Benjamin Lees: Composer who eschewed modernism in favour of a gritty, muscular clarity

The American composer Benjamin Lees had the bad luck to reach his stylistic maturity at a time when contemporary composition was besotted by modernism; more traditional idioms were regarded as passé. But Lees stuck to his guns, writing music he could be proud of, and when the serialist hegemony fell away he had a substantial corpus of solidly crafted works to show for his perseverance, written in a style that married gritty muscularity with formal clarity. The critic Steve Schwartz described it as "a dramatic neoclassicism, free of Stravinskian pastiche, darker than Piston, more direct than Diamond".

Lees always expressed himself directly, in words or notes, and explained: "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."

Lees was one of several Western composers born in China (among the others are Boris Blacher, John Fernström and Jacob Avshalomov): he first saw the light of day on 8 January 1924, in Harbin, Manchuria. When he was 18 months old, his parents, of Russian descent, moved to San Francisco and Americanised their name to Lees.

When his family moved to Los Angeles in 1939 he continued his piano studies there with Marguerite Bitter, a prominent local musician; it was at this point that he began to compose. Enlisting in 1942, he undertook jungle training in the Florida Everglades, but an undiagnosed disease brought about his discharge after a year.

After the War he resumed his education, first at the University of Southern California (1945-48), where his teachers included Halsey Stevens for composition, Ernest Kanitz for harmony and Ingolf Dahl for basic orchestration. All three were respected composers, although Lees felt that the "chemistry was simply not there and it was a case of mutual disinterest".

His next teacher – another composer, George Antheil, the self-styled "bad boy of music" – brought a complete contrast. Antheil heard some of Lees's music and was so impressed that he took him under his wing, working for almost five years without any payment.

Public recognition first came in 1953 with an award from the Fromm Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship following a year later (another came in 1966). He used the money to remove himself from the American scene to allow his style to develop and, with his wife, settled in Longpont-sur-Orge, a village south of Paris, staying there in 1954-55 and 1957-61, spending the interim periods in Vienna and Helsinki.

"In France I met the pillars of the Surrealist movement: Marcel Du-champ, Man Ray, Magritte, Max Ernst, Tristan Tzara, Salvador Dalí et al," he said. "I saw and absorbed, and also indulged in conversation with many of these incredible innovators ... It opened new avenues of thought. The elements of the bizarre, the unexpected, the disturbing, the transference of images, humour, the ridiculous, the provocative and sexual – all these I felt could be relevant in my own approach to composition."

When in 1962 he returned to the US, his portfolio contained a good number of large-scale works, incuding a one-act opera to his own text, The Oracle (1956), the first two (1953, 1958) of his five symphonies and other orchestral works, not least the First Piano Concerto (1955), Violin Concerto (1959) and Concerto for Orchestra (1959).

Lees began a distinguished career as a teacher, with professorships in composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (1962-64 and 1966-68) and, in New York, at Queens College (Associate Professor, 1964-66), the Manhattan School of Music (1972-74) and the Juilliard School (1976-77). He was writing music all the while, usually to commission: in 1963 an oboe concerto for John de Lancie, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra; in 1976 the Passacaglia for Orchestra for Antal Doráti and the National Symphony Orchestra; in 1994 Echoes of Normandy for solo tenor, organ, pre-recorded tape and orchestra commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The title of the Fourth Symphony, Memorial Candles, commissioned and premiered by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1985, suggested that Lees's Jewish origins were important to him; but he had little time for religious observance.

The Baroque principle of the concerto grosso – where a concertante group is contrasted with the orchestra – had been revived in the 1930s but had fallen out of favour again. Lees now made the format his own, writing a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in 1964, a Concerto for Woodwind Quintet and Orchestra for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (1976), and his Concerto for Brass Choir and Orchestra, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony in 1983. To his surprise they became some of his most widely performed works.

Lees recently donated his archive – manuscripts, sketches, scores, letters, photographs, articles, recordings and posters – to Yale. But it was no closing of the books: he continued to compose, writing a Third Piano Concerto, premiered by the British pianist Ian Hobson, and was at work on a Second Violin Concerto. He described himself in an email not long before he died as "busy as fleas in a circus".

Benjamin George Lisniansky (Lees), composer: born Harbin, China 8 January 1924; married 1948 Luba Leatrice Banks (one daughter); died Glen Cove, Long Island 30 May 2010.

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