the key of E-flat. Flutes and oboe continue to strike hard in the key of E minor, but these thrusts gradually diminish in strength, the balance of the orchestra maintains its hold on E-flat and the movement comes to a strange, calm ending.
Symphony No. 3 (world premiere January 16, 1969, Sixten Ehrling, conductor)
If the symphonic from is to survive, it must somehow be redefined for our time. This thought was in my mind when the task of writing the 3 rd Symphony was at hand — indeed, I had been thinking about it for several years prior to this work. How could one make a symphony meaningful in a world of computers, satellites and space exploration? Could it take on any new meaning in a period of revolutionary social upheaval unprecedented in history?
It occurred to me that the great musical works of the past transcended time and place and historical circumstances, so that a Beethoven 9th, a Mahler 3rd or a Bartok string quartet was as valid now as before. In each instance, however, some new element or novel approach was injected into the form to effect a meaningful transformation. In art, as in nature, change is constant.
In sum, therefore, I decided to clothe my 3 rd Symphony in different garb and, coincidentally, to work with a contemporary instrument — the tenor saxophone. The symphony would be in three movements, but now each movement would be preceded by an interlude given over to the tenor saxophone and percussion. The final movement would meld into a postlude, bringing in elements of the other movements, and at the same time affording the saxophone an opportunity to work in opposition to these elements. On the one hand we have the saxophone, a “modern” instrument being pitted against the orchestra, a classical instrument. So much for general approach.
More specifically, the first movement hinges on several elements. After the first interlude is ended, the opening movement begins with a fanfare-like figure in the brass, followed by a second element in the strings. The third element is a rather bizarre little figure given to the trumpets, oboe and English horn. A fourth element is a quick phrase, in fifths, heard for the first time in the flutes and oboes. One could go on at some length enumerating even more elements, but the important fact to bear in mind is that all these elements are connected, forming a unified line or series of lines. More than a hint of sonata form exists in this movement due to developmental procedures, and toward the end an almost neglected little glissando figure in the strings is finally augmented into a kaleidoscopic glissando section for the entire string choir subdivided thirteen times. Quite abruptly there is an interruption by the brass with the fanfare, and from this point on the movement drives forward quickly, almost relentlessly, toward the end, each element forming a building block in the process.
Following the second interlude, the second movement opens with low bassoons, tenor drum and muted string pianissimo in a tempo marked Allegro Molto, Affanosamente. Whirring, muted strings produce a ghostly, eerie effect throughout. The movement has a brief middle section first taken by the winds, creating a rather strange stream-of-consciousness feeling. Shortly thereafter the brasses enter with a chorale-like figure, and above this the winds continue as before. The tenor drum appears, the muted strings begin their ghostly play, and the movement ends quickly and quietly.
The third movement, molto calmo, follows the third interlude and opens with high strings, sul ponticello against low brass, celli and basses. The first element of the movement appears in the form of descending and ascending winds, chromatically and in seconds, accompanied by violas. Three trumpets announce a reiterated figure — element two, while a solo clarinet and flute bring in element four. As in a puzzle, these disparate elements form a complete picture, so to speak. Transformations of these elements begin to appear with increasing frequency, but at no time are they completely hidden or so transformed as to be unrecognizable. The movement appears to come to an end as the bassoons begin their steady chromatic ascent, and the high strings appear once again. The bass drum provides a soft roll, but instead of ending the movement, we are led, quietly, into the Postlude. The tenor saxophone announces a familiar figure, and at the end of the phrase there is a jolting interruption by the trombones of the fanfare-like phrase of the first movement. Again the tenor saxophone picks up its train of thought, again there is an interruption, this time from the horns. Elements, fragments, bits and pieces from all the movements now dart in and out of the structure, in a sense surrounding the line of the saxophone.
A final outcry from the saxophone is met by an almost complete statement by the orchestra of the first element of the first movement. The mood for one brief instant is violent as massed horns swirl and scream out to the top of their phrase, the rest of the orchestra holding on to a dissonant mass. Then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, the violence subsides as the entire orchestra, still clinging to the mass, grows quieter and quieter and the symphony comes to a close.
Symphony No. 5 — “Kalmar Nyckel” (world premiere March 29, 1998, Delaware Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Gunzenhauser, conductor)
The Symphony No. 5 was a commission from the Kalmar Nyckel Commemorative Committee for the Delaware Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden. It is dedicated to the Kalmar Nyckel Commemorative Committee, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and Stephen Gunzenhauser, Music Director.
