One wintry night in the 1970s, Warren Benson urged his wife and four children to hurry up and get dressed, or they'd be late for a Christmas Eve service. No one really wanted to go, but they scurried into the car anyway. On the way to Rochester's First Unitarian Church, his daughter Kirsten Benson Hampton recalls, her father suddenly took a detour and pulled up to a movie theater. A few minutes later, his family sat down in their holiday finery to watch a double feature of Marx Brothers movies. "That's vintage Dad," Kirsten says, laughing. "We did crazy things."
Born in 1924, Benson grew up in Detroit, studied at the University of Michigan, and landed a job playing timpani in the Detroit Symphony. Before moving to Rochester, he taught music in Salonika, Greece (where he developed an appreciation for stuffed grape leaves) and served as a professor of percussion and composition at Ithaca College.
When he arrived at the Eastman School in 1967, where he taught composition until 1993, Benson had already taught himself how to write music.
"Whether people like it or not is not my concern," he said in a 2000 interview in his nasal, clipped speech. "As an artist you do your best and do what's a credit to the art rather than worry, 'Is everybody going to love me for this?'"
He received a number of awards, including a Guggenheim Composer Fellowship, many ASCAP Awards, and three commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote more than 100 works, including song cycles, works for percussion and winds, and a last-minute commission to mark the completion of Washington National Cathedral. At the time, President George H. W. Bush faced an international crisis in the Middle East: Iraq had just invaded and annexed Kuwait. Benson composed Meditation on 'I am for peace' for the Cathedral's dedication ceremony on September 29, 1990. Three years later, in 1993, the United States Marine Band performed again during the official signing of the Oslo Accords. As President William Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shook hands, Benson's Meditation played in the background.
The composer produced thought-provoking music that invites subjective interpretation. One of his noted band works, The Leaves Are Falling, begins with the steady beats of chimes, suggesting the passage of time. Juxtaposed against the relentless hammering, long, sustained notes from the brass and woodwinds hint at timelessness. Halfway through the 12-minute piece, players echo fragments of the chorale, Ein' feste Burg, the tune usually associated with the hymn, "A mighty fortress is our God." The mood alternates between despair and exhilaration, and then a series of forceful brass chords finally overwhelm and silence the tolling chimes. It's intense.
David Liptak, chair of the Eastman School's Composition Department, describes Benson's style as tonal, lyrical, and personal. "He staked out his own musical territory," he says. Liptak studied with Benson in the 1970s and compares him to American mavericks Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles.
RPO Principal Pops conductor Jeff Tyzik met Benson as a student. "I was almost laughed out of the composition department," Tyzik recalls, "because I didn't have the 'right' training." (Things are different now at the school, he adds.) Perhaps recognizing a kindred spirit, Benson took the inexperienced student under his wing. "Warren pulled things out of me in a gentle and caring way," Tyzik says, crediting the teacher as the first major influence in his successful career as a composer and arranger.
Benson held that music should be enjoyed and performed by everyone, even non-musicians. In 1988 he wrote a piece for the long-time stage manager of the Eastman Theatre, Merritt Torrey Jr. "Junior" didn't actually read music, but the composer was undeterred, telling him, "It's about time you performed something yourself."
Benson presented him with a five-minute piano work called "Not Without Merritt," which combined themes from the "Toreador Song" (a play on the name "Torrey") and "Chopsticks." The stage manager learned it, put on white tails, and played it in a concert. Still available in publisher Theodore Presser's catalog, it's described as a "humorous, even irreverent, recital gem."
Those who knew him say Warren Benson experienced life as an adventure full of amusements and delights. He loved to travel. He was really good at skipping stones, and one family member recalls that he made delicious omelets. Above all, he loved language. Benson regularly walked out of the Pittsford Public Library bearing armloads of cheap discards. For three decades, he led poetry sessions at First Unitarian Church of Rochester. He wrote poetry and fiction, and in 1999 he celebrated his 75th birthday with the publication of ...And My Daddy Will Play the Drums: Limericks for Friends of Drummers.
Growing old frustrated him a little, his daughter Kirsten says, because he could no longer physically do everything he wanted to. But he felt completed, she hopes, by the success of his children and grandchildren and the achievements of his students. "He enveloped his students in a positive, nurturing atmosphere," says Jeff Tyzik, "and he always had a boyish gleam in his eye."
Warren Benson died at age 81 on October 6. He is survived by his wife, Patricia; his children, Dirk Benson, Kirsten Benson Hampton, Erika Leopold, and Sonja Allers; and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, October 29, at First Unitarian Church of Rochester, 220 South Winton Road.
Warren Benson is the subject of a bio-bibliography by Alan Wagner, published earlier this year by Edwin Mellen Press.
Brenda Tremblay is a producer and announcer for WXXI. She hosts radio concerts by the RPO on Classical 91.5 FM.