BENJAMIN LEES (1924 - 2010)
Benjamin Lees was an American composer of Russian parents. He was born in Harbin China on January 8, 1924 and came to the U.S. in 1925. At age five Lees began piano lessons and his studies of harmony and theory began in his teens, along with his first efforts at composition. After military service (1942–5), Lees entered the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studied with Halsey Stevens, Ernst Kanitz and Ingolf Dahl. From 1949 until 1954 he studied with George Antheil. In 1953 Lees’ Sonata for Two Pianos and String Quartet No.1 were among those works to win the first Fromm Music Foundation Award. 1954 was a pivotal year for Lees; the first significant performance of his work occurred when the NBC Symphony performed Profiles for Orchestra. That same year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. This enabled him to leave the U.S. and travel to Europe, eventually settling in a small village near Paris. His aim was to remain uninfluenced by the turbulent American scene in order to create his own style. He remained in Europe for seven years. During those years he became the first recipient of the Copley Foundation Award and received a Fulbright Fellowship. His Piano Concerto No.1 and his Symphony No 2 received their first performances. Later Lees received the UNESCO Award for String Quartet No.2and the Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal in London, given for the first time to a non-British composer. He received his first Grammy Nomination in 2004 for his Symphony No.5 and his second Nomination in 2008 for his Violin Concerto.
In 1962 he returned to the U.S. where he was appointed a Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. There he remained until 1964, when he joined the faculty of Queens College. It was while at Queens College that Lees composed Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1964), a work that to date has had more than 80 performances by over 35 orchestras. In 1966 Lees returned to the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, remaining there until 1968. There he composed Piano Concerto No. 2. Its first performance was given by Gary Graffman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf and Lees received his second Guggenheim Fellowship. One year later he completed his Symphony No. 3, and in 1970 Medea in Corinth, his one-act musical drama, was given its premier at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. In 1976 three Bicentennial commissions received their first performances: Passacaglia for Orchestra; Variations for Piano and Orchestra; and the Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Orchestra. Lees then produced two song cycles, a score for the San Francisco Ballet, a work inspired by Alexander Calder’s sculptures called Mobiles, and in 1982 the Double Concerto. His Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra received its world premier in March 1983 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In 1984 Lees completed Portrait of Rodin, his second commission from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra each of its seven sections based on a particular work by the French sculptor.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra also commissioned the featured work on this recording, the monumental Symphony No.4 “Memorial Candles” for mezzo-soprano and violin soloist with orchestra, written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. The three-movement, hour-long work was given its premier in 1985 with soloists Zehava Gal and Pinchas Zukerman to widespread critical acclaim. Within a year of the premier it was performed by the Atlanta, Winnipeg, and Houston symphony orchestras, as well as the London Philharmonia and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Lees’ Symphony No 5, Odyssey II for solo piano, and String Quartet No. 4 followed. In 1991 the Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned a concerto for its principal French horn player, William Caballero and, in 1994 Echoes of Normandy, was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy during World War II. Lees most recent works include two commissions by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Constellations, commemorating the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi Dynasty, and the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, to be premiered in Monte Carlo December 1999. His Piano Trio #3 (“Silent Voices”), was commissioned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C. and pre mired there May 31, 1998. The USHMM has commissioned yet another work, Night Visions for unaccompanied cello to be premiered in the 1999/2000 season. Observance, a piece for string orchestra commissioned by the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra will have its premiere February 11, 1999 at the United Nations, New York.