Review By Glyn Pursglove,MusicWeb International,June 2010
Lees was born in China, brought up and educated in California. From 1949 to 1954 he studied with George Antheil who acted as a largely unpaid tutor out of respect for Lees’ abilities. From the mid-1950s onwards his works began to be performed quite widely and by distinguished performers, without his ever perhaps becoming a ‘major’ figure in American music. A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to spend much of his time in Europe in the second half of the 1950s. Never a composer who aspired to be thought of as especially ‘American’, these European years were important for Lees, years when he could evolve his own voice without direct involvement in the style wars of American music. Prokofiev, Bartók and Shostakovich became important exemplars for
In a 1987 interview with Bruce Duffie, when the interviewer enquired “in a great number of your own works, you have used the traditional approach—Slonimsky calls it accessibility—which makes your music attractive to conductors and soloists. Is this something you have consciously built in to your pieces, or is this an outgrowth of what you wanted to write innately?”, Lees answered as follows: “The accessibility, I suppose, comes from something that George Antheil told me when I was studying with him. He put it very succinctly, and it was one of those catch words which stuck in the memory. He said, “Music must have a face. A theme must have a face, something which is really recognizable, both to you and to the listener.” And again, it matters not what style a person writes in, but it cannot simply be amorphous. It cannot be really formless and it cannot be merely notes spinning”. Certainly Lees’ music never seeks to exclude listeners, or to make their life needlessly difficult by the flaunting of the composer’s ‘cleverness’. Nor, on the other hand, does he write down, or write to please some lowest common denominator of taste and demand. Like any substantial composer, Lees seems always to have been true to himself, to have been serenely unworried, so far as one can judge, by matters of mere fashion or popularity. Honesty, indeed, has always struck me as one of the hallmarks of his work, a directness of communication. It seems appropriate that he should once have said that “there are two kinds of composers. One is the intellectual and the other is visceral. I fall into the latter category. If my stomach doesn’t tighten at an idea, then it’s not the right idea.”
Most attention—and perhaps rightly so—has been paid to Lees’ orchestral works, not least his five symphonies. But, as this disc demonstrates well and clearly, he also had plenty to say in that other ‘classical’ form—the string quartet, of which he wrote six. This rewarding Naxos disc contains three of them in fine performances by the Cypress Quartet, for whom the fifth and the sixth were written.
The Cypress Quartet begin their programme with
Review By Robert R. Reilly,InsideCatholic.com,December 2009
I don’t want to bid the year farewell without recognizing another enterprising “American Classics” CD from Naxos. This one contains String Quartets Nos. 1, 5, and 6 by Benjamin Lees (b. 1924), rivetingly performed by the Cypress String Quartet (8.559628). I do not know much about this man’s music, which is why I am so deeply grateful to Naxos for the introduction. Now I want to know more. These are extraordinary, deeply thoughtful, intellectually intriguing, intense chamber works that so fit their medium that they seem quintessential. I am not at all surprised that Chamber Music America chose Quartet No. 5 as one of the 101 Great Ensemble Works. If you have made it past the Britten and Shostakovich quartets, here are works that will fully engage you. Lees