Lees was born Benjamin George Lisniansky in Harbin, Manturia, of Russian-Jewish descent. Lees was still an infant when his family emigrated to the United States and settled in California. He began piano lessons at 5 with Kiva Ihil Rodetsky of San Francisco and started composing as a teenager. When he was seven years old, he became an American citizen.
After serving in the United States military, Lees studied composition under Halsey Stevens, as well as with Kalitz and Ingolf Dahl, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Composer George Antheil, impressed by Lees' compositions, offered further tutelage; this period lasted four years, at the end of which Lees won a Fromm Foundation Award.
The receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 allowed him to live in Europe, realizing his goal of developing his individual style away from current fashions in the American art music scene and resulting in a number of mature and impressive works. Returning to the United States in 1961, he divided his time between composition and teaching at several institutions. These included the Peabody Conservatory (1962–64, 1966–68), Queens College (1964–66), the Manhattan School of Music (1972–74), and the Juilliard School (1976–77).
Lees rejected atonalism and Americana in favor of classical structures. Niall O'Loughlin writes in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "From an early interest in the bittersweet melodic style of Prokofiev and the bizarre and surrealist aspects of Bartók's music, he progressed naturally under the unconventional guidance of Antheil." Lees' music is rhythmically active, with frequently changing accents and meter even in his early works, and is known for its semitonal inflections in melody and harmony.
In 1954, the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed his Profiles for Orchestra on a national radio broadcast. Notable works include Symphony No. 4: Memorial Candles, commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1985 to commemorate the Holocaust, and Symphony No. 5: Kalmar Nyckel, written in 1986 to honor the founding of Wilmington, Delaware. (Kalmar Nyckel was the name of the ship that first carried the original settlers from Sweden to what would become Wilmington.) His 1998 Piano Trio no. 2, "Silent Voices" was written in Palm Springs.
Lees received a Grammy nomination for Kalmar Nyckel in 2003, following release of a recording by the German orchestra Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Stephen Gunzenhauser. He lost to Dominick Argento.
Awards and honors
- 1953: Fromm Foundation Award
- 1954: Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1955: Copley Medal
- 1956: Fulbright Fellowship
- 1958: UNESCO Award, Sir Arnold Bax Society Medal
- 1966: Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1985: Lancaster Symphony Orchestra's Composer's Award
- 2003: Grammy Nomination
- National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.
- String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 and 6 (Naxos)
- Complete Violin Works of Benjamin Lees (Albany)
- Concerto for French Horn and Orchestra (New World)
- Violin Sonata No. 2 (Polystone)
- Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (VoxBox, EPR)
- Prologue, Capriccio and Epilog (CRI)
- Symphonies No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5, Etudes for Piano & Orchestra (Albany)
- Symphony No. 4: Memorial Candles (Naxos)
- Concerto No. 2 for Piano & Orchestra (Albany)
- Concerto No. 1 for Piano & Orchestra (Pierian)
- Piano Trio No. 2: Silent Voices (Albany)
- Passacaglia for Orchestra (Delos)
- Piano Sonata No. 4, Mirrors, Fantasy Variations (Albany)
- Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra (conducted by Igor Buketoff)
- O'Loughlin, Niall. "Lees, Benjamin". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001), 29 vols. ISBN 0-333-60800-3.
- Obituary in The Guardian
- Benjamin Lees: Composer who eschewed modernism in favour of a gritty, muscular clarity
- "Benjamin Lees Biography". Boosey & Hawkes, Inc. Retrieved 2008-08-11.
- O'Loughlin, New Grove (2001), 14:467.
- Fox, Margalit. (2010, June 7). Benjamin Lees, 86, Versatile Classical Composer. The New York Times, p A-19
- Library of Congress data: LCCN 2009-535347
- Delta Omicron Archived January 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine