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To be a composer

RON BIERMAN met and talked to Benjamin Lees


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The day before I spoke with Benjamin Lees he learned Delos plans to record the Passacaglia for Orchestra, originally written for the National Symphony at the request of Antal Dorati. The composer didn't attend rehearsals but learned Dorati said, 'I commissioned this piece from Lees because I thought if I told him to write a Passacaglia, that would keep him in line. Again I was wrong.' Lees honored most of the traditional approach but couldn't resist diverging from the expected 3/4 time with less straightforward meters that included 7/8 and 5/8.

The Passacaglia is only one of many important recording projects for Lees in recent years. His experience provides fascinating insights into piece selection, performance preparation and funding.

Naxos is the biggest classical-music industry story of recent years. Its catalog is exploding with good-to-great quality recordings and Naxos maintains profitability even as others leave the business or bemoan a shrinking market. The on-going American Classics series is one of their finest projects. A Lees symphony appeared as part of that series in 1998. Lees said, '[Naxos] had wanted to record the Fourth Symphony for a long time and for one production reason or another, it couldn't happen.' Then one day a representative called to say, '"There is a window of opportunity for recording the Fourth Symphony. We have got to do it in two weeks."' They had that length of time to assemble the orchestra, conductor, violinist and mezzo soprano to rehearse and record the hour-long piece.

Naxos chose Theodore Kuchar to lead the orchestra. He wasn't living in California. Lees said, 'Kuchar and I got on the phone ... and we went over the score for several days by telephone. He would hum and say, "is this how you want this section?"' Lees would concur or make an alternative recommendation. 'By the time we were through he had a pretty good roadmap, not only to the piece itself, but the way I wanted it done.'

Benjamin Lees Symphony No 4
Benjamin Lees Symphony No 4 "Memorial Candles" © 1998 HNH International Ltd

I have an even greater appreciation for this fine performance now that I know something of how it was accomplished! While Naxos provided full funding and hired the musicians, Lees' relationship with Albany Records has been a mini-primer on the various ways classical recordings are financed and completed. Albany generally pays for reproduction, packaging, sales and distribution, but the composer is often responsible for the sound session itself. That was the case with Albany's first Lees CD which included the three violin sonatas. The relatively minor recording cost consisted primarily of payment to a sound engineer.

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Copyright © 29 June 2003 Ron Bierman, San Diego, USA


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