The work is in one movement, divided into three sections. The first section is marked boldly and opens with an ascending, step-by-step figure which leads to the principal subject, stated powerfully by horns and trumpets. Expansion and development begin almost at once. It is a turbulent movement, reflecting perhaps the excitement and hazards of the journey to the New World by this handful of Swedes and Finns. A calmer section appears briefly midway through the movement but soon gives way once more to growing intensity and turbulence. A third subject is marked rhythmically precise. Above a steady rhythmic pattern there emerges a grotesque motive stated by high clarinets and expanded by trumpets. The figure is next taken over by the first violins, expanded this time by the winds. It is all a compressed round, for once again we hear it, now stated by three flutes, followed by trumpet, then again by high violins followed by winds. Shortly thereafter the step-wise figure of the opening re-emerges, the turbulence grows, and there is a final violent episode before the pace slows perceptibly and we are led to the second section.
This is marked slow, impassioned. The strings state the principal motive. There is an intense sadness here; one can try to imagine the sadness of those on the Kalmar Nyckel leaving their homeland forever. This principal motive is re-stated several times, developed and re-stated. A second subject, almost as intense as the first, is presented by the winds and repeated by the strings. After a slight development a third subject makes its appearance. The character is one of infinite sadness as stated by a horn and bass clarinet. It is repeated next by violas and cellos and finally by violins, violas and cellos in slow, mounting intensity. A brief final outcry of the opening subject by the strings is heard.
Quite suddenly, as if passing through storm clouds and into bright sunlight the final section explodes without warning. Marked open, bright, the first section alternates quickly between 6/8, 8/8, 5/8, and 7/8. It is a dance-like figure punctuated by brass and glockenspiel. A short development leads to a sharp flurry of activity in the strings and before long a chorale-like motive is stated by the brass. It is a hymn of thanks to a journey almost at an end. Blaring trumpets lead to a principal second subject heard above ostinato eighth-notes in the strings. Flutes and clarinets are heard first; the second time around we hear violins and clarinets, while the third statement is by trumpets and horns. Jolting interjections by the orchestra are a feature. Marked joyously, a powerful and extensive coda unfolds. Xylophone, harp and chimes join in this spirited and joyful outburst, and the work comes to a rousing conclusion with a final sharp series of figures from the tympani.
Etudes for Piano and Orchestra (world premiere October 28, 1974, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster, conductor)
The Etudes for Piano and Orchestra is dedicated to James Dick. The first etude begins with sustained tones in the trumpets, oboes, and flutes, which produce a three-note harmony. It quickly becomes apparent that three-note figures are one of the unifying factors here, as well as the harmonic centering around “C” as a kind of key. The low strings follow the winds with a fast figure of c, d-flat, e-flat, which in sequential extension becomes a principal theme. As a study piece (etude), this movement is a piano exercise in 16th notes alternating between the hands, sometimes as single tones and sometimes harmonized. The scoring tends to be open, with the timbres generally juxtaposed by families.
The second etude opens with solo flute and piano alternating with the sonority gradually enriched by the entrance of other instruments. The piano part contains many passages of arpeggios played in octaves. Although the piano is given a number of challenges in the third etude, this brisk movement appears to emphasize alternating chromatic chords. Chromaticism is pervasive and the extension of tonality thus achieved is well represented by the final harmony which consists of two chords, A minor and F minor, combined with an added B-natural.
The fourth etude is largely an exercise in alternating sixths and fifths in both hands together. As is true of the entire work, the rhythmic element is quite important and repeated notes and figures are characteristics of the piece. The final movement has a strong motoric drive, particularly toward the end as the etude builds up in intensity.
As is true in many of the great etude compositions (such as those of Bach, Chopin, and others), these pieces pose certain problems for the performers, but they go well beyond being simple exercises. The forms are generally logical and clear and the thematic material in its original form and in its treatment holds much interest.
Symphony No. 2
1) Andante mesto - vivo - Tempo primo 10:50
2) Scherzo 8:15
3) Adagio 7:04
Symphony No. 3
4) Interlude 1:32
5) Andante - Allegro; molto risoluto 8:35
6) Interlude 1:55
7)Andante - Allegro molto; affonosamente 3:26
9)Andante - Molto calmo - Postlude, Andante 11:06
1)Symphony No.5: "Kalmar Nyckel" 28:23
Etudes for Piano and Orchestra
2) Etudes for Piano and Orchestra: Etude I 1:57
3) Etudes for Piano and Orchestra: Etude II 3:02
4) Etudes for Piano and Orchestra: Etude III 3:24
5) Etudes for Piano and Orchestra: Etude IV 5:52
6) Etudes for Piano and Orchestra: Etude V 5:18