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January 11, 2010

george.jpegI'm constantly struck by the ways in which music, more than any other artform, is capable of stirring up deep personal memories. It's also interesting to see how those memories mutate over time.

I as reminded of this once again over the weekend at a San Francisco Symphony concert featuring two works by the British composer George Benjamin who is currently in residency at the Symphony. The conductor was David Robertson.

One of my most powerful memories as a youngster was singing in Jubilation, a piece written by the Benjamin in 1985 for orchestra and children's choir. My school choir joined forces with ensembles from other local schools to sing in the piece. We performed the work in Canterbury Cathedral with the composer conducting. I was about 11 at the time and have vivid recollections of standing amid what seemed like a vast army of children belting out Benjamin's sustained notes to syllables from the solfege system -- "mi, re, so fah, doh!" I was terrified of missing the high C at the climax of the piece. Our teacher worked with us for weeks on trying to hit that note in tune. When we performed the piece, the sound, at least as it has reverberated in my mind across the intervening decades, was nothing short of cataclysmic.

So it was a real treat, and a slight disappointment, to hear the piece performed again on Friday. The choir was from one of the local music-oriented schools, The Crowden School. But it was much smaller in size than the ensemble I had sung with in the 80s. As a result, even though the singing was lovely -- and the instrumental and harmonic nuances of Benjamin's intricate score rang clearly -- the piece came across without as much force as it should have. Jubilation sounded more apologetic than jubilant. I don't know whether my memory had inflated the piece of music to a more imposing size than it really was, or whether it genuinely lacked the power I recalled.   

Backstage after the concert, I went to say hello to the composer. Looking dapper but casual in beige slacks, a pale blue shirt, a light brown jacket, brown shoes and a lemon yellow tie with his close-cropped white hair sweeping back from his round, boyish face, Benjamin looked more like a self-effacing community college professor than a widely respected composer being celebrated by a major symphony orchestra. Benjamin seemed happy to hear about my experience of singing his piece way back when. I was surprised to hear that Jubilation has only received a couple of other performances since it was written. The composer didn't seem to mind the smaller choir in SF Symphony's performance -- "they did a good job," he generously said (his voice is soft, high-pitched and sing-songy). I got the impression that he thought the piece worked just as fine with a small choir as a big one. But perhaps he was just being kind.

Then we shook hands and he went off down the hall to meet composer John Adams, who was waiting for him with his coat over his arm and a bright red scarf around his neck.


  • Without distracting from this delightfully personal account, I must confess that it never occurred me that the British would have different spellings for at least some of the scale steps. I have always assumed that the American standard was: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. The idea of the scale beginning with Homer Simpson's favorite expletive fills me with no end of amusement!

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At January 11, 2010 at 1:55 PM  

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