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    Wednesday, July 29, 2009

    Naxos CD Released: Lees Quartets 1,5 and 6

    Lees Quartets 1,5 and 6
    We are happy to spread the news this week that our recording of the 1st, 5th and 6th Quartets by Benjamin Lees has been officially released on the Naxos label. Read on to find out everything you'd ever want to know about the disc, and order or download it today at any of these fine online retailers!

    The highly personal style of American composer Benjamin Lees lends his music the lofty grandeur and sardonic wit, not only of Shostakovich but also of the Cubist and Surrealist artists, all of whom he so admires. Lees, who also shares Britten’s refined sense of harmony, delights in contrasts and surprises, enthralling the listener at every turn from the lyrical to the burlesque, the romantic to the brusque. His fifth string quartet was chosen by Chamber Music America as one of its 101 Great Ensemble Works.

    String Quartet No. 1 was completed in 1952 and given its première in Los Angeles in 1953. The piece received the first Fromm Foundation Award, and in 1954 was given its New York première by the legendary Budapest String Quartet. Writing of the performance, the music critic of the New Yorker Magazine Winthrop Sargeant remarked “Mr Lees’ quartet proved to be a very well-knit affair, quite fresh and original in style, and beautifully written for the instruments. I liked particularly its slow movement, which seemed to me one of the most distinguished things of its sort by a contemporary composer that I had heard in some time.” In 1955 the work was played by the Juilliard Quartet at Tanglewood.

    The quartet is laid out in three movements—Moderato, Adagietto, and Allegro vivo. The first movement consists of two distinct subjects, the first brisk and energetic and the second more lyrical, both receiving formal developmental treatment. The second movement also has two distinct subjects, opening with a cantabile and moving steadily to the second Poco meno section. The movement as a whole is quite transparent and uncomplicated in its structure, ending quietly and calmly. The third movement is basically a rondo, opening with an energetic first subject that undergoes a slight development and enters a transition leading to a second subject marked Cantabile. This is expanded somewhat and leads to a transition back to the first subject. A development occurs followed by a brief transition to a third subject marked Espressivo. All subjects now undergo some development, a transition leads to the re-statement of the first subject and a spirited coda brings the movement to a close.

    String Quartet No. 5 was completed in late summer 2001 for the Cypress String Quartet. It was commissioned by the Quartet as part of its Call & Response series. For this series, the Quartet selects two works from the standard quartet repertoire and commissions a third work that is to be based on inspiration derived from the two older works. Asked to respond to the quartets of Shostakovich and Britten, Benjamin Lees writes the following:

    “I was drawn to Shostakovich when I was still in my early teens. His music always contained unexpected twists and turns both harmonically and rhythmically, and his sharp sardonic wit appealed to my own sense of humor. Since my taste in painting favored the Cubists and Surrealists, his music mirrored the elements found in those two schools. Shostakovich exposes raw nerves even as he suddenly reverses field and becomes jocular, only to draw the listener up short again with thematic material of somber beauty. The element of surprise is never far away. What appeals to me about Britten is his extremely refined sense of harmony and the ability to simply suggest a tonality before sliding away from it into a hazy suggestion of another. He can, briefly, whip into a full-blown tonal scale and then, quite suddenly, slide away into a harmonic haze. It always manages to keep the listener off balance.”

    Lees’s Quartet No. 5 is in four movements. The first is marked Measured and is the most complex of the four. The movement is a continuous development of three contrasting elements. The second movement is marked Arioso. It opens with a lengthy dialogue between the two violins in the nature of a soliloquy. The aura of lyricism permeates this mood. It begins to alter abruptly with an outburst from the cello marked “menacing”. As the section loses power and grows quieter the two violins once again begin their romantic dialogue, this time at the very top of their instruments’ register. It is like two swallows turning over and over in air, arcing and tumbling. The third movement is the shortest of all, barely two minutes in duration. Marked Quick, quiet, it is like a zephyr, barely audible in manner. One could compare it, perhaps to a silken thread. The four players are asked to execute all this as fast and silently as possible and ending, if you will, in a puff of smoke. Movement number four is an explosive one and is marked, appropriately, Explosive. It is somewhat akin to a fughetto; the first statement is by the viola, taken up by the cello, second violin and then first violin. A section markedSlower, broader is opened by the cello and quickly echoed by the other three members. A demonic interlude leads directly to a new section distinguished by sharp, brusque figures taken up by the viola, then cello and finally the two violins. A restatement of the first section with the cello coming in first followed by the other three players leads quite suddenly and abruptly into the opening fughetto. One by one the four instruments echo the subject, extend it a bit and then bring it all to an explosive close.

    String Quartet No. 5 was chosen by Chamber Music America for inclusion in its list of 101 Great Ensemble Works.

