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