A life in music …

St. Albans native symphony conductor, classical composer

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By Ann Hawksby, Messenger correspondent

Messenger Contributor

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ALLIANCE, Ohio — Eric Benjamin’s first-ever taste of classical music turned into an insatiable appetite.

Growing up in St. Albans, he knew right from the start that music would be his career choice. He also knew that music is a gift that’s meant to be shared.

After earning a Master’s degree in Orchestra and Conducting from the New England Music Conservatory of Boston, Benjamin, taught music theory and appreciation at Newton (Mass.) North High School for 15 years before delving into life as professional musician, an orchestra director, and a self-taught composer.

In Ohio, Benjamin has worked his way up from assistant conductor to conductor with the Akron Symphony and Youth Symphony Orchestras, Canton Youth Symphony Orchestra, Alliance Symphony Orchestra and the Tuscarawas Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonic Children’s Chorus.

He also was recognized for his award-winning radio show called “Klassical Kids,” a show that he produced and hosted that included some of his own musical compositions. He was named Composer of the Year by the Ohio Music Teachers Association.

“It is an immensely gratifying experience sharing some of the great music for orchestra with young people and amateurs,” said Benjamin, who now lives in Alliance, located in northeastern Ohio. “That we can take ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’ and have it come out sounding really good, with precision and power – this is the thrill of a lifetime.”

St. Albans roots

Benjamin was one of four children born to the late Walter and Elizabeth Benjamin, formerly of St. Albans.

His father was in his forties when Eric came home and announced that he had decided to take up the tuba.

“It was something that he never got to do when he was younger; he followed his dream, and I got kind of intrigued by that and started playing, too,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin eventually decided upon the baritone horn, and he and his father played in the Enosburg Falls Band, which was directed by Sterling Weed, who is famous in Vermont and the surrounding areas for his Sterling Weed Orchestra, and the work he did with directing local and school bands.

Benjamin said he is proud to have played in one of the oldest continuous bands in the country. He also enjoyed playing with the St. Albans Citizens Band.

“Resources were rather limited, in this area,” said Benjamin, who graduated in 1972 from Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans.

“I played rock music in some really terrible rock groups with friends in junior high, but I had a life-changing experience when I played baritone in a high school festival,” Benjamin said.

While he continues to listen to and enjoy Pop music, he donated all of his rock albums to the public library in St. Albans.

“I used the very modest classical recording selection there to hear more,” he said. “There were about eight records that I enjoyed; in fact I signed the same records out about a hundred times until the librarian finally told me to just take them. Nobody else had been using them and if anyone came in looking for them she would call me.”

“I read all their music books, and would go to Burlington to find more,” Benjamin said, “It was a fun time for me.

“I was very self-motivated and just wanted to learn everything I could. I did a lot of independent exploration.”

“I really cherished that private time, it was just very intense, and I still cherish the memories I have,” Benjamin said.

“I also spent a lot of his time listening to the wonderful music aired on CBC Radio, and later on Vermont Public Radio.”

“I do recall having some good teachers in Vermont,” Benjamin said.

“George Bedell brought a new level of precision and preparation to rehearsals of the Champlain Chorus, which I sang in for several years during high school,” Benjamin said.

“Actually, my siblings (Ann, Mark, and Beth) all sang at BFA and in our church choir,” he said.

“My cousin Herman Benjamin recently retired as the pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church,” he added.

“My sister Beth, who was very involved in theater, and I both ended up in musicals, which was just a great experience for us both.

“Verne Colburn was a great role model as an all-around musician who loved Classical and could play jazz piano,” Benjamin added.

“Donna Costas continues to be the voice in my head that asks about the sensitivity and musicality of the music making I’m hearing or doing,” he said.

“I am proud to say I had her as a music teacher in one context or another; in school, church, and private piano lessons, for 12 years,” he added.

During high school Benjamin also studied the trombone with Bob Wegness, who was also a music teacher at University of Vermont. After graduating Benjamin enrolled in an undergraduate program there.

“I just remember him telling me: “You don’t belong here, you’ve got to go someplace else,” said Benjamin.

Major influences

It was that advice that took him to the New England Conservatory of Music, and the influences of several conducting teachers including Gunther Schuller, Kurt Sanderling, Gustav Meier, and Leonard Bernstein.

“I always found Leonard Bernstein to be very intriguing, I would occasionally see him on TV, and was amazed at how he played the music, and that he wrote it,” Benjamin said.

“That inspired me to make my stabbing attempts at writing music.”

There were several summers that Benjamin returned to Vermont and offered weeklong music camp programs at Camp Missisquoi at Enosburg Falls.

That was also a learning experience for him as he wrote and arranged music with the children’s needs and the instruments they played in mind.

During the 11 years Benjamin worked with the Akron Symphony Orchestra, they discovered his writing abilities and he gained more experience.

“I did a fair amount of writing and arranging, and that was really important; I was learning and I was doing it,” he said.

Benjamin was one of the featured composers during a concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra in early October. The orchestra performed a piece he composed in 1999 for a Celtic Music and dance performance by the Akron Symphony Orchestra called “Marches and Airs.”

On Dec. 8, the Canton Symphony Orchestra will present a concert that has been a project Benjamin has been working on for the past year. “The Secret Gift” will feature 40 minutes of almost continuous music that he composed after being inspired by the book written by Ted Gup.

During the production, Gup will narrate the story of how one of his descendants provided anonymous momentary assistance to 75 families in Canton, Ohio during the Christmas holiday of 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression.

“This is a project that I started working on about a year ago, and I am excited that I could turn this into a way of celebrating this event that happened in Canton, Ohio, back in 1933.

“I worked on it in between teaching a college class, and after the semester ended in May I worked on it every minute of the day.” said Benjamin. “I finally finished it about two weeks ago.”

Benjamin said he will always remember the place where it all started.

He reflected upon the feelings that ran through his mind during his first performances. “I do recall the first time I sat in the band with my baritone horn during my seventh grade year at Church Street School and I couldn’t play for smiling because it sounded so good.”

“I have such great memories, and I do try to get back there to visit when I can,” Benjamin said. “I still call myself a Vermonter.”