    String Quartet No. 6 was written for the Cypress String Quartet and completed in January, 2005. The work comprises four movements. A composer’s fingerprint always remains the same no matter how different one work is from another, nor how many years separate each piece. The genre may range from orchestral pieces to piano concerti to operas. No matter. The fingerprint is there. In each of the four movements there are unexpected turns and resolutions. The opening of the first movement is dark, agitated, with no hint of the sudden lyrical subject that seems to appear without preparation. A slight development leads to an intense section, then back again to a quieter episode. The movement gains momentum with sharply accented passages and ends quite forcefully. The second movement is introduced with a series of quiet, calm chords. A subject in the cello is picked up by the other three instruments and the subsequent development dissolves into an episode of sharp accents. A somewhat whimsical subject appears, leading gradually to the elements of the quieter opening and then to the calm, sustained chords. The third movement, marked Quiet, eerie, is quite short. Sudden outbursts are followed by flecks of pizzicati. Quick legato passages whiz by in a unison pianissimo, rise suddenly to a fortissimo and end the movement on a triple pianissimo played pizzicatoby all four players. The fourth movement contains a few surprises. The cello opens with a calm, unhurried statement and is joined by the first violin. An unexpected outburst, brings on a restatement of the cello line. Then, another outburst and another restatement, only this time a totally different element appears, a burlesca. All four instruments engage in a prolonged tongue-in-cheek exchange until the broad outlines of the opening statement appear, this time giving way to a somewhat faster call and response exchange. The final outlines of the drive to the end appears in the form of turbulent string passages that gather momentum, becoming motoric, more violent, and finally coming to the climax, observing the marking in the score “as fast as possible”.

    Benjamin Lees is an American composer of Russian parents. He was born in Harbin China on January 8, 1924 and came to the U.S. in 1925. At age five Lees began piano lessons and his studies of harmony and theory began in his teens, along with his first efforts at composition. After military service (1942-5), Lees entered the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studied with Halsey Stevens, Ernst Kanitz and Ingolf Dahl. From 1949 until 1954 he studied with George Antheil. In 1953 Lees' Sonata for Two Pianos and String Quartet No.1 were among those works to win the first Fromm Music Foundation Award. 1954 was a pivotal year for Lees; the first significant performance of his work occurred when the NBC Symphony performed Profiles for Orchestra. That same year he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. This enabled him to leave the U.S and travel to Europe, eventually settling in a small village near Paris. His aim was to remain uninfluenced by the turbulent American scene in order to create his own style. He remained in Europe for seven years. During those years he became the first recipient of the Copley Foundation Award and received a Fulbright Fellowship. His Piano Concerto No.1 and his Symphony No 2 received their first performances. Later Lees received the UNESCO Award for String Quartet No.2 and the Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal in London, given for the first time to a non-British composer.

    In 1962 he returned to the U.S where he was appointed a Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. There he remained until 1964, when he joined the faculty of Queens College. It was while at Queens College that Lees composed Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (1964), a work that to date has had more than 80 performances by over 35 orchestras. In 1966 Lees returned to the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, remaining there until 1968. There he composed Piano Concerto No.2. Its first performance was given by Gary Graffman with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Erich Leinsdorf and Lees received his second Guggenheim Fellowship. One year later he completed his Symphony No.3,and in 1970 Medea in Corinth, his one-act musical drama, was given its première at the Purcell Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. In 1976 three Bicentennial commissions received their first performances: Passacaglia for Orchestra; Variations for Piano and Orchestra; and the Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Orchestra. Lees then produced two song cycles, a score for the San Francisco Ballet, a work inspired by Alexander Calder's sculptures called Mobiles, and in 1982 the Double Concerto.His Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra received its world première in March 1983 by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In 1984 Lees completed Portrait of Rodin,his second commission from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra each of its seven sections based on a particular work by the French sculptor.

    The Dallas Symphony Orchestra also commissioned the featured work on this recording. the monumental Symphony No.4 "Memorial Candles" for mezzo-soprano and violin soloist with orchestra, written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. The three-movement, hour-long work was given its première in 1985 with soloists Zehava Gal and Pinchas Zukerman to widespread critical acclaim. Within a year of the première it was performed by the Atlanta, Winnipeg, and Houston symphony orchestras, as well as the London Philharmonia and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Lees' Symphony No 5, Odyssey II for solo piano, and String Quartet No.4 followed. In 1991 the Pittsburgh Symphony commissioned a concerto for its principal French horn player, William Caballero and, in 1994 Echoes of Normandy, was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy during World War II. Lees most recent works include two commissions by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo,Constellations, commemorating the 700th anniversary of the Grimaldi Dynasty, and the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, to be premièred in Monte Carlo December 1999. His Piano Trio #3 ("Silent Voices"), was commissioned by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C. and premièred there May 31, 1998. The USHMM has commissioned yet another work, Night Visions for unaccompanied cello to be premièred in the 1999/2000 season. Observance, a piece for string orchestra commissioned by the New Jersey Intergenerational Orchestra will have its première February 11,1999 at the United Nations, New York.

    Cypress String Quartet Season Calendar