Enough Already, Says Prolific Composer Lees


Composer Benjamin Lees has never been the darling of the avant garde. His conservative approach has won him a steady stream of commissions from symphony orchestras, but unlike Stravinsky and many academic American composers, Lees was never tempted to adopt the doctrinaire tenets of serialism--Schonberg’s atonal 12-tone system of composition that held sway in the United States after World War II.

“Even though everybody was writing in that style, serialism was easy to resist. The first time and fifth time and the 10th time I heard it, I felt it was stillborn. I tried the technique, but couldn’t do it. It was like making love to a corpse.”

Maintaining his personal, accessible style, the 67-year-old composer has survived to see his position vindicated.


“I was ostracized for many, many years. There is still a certain amount of resentment, especially from those who had written in the 12-tone system and then decided belatedly to return to more traditional styles. Now everyone applauds them as heroes.”

Lees will be in town this weekend town for the San Diego Symphony’s performance of his Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra, which will be performed Friday through Sunday at Copley Symphony Hall under music director Yoav Talmi. The large, extroverted work was written for the Dallas Symphony, which premiered it in 1983 under Eduardo Mata.

“The next day, the newspaper headlines were screaming about how the audience had reacted so enthusiastically to a new work,” Lees said. “It has proved to be one of those pieces that is usually received well by audiences, unless they are particularly conservative.”

There is nothing conservative, however, about Lees’ opinions. For starters, Lees firmly believes there are too many composers.

“I really wish there were a moratorium on composing and composers for 25 years. There simply are not enough orchestras around to play the music of composers alive and writing. At last count there were over 50,000 composers in the U.S. We are nearing the end of the 20th Century, and the audiences have hardly scratched the surface of works written in this century. God knows what will happen in the 21st Century!”

For aspiring composers, Lees has rather stark advice.

“I tell them they should write music only if, if they couldn’t, they would commit suicide. Composing should not be an urge but an absolute necessity. You can ‘express yourself’ in many other ways than musical composition.”


In Lees’ formative years, however, he was given greater encouragement than he is willing to dispense. After pursuing undergraduate music studies at USC, George Antheil, maverick American composer of the 1920s, took him under his wing.

“I was at a crossroads, and George was the doctor I needed at that time. He was eccentric, but it worked. He agreed to take me as a student only if I left the university, which, he claimed, hadn’t taught me anything. I worked with him for four years, one to three times a week.”

Antheil’s tutelage worked. After Lees’ first orchestral work, “Profile for Orchestra,” was played by the NBC Symphony on a 1954 broadcast, the budding composer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to work in France.

“My wife and I went to Europe for a year. As other grants came in, one year stretched into seven.”

When he returned to the United States, he taught composition, first at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, then at Queens College and the Juilliard School of Music. By 1973, he was able to devote all of his time to composition. His output includes 10 concertos, four symphonies, three string quartets and a single opera.

Lees’ Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra is unusual in that it uses the entire brass section as the concerto’s soloist. Favorable experiences with this type of composition--his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is his most popular orchestral work--encouraged him to write the brass section extravaganza.

“I also thought it would provide more opportunities for performance, since symphony orchestras would not have to employ outside soloists for a concerto that used its brass section.”

Although he has reached the age when his academic colleagues are enjoying retirement, Lees scoffs at the notion.

“Composers never retire. We work until we cannot hold the pencil any more. In his last days, a bedridden Stravinsky, for example, was attempting to orchestrate a Beethoven Quartet.”

Lees noted a particular benefit to longevity.

“I recall that the first time an audience stood up and cheered for the music of Edgar Varese, he was in his seventies. His comment was, ‘You just have to outlive the sons of bitches.’ He was right.”

* Benjamin Lees’ Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. The program also includes Schumann’s First Symphony, Stamitz’s G Major Flute Concerto and Faure’s Fantasie for Flute and Orchestra.