Russell Bennett led - for some seven decades - an active professional life, both as orchestrator of others' music and as composer of a long list of concert works. He is reputed to have orchestrated all or part of some 300 Broadway and London productions between 1920 and 1976, and turned out hundreds of other published arrangements during his lifetime.
Spending the duration of his professional career almost entirely in New York City, Bennett made his acquaintance with those on both "sides" of the music business: Kern and Gershwin on one hand, and Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, and Reiner on the other. The great majority of his pieces were given New York premieres in the hands of prominent conductors, orchestras, and soloists.
Bennett made it clear to Kern and other songwriters that his personal preferences in music lay with the classics; though he was viewed as something of a "snob" by his Broadway associates for this reason, he saw the popular music industry as merely a money-making venture, with popular songs just another commercial commodity. This did not prevent him, however, from establishing a reputation for tastefulness, creativity, and restraint in his commercial scoring; for several decades he was acknowledged as the leading practitioner in his field.
-George J. Ferencz. Robert Russell Bennett: a Bio- Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1990. p. ix.
Bennett composed Rondo Capriccioso (1916), his first well-known composition, while living in the New York YMCA next door to flutist Brown Schoenheit, a member of Georges Barrere's flute class. The Rondo's first public performance was at the New York Flute Club. As Bennett later wrote, "The players could easily have been ranked one two, three, and four in the world, if flutists were tennis champs," for the flutists were Barrere, William Kincaid (later principal flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years), George Possell (top New York freelancer), and, according to Bennett scholar George Ferencz, possibly Lamar Stringfield, who became a good friend of Bennett's and a composer of numerous works, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. Soon after its 1922 publication, the Rondo Capriccioso was performed by flute clubs all around America. This recording is of that original version. Bennett made some revisions for a later edition published by Chappell in 1962, which is more familiar to today's flutists.
The Three Chaucer Poems (1926) are dedicated "to Percy E. Fletcher", who was the music director of His Majesty's Theatre in London. Sung here by a solo mezzo-soprano, Bennett indicates that it is "for women's voice or voices." It was composed and first performed by the Societe Musicale Independante in Paris, where Bennett, his wife, and daughter were living. In America it was performed in 1932 at the first Yaddo Festival of Contemporary Music in Saratoga Springs, NY. In December of that year a performance using women's voices was given in New York by the Women's University Glee Club. Bennett simultaneously produced a version with piano instead of string quartet.
Water Music (1937) was first performed on "Russell Bennett's Notebook", a weekly radio program on New York City's WOR. The station had its own small orchestra and staff musicians, who also performed on other shows. The quartet players for the 20 April, 1941, broadcast were drawn from this ensemble. The first concert performance was by the Walden Quartet (members of the Cleveland Orchestra) in 1945 at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Columbia University in New York. Bennett said that he wrote it one day when he "stayed home from a ball game.” The music is based on the famous "Sailors' Hornpipe", but soon becomes a witty and quite useful compendium of modernist techniques, though omitting 12-tone. Not very far into the piece, for example, Bennett has each player in a different key. Elliott Carter remarked that the piece was "cutely clever."
Only a few months after the radio premiere of Water Music in 1941, the Clarinet Quartet (1941) received its premiere on another of the "Russell Bennett's Notebook" programs on WOR. Again, the performers were drawn from the staff musicians. It is a three-movement work which is clearly influenced by elements of American popular music, particularly big-band swing, but nevertheless keeps itself well within the "classical" camp. It is light in mood, reflecting a sense of isolation, if not isolationism, which was prevalent in America during the years immediately before the USA's entrance into World War II. Even the final march is for toy soldiers, not the real ones already at war in Europe and Asia. But lifted out of its historical context, it is a delightful piece which requires excellent performers. It is filled with close harmonies and has many technical passages which challenge each of the four players. Bennett's evocation of fife and drum in the final march is both inventive and witty, a description which fits the entire work.
The String Quartet (1956) was composed "to the memory of Hugo Grunwald", a founding board member and treasurer of "The Bohemians" (the New York Musician's Club) founded in 1907. After several years, their admirable goal became "the amelioration of the condition of professional musicians who had been overtaken by misfortune." In 1937 Bennett became first a member, within a month a board member, and not long after, the vice-president, finally becoming president for several years. That this strong, serious work with its exquisite slow movement is in memory of Grunwald is a testament to that man's high reputation and Bennett's deep appreciation of his decades in the service of music. The work was premiered in 1956 by the Guilet String Quartet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Arabesque (1978) is a short, sprightly work commissioned by the American Brass Quintet. They first performed it at Carnegie Recital Hall in March of 1979. It serves as a showpiece for the virtuosity of each of the players.
Janet Schlein Somers graduated with a Bachelors in Music performance (flute) from San Francisco State University and with a Masters in Library Science from the University of California at Berkeley. She subsequently was a music cataloger at Cornell University's Olin Graduate Research Center Library, was the head cataloger at the Juilliard School, consultant in setting up the music library at the Hebrew Arts School of the Kaufman Center in New York, and Luce Cataloger at the Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton. She also earned a M. A. in Music (flute performance) from Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Paul Mack Somers majored in music composition at Ithaca College, studying with Warren Benson and George Andrix . He participated in composition master classes with Norman Delio Joio as part of a Ford Foundation program for young composers. He composed the film score for Without Getting, an American International film, incidental music for New Jersey Shakespeare Festival' s Macbeth, and many chamber works. His Ondine Visions for flute, clarinet, and piano was premiered at Lincoln Center by the Palisades Virtuosi. He also has a violin concerto, other orchestral works, and several programmatic solo piano suites. For twenty-two years he was a leading music reviewer in New Jersey, first for a decade with the Newark Star-Ledger and subsequently for the weekly state-wide newsletter Classical New Jersey. He is now the Director of Adult Education for the Bay-Atlantic Symphony in southern New Jersey, giving monthly lectures on musical topics and writing program notes.
Flute Quartet: Beverly Pugh Corry**, Joan Sparks*, Janet Schlein Somers**, Ellen Fisher-Deerberg*
String Quartet: Ruotao Mao***, Nancy Jan**, violins; Ana Tsinadze***, viola; Jie Jin***, violoncello; Jessica Renfroº, mezzo-soprano
Clarinet Quartet: Christopher*** and Karen** DiSanto, Sherry Hartman-Apgar* and Robert Apgar*
Brass Quintet: Bryan Appleby-Wineberg*** and Brian Cook**, trumpets; Jonathan Clark***, horn; Richard Linn***, trombone; Jonathan Schubert**, bass trombone
*** Concert master or principal with the Bay-Atlantic Symphony
** Member of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony
* Associate of the Bay-Atlantic Symphony
º Has been a soloist with the Bay-Atlantic Symphony
Middle English coach for Three Chaucer Poems: Dr. Aaron Hostetter at Rutgers Camden
Technical Information: Brad Zabelski, audio engineer
Traveling Tracks - I.800.348.9131 - www.travelingtracks.com
Signal Path: Schoeps CMC62 & CMC64 > Millennia Media H V-3D > Prism A/D Converters
Recorded in the Berlin Baptist Church of Berlin, New Jersey.
Much thanks to Rev. Jerry Conover for his assistance.