Benjamin Lees' is an American composer of Russian parentage. He was born
in China and came to the USA in 1925. He studied in California with Halsey
Stevens and Ingolf Dahl (ever heard Dahl's saxophone concerto?). He also
studied with George Antheil from 1949 to 1954.
He enjoyed some success and won various bursaries and scholarships, studying
in France and remaining in Europe for seven years. Lees received a UNESCO
award for his string quartet No 2 and the Bax Society Medal was awarded to
him in a surprise move - he was the first non-British composer to receive
His piano concerto No. 2 was played by Gary Graffman with the Boston SO under
Leinsdorf and in 1969 completed his third symphony. A trio of Bicentennial
commissions secured his reputation. The Dallas SO (much associated with his
teacher, Antheil) has commissioned three of his works. The present symphony
is the third.
The symphony commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the end of the Holocaust.
The work has a lofty grandeur redolent of Janacek, Shostakovich and even
the nobler moments of Copland's Lincoln Portrait. This is a nobility
battered by scorching sadness. Fanfares in spasm rend the land and after
five minutes the solo violin enters touching off music of virtuosic eloquence.
The movement ends in Shostakovich-like yelping.
The second movement's extended cello solo soon establishes a mood of lamentation
and bitter confidence. This articulate statement can be put alongside Martinu's
and Alan Bush's Lidice works and Britten's War Requiem. Lees
delivers a much closer emotional nexus than Britten. The roles taken by the
solo voice and solo violin wrest a skull-dark disquiet from the silence and
some of the music reminded me of Martinu's Gilgamesh.
The finale blends bird cries and sinister military manoeuvres. The Grimes
Sea Interludes seem to be a presence. The solo violin dances in worship
articulating inwardness and self-absorption. There are parallels in mood
with the Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs though there is a tougher
spine in this work and a greater variety and foundation. The brass at the
close sound like the more climactic moments from Arthur Bliss's John Blow
The impressive solo violinist is James Buswell whom we last heard in the
Naxos coupling of the Piston violin concertos and before that in RVW's violin
Concerto for RCA/BMG with Previn and the LSO.
The notes by the composer and others have been extended by the American Classics
series producers Victor and Marina A Ledin. They are in English only and
provide full sung texts.
Altogether this is a document of tragedy in our times. It remains to be seen
whether it has staying power. For now it seems to be a work of enduring strength.
All this at bargain price.