Saturday, February 22, 2003

Composer's visit warms singers

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] With the honors choir reflected in a mirror behind him, composer Tom Benjamin praises the performance of the Mason High School Honors Concert Choir. The group will perform one of his compositions Sunday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
MASON - The high school honors concert choir has rehearsed the piece dozens of times, but on Friday, "I Build A House" took on new meaning for the singers.

Its composer - Thomas Benjamin, a recent retiree of the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University - was present, spending more than an hour with the class, praising their performance, answering their questions and offering some opinions about songs they are preparing for competition.

"I've heard and worked with a lot of high school choirs over the years," he said after the rehearsal. "You really have what is looked for - the blend and the right balance."

The choir will use his feedback when it performs the four-movement "I Build A House" Sunday with the Hamilton Fairfield Symphony Orchestra and Choir at the David L. Belew American Masters concert.

It is Mason's first time participating in the series, said Paul Stanbery, the orchestra's executive director, who is conducting the Mason choir Sunday. The program also includes performances of Benjamin's "Chesapeake Suite" and "Great Miami Suite."

"We're always wondering what (composers) were thinking or how they put it all together and now we know," said Kimberly Bauer, 17, a junior. "It was exciting to hear what he was thinking, but it was kind of intimidating, too."

What: David L. Belew American Masters concert featuring the music of Thomas Benjamin
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Fairfield High School Performing Arts Center
Cost: $15 for general admission, $5 for senior citizens and students. Tickets can be purchased at the door.
The students and their teacher, Elaine Santos, asked Benjamin why he became a composer and where he gets his inspiration.

"The text really tells me what I need to write - it tells you the atmosphere, the tone and the emotion," Benjamin said when explaining his methods.

"I'm very careful when picking out the text. It has to speak directly to you."

The words to "I Build A House" were adapted from the Bible and from a Unitarian minister, Benjamin explained. It was written in 1996 for the Columbia Pro Cantare's theater opening in Columbia, Md.

Benjamin, who said he has written "a couple hundred" pieces and five books, told the class it took about three or four weeks to write the short score to "I Build A House," and a couple of months to complete the full score.

He is working on a two-hour opera that should debut in spring 2005.

The choir will rehearse again today and Sunday before the performance, which Benjamin will attend.

"What's really cool is singing something that's beautiful in the same room with the mind that created it," Stanbery said. "That inspires me."


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