By Tony Spano, Jr.
Benjamin Lees has been enjoying a flurry of activity recently. Celebrating his 80th birthday this past January, Mr. Lees has been inundated by commissions and concerts, keeping the octogenarian rather busy.
"I wish it was in celebration of my 40th birthday!" Mr. Lees said as we started off our conversation about his newest work, Tapestry for flute, clarinet, cello, and piano, which will be premiered on Pacific Serenades April concerts.
Mr. Lees' career is in its seventh decade that includes numerous prestigious commissions and awards. A Guggenheim fellowship allowed him to study in Europe for seven years. Many major orchestras around the world have commissioned and performed his works. His most recent recognition came by way of a 2003 Grammy nomination for his Symphony #5: Kalmar Nyckel, recorded by Germany's Staatsphilharmonic Rheinland-Pfalz, Stephen Gunzenhauser, conductor. "It came as a surprise. A nomination is a nice thing but winning, of course, is quite another thing! Yet it was an unexpected present and I appreciated it. When Charles Ives won a Pulitzer Prize, he didn't respond to the committee. They visited him at his home in Connecticut and he finally responded by saying, 'Prizes are for children.' Well, I just don't make too big an issue of it."
Born in Harbin, China in 1924 to Russian parents, the family settled in San Francisco in 1925. Mr. Lees began studying piano at age 5. In 1939, the family relocated to Los Angeles where he began harmony and theory study, leading to his first compositions.
After serving in the military during World War II, Mr. Lees entered USC and studied with Halsey Stevens, Ernst Kanitz and Ingolf Dahl. In 1949, he began a period of study with George Antheil, the American composer whose early career in Paris included friendships with artists such as Salvador Dali, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Pablo Picasso. Antheil was in Hollywood by 1949, writing film scores. Mr. Lees considers Antheil to be his greatest mentor and influence. "He never considered himself a teacher. In the 4 1/2 years I studied with him, he described his method as this: I give you tools and you do what you will with them. We would also study scores, which gave us insight into what composers did to solve problems."
Examining scores of the masters continued to influence Mr. Lees. "I discovered in Mahler how to write a very long line. For more compact forms I went to Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Mozart. I really like Haydn because he had a sunny musical outlook, and he also had a sense of humor. Today, being a serious composer means you have to be a serious composer, which is not good at all!"
Commissioned to compose a work for a particular instrumentation can be a challenge, but Mr. Lees was happy to write for the flute, clarinet, cello, and piano. "It's a very good combination not used that often. There can be a problem with balances: a clash between cello and piano and balance of the two winds. After a lot of digging, I found the correct mixture for all of the instruments. It turns out not to be just an ensemble piece; it gives the individual instruments a chance to stand out on their own."
Mr. Lees describes Tapestry as essentially being one movement. "Of late, I find myself working pretty well in one continuous form instead of chopping things up into movements. I create a line from beginning to end, with ideas and a development of those ideas. Now development might be an old fashioned idea in some circles, but it works well for me. I like to take one idea and develop it throughout the piece. If you have a 2nd or 3rd idea, they will all be developed so that you have a constant mixture, or bubbling."
Having composed large orchestral works, the challenge in chamber music is clear. "Writing for a smaller ensemble means that you mentally shift gears - focus more on the sound of the ensemble. I focus on that ensemble sound for at least a week, trying to come up with just the right idea for that combination."
Composing for a small ensemble that presents its performances in intimate settings is an ideal situation, according to Mr. Lees. "Chamber music began in homes, then salons. The important thing was that the audience felt a connection between themselves and the musicians. My big objection to what has happened to orchestras over the last half century is that there's no human connection."
Receiving a commission from Pacific Serenades was a welcome request for Mr. Lees. "I think Pacific Serenades has hit on the correct formula, or approach. By presenting standard works alongside premieres of new works, they are one of the few groups in the country not only doing it, but doing it well."