A Christmas Gift, Coupled with a Timeless Gem

14/12/2017

Eric Benjamin, Beethoven: Canton Symphony Chorus, Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz (conductor) / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Canton Symphony Orchestra, Umstattd Hall, Canton, Ohio, 3.12.2017. (TW)

Eric Benjamin – The Secret Gift (2013)

Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C Minor

Called ‘Gifts of Fate, this program by the Canton Symphony Orchestra at first seemed an arbitrary, even peculiar pairing of disparate works. American composer Eric Benjamin’s The Secret Gift (2013) is a Christmas-themed symphonic poem of sorts, which might seem odd coupled with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But by evening’s end, the connections were clear.

Benjamin, who is musical director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic and the Alliance Symphony, named his work after a 2010 book by Ted Gup, who chronicled the generosity of Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone, a clothing store owner in Depression-era Canton. In December 1933, Stone was moved by a church performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that he placed an ad in The Canton Repository asking those in dire need to send him a letter describing their circumstances. Ultimately under the pseudonym ‘B. Virdot,’ Stone sent small monetary gifts—$5 to $150—to destitute families. Those amounts are pittances by today’s standards, but during the Great Depression, they were a godsend.

Conducted with amiable panache by CSO assistant conductor Matthew Jenkins Jaroszewicz, Benjamin’s work turned out to be a remarkable achievement of poignant storytelling. Evoking a Dickensian setting, the music feels like a lavish film score leavened with variations on 19th-century English Christmas carols such as ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’, and ‘Here We Come A-wassailing’. The composer also includes imaginative passages—reminiscent of Gershwin’s melodic sensibilities—describing various events and individuals in Gup’s book.

In his program notes, Benjamin wrote of some styles he used: ‘Rumanian folk music for the account of Sam’s childhood there, early jazz for his arrival in and beginnings of his career in the U.S., something vaguely like cantorial music to underline his orthodox Jewish roots and the Talmudic teaching on social justice.’

Vintage photographs of 1930s Canton—people, places, and letters sent to Sam Stone—were projected on the large screen above the orchestra, and Benjamin himself made an especially warm and empathetic narrator. The work was also peppered with narrations drawn from citizens’ letters to B. Virdot, beautifully spoken by a cast of 11 gifted actors directed by Craig Joseph. In addition to the excellent contributions from the orchestra, the spiritual dynamic was further augmented by the dramatic sonority of the Canton Symphony Chorus.

While Benjamin’s music is often heartrending, it’s never mawkish. Beyond a deeply emotive remembrance of Stone’s philanthropic heart and the lives it graced, the score’s lyricism transcends its time period to resonate as a clarion call for compassion and hope in any era or circumstance.

And who could possibly doubt the timelessness of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann? He reminded the audience to reflect on the enormity of Beethoven’s desperate efforts to battle through his increasing deafness: the composer once declared in a letter that he was determined to ‘seize Fate by the throat; it shall not bend or crush me completely.’

Hence the unforgettable opening (‘Thus Fate knocks at the door’, Beethoven reportedly said) that proceeds through a vast terrain of emotions—a heroic journey that arrives at the equally unforgettable finale. Zimmermann’s reading was consistently brisk and urgent, yet tempered with thrilling alacrity. The aural clarity and power of the orchestra suggested life’s most compelling forces.

In his Fifth, Beethoven’s developments from C minor to C major can be rightly regarded as a metaphor for darkness giving way to light. His music is a gift for the ages, an exhilarating symbol of human spirit. Benjamin’s work proclaims a similar bent-but-not-broken message. Hearing them together was an experience both sobering and joyous.

Tom Wachunas 

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