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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

Benjamin Lees -- Piano Concerto No 3

The musical output of American composer Benjamin Lees (born 1924) has followed a consistent path over four decades, since his earliest orchestra scores of the 1950s. Classical musical structures form the basis of his works, tightly crafted and honed into his own language, always tonal, but exploring the full range of tonality through development of subject matter. Lees' catalogue includes five symphonies and many concerti, as well as chamber music and much solo music for the piano. After military service, he studied at the University of Southern California (with Halsey Stevens, Ernst Kanitz, and Ingolf Dahl) and privately with George Antheil. After he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, he moved to Paris for seven years, where he lived, developing his personal style and technique. After his return to America, he served on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland and Queens College. His works have been performed by most major American orchestras and numerous recordings have been released on various record labels.

Lees' Piano Concerto No 3 will receive its première performances through the state of Florida on 13 (Tampa Bay), 14 (St Petersburg), and 15 (Clearwater) April 2007 by Ian Hobson and the Florida Orchestra under the direction of Susan Haig.

OneCarson Cooman: You've written two numbered piano concerti before (in 1955 and 1966) and three other piano concertante pieces, Five Etudes for Piano and Orchestra (1974), Variations for Piano and Orchestra (1976), and Double Concerto for Piano, Cello, and Orchestra (1982). Clearly you find combining piano with orchestra very appealing. How do you see these works fitting together and what are you trying to explore in your first 'piano alone' concerto in thirty years?

Benjamin Lees: The composer signature is always the same, and it doesn't matter what piece it is -- whether it's an opera or a string quartet.  For example, you can always recognize Rachmaninov no matter what he was writing. The signature on my works for piano and orchestra are the same as with all of my music, but the specific ideas and structural concepts contained within them are different. If I look at something like the Etudes, they were written to be real 'études', but not in the pedantic sense of the word. I wanted to write something that would explore a bit of what goes into the idea of an étude and yet at the same time have it as part of a bonafide work that one could identify as a piece for piano and orchestra.

The first piano concerto was written because I had never written one! I began the work while we were still living in NYC, and when we moved to France I had the luxury of time to look at it carefully and complete it. The actual première of the work was in Vienna in 1955. I was fortunate to finish a piece and have a major performance happen so quickly.

The second piano concerto was written because the pianist Gary Graffman and I were speaking one day shortly after he had premièred my fourth piano sonata. We wondered what project together we could dream up next, and he suggested a piano concerto would be the next logical step. We had extraordinarily good luck having Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony take it on right away.

The Variations was a commission during the 1976 American Bicentennial commission frenzy; it was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The aforementioned Etudes were commissioned by James Dick of the Round Top Festival. He was not well-known at the time and we were looking for a connection for the first performance. The Houston Symphony Orchestra came up in discussion, and indeed they were interested in making a connection with James, a fellow Texan.

The Double Concerto was the commission from a husband (cellist) and wife (piano) team. They had played some other works of mine for cello and piano and wanted to get a bit more adventurous. I suggested that a double concerto might be just the right idea. I warned them that it might be difficult to write, as I didn't know many double concerti for that combination. Sergiu Commissiona was the conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City at the time. I mentioned the work to him and he proved to be interested in it. I will say that it was definitely more difficult than just writing a piano concerto. Dealing with two instruments was hard -- there was the challenge of making them both as one unit and yet to still give each one solo opportunities. However, it's the kind of challenge that most of us who are busy writing accept quite happily. The piece has never been played since its première for any number of reasons -- mostly because it's more difficult for an orchestra to hire two soloists.

Now we come to the new third concerto. Pianist Ian Hobson and I have collaborated for a number of years on various pieces. He kept asking me to write a piano concerto for him. He kept saying 'concerto number three should be next in line for you!', but I waited a few years before attempting it. This particular concerto wasn't easy because having written a number of times for piano and orchestra before, one hopes to avoid repeating what has been done previously. This time there is a very heavy emphasis on the piano; the orchestra is 'lean but mean' -- a more transparent orchestration. That makes the soloist very happy, of course, since he's continuously working. That's all there is to the story of number three at the moment -- nothing more to relate until after the première takes place. Then we'll either walk out in glory or in sackcloth and ashes!

TwoCC: Does the piano play an important role in your composition process in general?

BL: Only in the sense that if I'm not writing a specific work for piano, I'll use it to test out sonorities. I hear these things in my head and write them down, but then after a while you want to see whether or not you're hearing it correctly. What you're hearing in your head is just a small speaker, and the piano is a much larger speaker. Then, of course, when you get to the orchestra it's even larger still. I started out trying to be a concert pianist, and it didn't work out because I simply didn't have the right training. Also, in those years, living in California, it was very hard to try and get to New York and a good conservatory. One needed a lot of money, and this was during the Depression. So, I got my revenge on the world of concert pianists by becoming a composer! I'm always doing something with the piano -- either writing a work specifically for it or using it as a testing ground for my other music.

ThreeCC: I understand that you're currently composing for the first time for another keyboard instrument, the organ. What has that been like?

BL: I've written for organ within the context of an orchestra, but I've never written for solo organ before. That is altogether a different challenge to any of the piano pieces. Every composer thinks differently about the instrument. In my case I have to clear the cobwebs from my head and think only in terms of organ sounds. I want to make sure that once I begin writing, I'm writing correctly for the organ and using the instrument as it should intrinsically sound. I also feel a need to recognize that the organ is an instrument with such huge possibilities -- it has all the foot pedals, and all the stops and the manuals -- so many different colors. Anyway, that challenge is my next project. It will be premièred sometime in 2008 by Patrick Hawkins of the University of Arizona.

Copyright © 5 April 2007 Carson P Cooman, Cambridge, MA, USA







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