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CD Review

Benjamin Lees


  • Symphony #2
  • Symphony #3
  • Symphony #5 "Kalmar Nyckel"
  • Etudes for Piano & Orchestra *
* James Dick, piano
Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Stephen Gunzenhauser
* Texas Festival Orchestra/Robert Spano
Albany TROY564/65 2CDs DDD Timings: 54:41 + 47:58
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Benjamin Lees's concertos have tended to crowd out his symphonies from public attention. I remember only the release during the LP era of the Symphony #2 by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. The appearance of the Symphony #4 "Memorial Candles" on Naxos (8.559002) with Kuchar and the Ukrainians – a strong work in a very good performance indeed – has created some anticipation for this release. All of the Lees symphonies, excepting the first, are now available on CD.

Lees works in a classic modern idiom, although in an individual way. He shouldn't give a listener any more fits than Piston, Diamond, or Mennin. Lees's instinct for drama and conflict help make him a fantastic concerto writer and a symphonist of at least more than passing interest. If you analyze the music, you find links to the post-Beethoven symphonic tradition, but the similarities function more as analogies than anything else. Lees's shapes are fantastic, in the sense of odd. While one can (and Lees does) talk of near-sonata form, one almost always finds the architecture subservient to a rhetorical or dramatic pattern. Nevertheless, no matter how unusual the result, one always gets the impression of great coherence in a Lees work.

The second symphony enjoyed the advantage of a wonderful recording from Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra in the fabled First Edition series. Fans of American music owe Whitney a great debt. Whitney commissioned composers from all over the world, but he got especially good work from Americans. Commissioning always involves a bit of luck as well as knowledge, and like Koussevitzky, Whitney seemed to know whom to ask. The Lees second moves with great power and manages to achieve both complexity and memorability. Like much of Lees's work, the themes seem to spring from a few basic intervals – notably, the upward minor second and the upward minor third – and their combination and recombination. This gives great unity throughout the entire work. However, many pieces do this without making much of an impression on listeners. After all, the technique is at least as old as Josquin Desprez. It's Lees's almost Beethovenian gift for hitting on ideas simultaneously simple, non-obvious, and extraordinarily fruitful allied with a love of strong, vivid contrast – an outlook inherently dramatic – that not only keeps the listener's attention but allows the symphony to reveal more and more of its argumentative outlines and details with further listening. Also as in Beethoven, Lees's rhythmic motives play as strong a role as his melodic ones.

The Symphony #3, premièred eleven years later in 1969, is another kettle of fish. Of all the works by Lees I've heard, this comes closest to the label "surrealist" (for many years, the label critics liked to apply to Lees's work). Indeed, most of the time, Lees seems to me the opposite of surrealist, in that his works cohere so logically. In his liner notes to the recording, the composer writes that with this symphony he consciously strove to create something new, more "relevant" to a world of "computers, satellites and space exploration." Whether that world would care about symphonies and whether, in the words of "As Time Goes By," "moonlight and love songs are never out of date" are, of course, other questions that we probably shouldn't argue about here. The point is that Lees thought this at the time of writing, and the symphony counts as one of his formally "farthest out." Three movements – fast-scherzo-slow – follow three "interludes" (as Lees designates them) for solo tenor sax and temple blocks. As I listened, the words of Yeats kept coming to mind: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." Of course, those words occur in a very tightly-controlled sonnet. In the movements proper, Lees deals with fragments and episodes with, as far as I can hear and unlike his second symphony, very little in common. It reminded me, in a strange way, of Sibelius's second, where the composer seems to lay out random pieces of colored glass and then makes patterns from them. The pieces have distinct shapes (I think immediately of an upward leap of a minor ninth that opens the first movement proper), but Lees makes no attempt to integrate these ideas or to draw relations among them, as he does in his second. Contrast is the main note here. A lot of wonderful things happen in this symphony (for example, a string glissando passage where the players divide into thirteen parts, a phantasmal, almost "toneless" scurrying in the strings that opens the scherzo), but a continuous argumentative thread doesn't seem anywhere about. Lees tries to keep things from disintegration by his interludes, which play with the same idea – so arresting in itself and in its tenor sax sound that you won't likely forget. As it turns out, it's a powerful bond.

