Review By Zach Carstensen,The Gathering Note,June 2010
Benjamin Lees’ death makes a recent release of three of his string quartets timely. The Cypress String Quartet recorded Lees’ First, Fifth and Sixth String Quartets for Naxos’ American Classics series. Lees wrote the fifth quartet in 1952, while the fifth and sixth hail from early in the 21st Century. While Lees is likely to be remembered (if at all) for two orchestral works—his symphony Memorial Candles and Violin Concerto—his string quartets, and this release, shouldn’t be discounted. Lees, who described himself as a visceral composer, demonstrates his visceral tendencies in each of the three quartets. Lees happily rejected the atonal fashions of the middle part of last century and later snubbed the minimalist pulse which closed the century. The
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 Lees’more....
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
Review By Phil Muse,Sequenza21.com,December 2009
American composer Benjamin Lees (b.1924) has a recognizable, highly personal style, notable for his formal clarity, his sonorities, his love of sharp contrasts and conflicts, his unexpected lyricism, and the integrity of his writing. As one can tell from a glance at the above dates, Lees has had an unusually long mature period, continuing to write music of remarkable vitality at an age when most composers have experienced a drying of creative juices, diminished stamina, or both.
Review By David Kettle,The Strad,November 2009
Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel is impressively passionate in the Fifth Quartet’s opening cello solo, and violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone dispatch its second movement’s intertwining solo lines with perfectly judged vibrato and a rich tone. The expansive, organ-like chords that launch the Sixth Quartet’s slow movement are beautifully pitched across the four players, and delivered with a carefully graded sound.
Review By Mark L Lehman,American Record Guide,November 2009
Review By Edith Eisler,Strings Magazine,October 2009
Commissioning a new work inspired by older works is an unusual way to champion living composers, but that’s how the Cypress String Quartet’s critically acclaimed Call & Response program works. The players—Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Finer, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello—select two standard repertoire quartets and “call” on composers to “respond” by writing a new one. Benjamin Lees’ (b. 1924) Fifth Quartet “responded” to Britten and Shostakovich and their influence is clear, especially Shostakovich’s, whose mood swings and contrasts also are characteristic of Lees’ own style.
It is one of three Lees quartets—Nos. 1, 5, and 6—included here.
Review By David Olds,The WholeNote,September 2009
Thanks to Naxos I may remember 2009 as “the summer of the string quartet”, with new releases by several intriguing and lesser known 20th century composers. The Cypress Quartet’s recording of Benjamin Lees’ String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 is a great introduction to the chamber music of a composer better known for Grammy nominated larger works, Symphony No. 5 and the Violin Concerto. The quartets date from 1952, 2002 and 2005 and give a good idea of where Lees was coming from—he was 28 when the first quartet was written—and where is now. Interestingly, the fifth was written for the Cypress Quartet’s “Call and Response” series, where a composer is asked to create a work influenced by two standard quartet pieces which would