Composer Benjamin Lees has died

Gramophone16th Jun 2010
Composer Benjamin Lees (Photo: Bob Trogman)Composer Benjamin Lees (Photo: Bob Trogman)

One of the most distinguished composers to emerge in the USA in the period immediately after World War II, Lees’ reputation rests primarily on his five symphonies and various concertos - including examples with orchestra for String Quartet, Wind Quintet and Brass Choir. Yet until comparatively recently he remained, outside the US, a composer whose name rather than his music was known.

Recordings of Lees’ works were at one time relatively rare outside the US but currently Symphonies Nos 2-5 are available from Albany or Naxos, the former label in particular championing his cause having issued his Second Piano Concerto (No 1 has been released by Pierian; the Third of 2007 is unrecorded), complete violin music and other chamber and orchestral pieces. CRI, Vox, New World and Toccata Classics (the last-named with a disc of piano music spanning the years 1947-2005) have also issued discs featuring Lees’ music.

Lees was born in Harbin in Manchuria. His parents were Russians but he grew up in California, first in San Francisco - where he became a US citizen in 1931 on his parents’ naturalisation - and later Los Angeles. The Second World War interrupted his musical education, which had begun at the age of 5, and he was only able to resume his studies in 1945; his service in the US Army was curtailed after a year by a disease picked up in jungle training. He studied with Ingolf Dahl, Ernest Kanitz and Halsey Stevens at the University of Southern California and later, privately, for nearly five years with George Antheil. The erstwhile “Bad Boy of Music” had been impressed with Lees’ early works and took him under his wing.

Awards, including the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, allowed him to spend eight years in Europe (Paris, Vienna and Helsinki) during which he composed his first opera, first two symphonies, concertos and orchestral works. Back in America from 1962, Lees composed mostly to commission and embarked on a fine second career as teacher in Baltimore and New York, ending up at the Manhattan and Juilliard Schools before retiring in 1977. Lees is survived by his wife, Lea, and daughter.

Guy Rickards

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