As I write the above and listen to the first movement again, it strikes me that I may have overstated my case. At one point, Lees relates the upward leap of the minor ninth to the saxophone "fanfare" motive, and there's a contrasting downward leap of a major seventh – sort of that idea turned on its head. The sax fanfare seems to permeate quite a bit of the movement. But one still doesn't have the sense of continuation. Instead, the listener is struck by one contrast after another almost arbitrarily, as in a dream – or, for that matter, as in the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. It's worth adding that Lees in both the second and third symphonies explore territory not all that emotionally clear-cut. There's a duality, an ambiguity, as when a dream figure speaks a language you don't know and yet you understand the talk. It's like looking at a Magritte or an Escher: the image in sharp detail sending contradictory messages.

In the concluding slow movement, the fragmentation increases. Even the variations on the basic ideas move far from their originals, but usually not to the point of unrecognizability. However, one of them turns out to vary the sax fanfare, which I realized only after a couple of weeks of serious listening, so it's not quite so straightforward. Lees provides a "false ending" for the symphony. The tenor sax comes in, this time prepared for, leading one to expect a quick coda. Increasingly, however, ideas from earlier movements creep in and an integration begins to take place among all the movements and the interludes. That is, the thematic argument closes off in a satisfactory way. Rhetorically, it ends in the middle, like a stairway stepping off to a powdery, emotional nowhere. Enigmatic as all get-out and as intriguing as a sidewinder.

The fifth symphony of 1998 celebrates the first (and short-lived) Swedish settlement in the New World (present-day Delaware, they think). The symphony transcends the circumstances of its commission. I doubt anyone, if not told, would connect the music to the historical circumstances, although knowing them gives the listener another line of contemplation. It's a one movement-symphony but, as usual with these things, falls into three large subsections, analogous to a three-movement symphony. The first charges along with the energy of a toccata. The second assumes an elegiac tone, and, with a distant fanfare in chords from the horns, seems to eulogize heroism. A long "corkscrew" idea in the strings (much of it two-part writing) unwinds with increasing intensity. The strings have the last word, before the first main idea of the third movement in mixed and odd meters breaks in, dominated by brass and percussion. It's exuberant, it's also nervous and jittery as a thoroughbred. Episodes of contrasting character – chorale, grotesque allegrettos – intervene, before the first idea reasserts itself and a blazing conclusion caps the whole thing off. Lees describes the last movement as "joyous," and I'll certainly grant him that at the end, but it's overall just as emotionally slippery as almost every other piece of his I've heard.

Lees intended his piano-and-orchestra Etudes, like those of Chopin and Debussy, simultaneously as demonstrations of technique and as real music. You can read about the technical workout Lees puts the piano soloist through in the composer's liner notes. It's basically a five-movement suite. Despite the virtuosity it demands, it's not a concerto as we've come to think of the form – that is, virtuosity allied with a symphonic motion. The movements are basically epigrammatic – pungent ideas, varied to be sure, but not coalescing into an extended argument. There's no room. The longest piece doesn't hit six minutes. Each idea makes an immediate impression and you never have to wonder where you are in a movement. If I had to choose, I'd pick the fourth movement as my favorite, though it's not the flashiest. It is, however, the one that comes closest to a symphonic journey, where moods transform and you end up somewhere other than the point of departure. Each movement, however, brims full with Lees's sense of concerto-theater. Again, his normal, natural point of view strikes me as a dramatic one.

The performers are at least credible. They hit the notes, and they give a good idea of the stature of these pieces. One doesn't bemoan lost opportunities. Gunzenhauser in the fifth symphony does better than that, since he begins to give us an individual take on the music. But these are tough works to comprehend emotionally, which doesn't negate the considerable interest and vitality of the musical ideas, and we'll probably wait a long time before anybody has their measure.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz.