Eric Benjamin served as principle guest conductor of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic during the 1996-97 concert season at the end of which he was named music director. A native of Vermont, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music and taught high school in the Boston area until an appointment to the conducting staff of the Akron Symphony brought him to northeast Ohio.
I certainly had no idea where this conducting career business was going to take me when I went back to NEC to earn a master’s degree in orchestral conducting in 1987. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to lead orchestras and choruses in some of the music with which I had fallen madly in love since I became a classical music nut as a child. Previous concentrated study certainly helped—with Carl St. Clair at NEC, with Gunther Schuller, and at the Tanglewood Music Center with several teachers, including Leonard Bernstein. But the actual experience of programming, rehearsing, and performing with adept musicians season after season has been the real education. My twenty years with the Tuscarawas Philharmonic have taught me some great lessons about music, group psychology, and…humility.
"Eric" is an old Scandinavian term for a leader and "Benjamin" is Hebrew, meaning "son of my right hand". Seems only natural that I should want to become a conductor.
I came to the job with some relevant experience—the high school orchestra I conducted in Newton, Massachusetts consisted of a precocious bunch of young people, several of whom now occupy important roles in the music world. And my eleven years spent with the Akron Symphony and Akron Youth Symphony were filled with hard lessons and moments of enormous gratification. A highlight of the 2016-17 season has been the renewal of my association with these organizations as I was invited to be associate conductor, again leading the youth symphony and conducting education and pops concerts.
My first stint with the Akron Symphony also provided me with the opportunity to arrange music for a professional ensemble and to make some substantial efforts at composing original works. The practical need for a particular kind of piece for a program provided incentive, and my early efforts were met with approval, so I brought that tool kit with me when I took up with the Tuscarawas Philharmonic. Having myself on staff as an in- house arranger has allowed the orchestra to be more adaptable in programming, especially in concerts of a more popular nature—Yuletide, Celtic, and Country concerts, to name a few. Original works and arrangements have facilitated collaborations with such artists and groups as Alex Bevan, Elizabeth Estes, Rik Swarzwelder, Akron's MacConmara Academy of Irish Dance, and others. This season, the Philharmonic will welcome the return of Broadway legend Franc D'Ambrosio who will be joined by the Philharmonic Chorus and Children's Chorus in the premiere of my newly orchestrated version of "Franc D'Ambrosio's Christmas in New York".
Other recent and new projects in the offiing include a commission from Mount Union for a piece for brass choir, and for next season, a work to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Canton Symphony. This December, that orchestra will perform for a second time The Secret Gift—my 2013 setting for narrator, chorus, and orchestra of Ted Gup's moving account of his grandfather's anonymous philanthropy in Canton during the Depression. Our St. Patrick's Day celebration later this season will feature a new work entitled A Tale Worth the Tellin' prepared in collaboration with my old friend and colleague Richard Travers.
"Learning by doing" begins by admitting, at least to yourself, what you don't know and staying honest about mistakes—they are, of course, the best teachers.
A relatively recent addition to my schedule has been that of university lecturer. Teaching has always been part of my job description—it’s a natural part of the conductor's role—but lecturing in a classroom is different and, I still think, a very difficult job to do well. I started out in 1977 as a high school teacher and I have returned to the classroom at various times since—at the University of Akron, Dover City Schools, and Mount Holyoke College. I now serve as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Mount Union, working with colleagues such as James Perone, Susan Haddox, and Elaine Anderson, to name a few. Also, at Kent State Tuscarawas, I teach a course (open to the public!) in music, listening, cultural history, perception, cognition, and life in general. Every semester is a new experiment in trying to make music a more integrated experience for students, regardless of previous musical training and cultural background.
Add to that my work with the Tuscarawas Philharmonic Chorus, the Children's Chorus, the camps, and the Honor Band, and I am leading a full life as a musician doing what I began to prepare for thirty years ago when I started graduate-level conducting studies, and even further back, when I was in the eighth grade and first began to dream about following my love of music into a career. I'm not great at planning and am grateful to have people like Barb Moore and Sallie Stroup to help plot that route, but I am pretty good at dreaming. I'll keep doing that here, with the Tuscarawas Philharmonic.