Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Professor Helen Benham

As I mentioned in my last Octobor’s blog Piano piano that I had began my venture of learning to play piano by enrolling into a Group Piano I class at the nearby Brookdale Community College.  It turned out that the class was not as hard as I had feared.  I did manage to pass the evaluations and continued onto the next level – Piano II this semester.  By the end of this semester, I would have learned all the elementary stuffs including all major and minor keys and scales, transposition, fingering, two-hands, pedaling, simple chords and progressions.  Hopefully I will be able to play few scores with two hands and right foot and perhaps I can try to compose a few measures of simple music.

Brookdale Community College has a small but wonderful music department with three full time faculties, all with impressive credentials and specialties.  My piano instructor is Professor Helen Benham who has been with the college for 37 years.  She is an accomplished pianist, coming through the renowned Oberlin and Julliard schools, and had performed in numerous concerts internationally.  The class is held in a “lab” where there are 16 upright pianos.  The composition of the students is quite diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, and yes, discipline.  Some students just can’t stop hitting the keys whenever they got a chance despite repeated pleas from the instructor.  Once in a while, Helen would lose her patience and yelled while hitting the cover of a piano with her hand in anger.   That dramatic display would quiet those students down for a little while and then the cycle repeats.  It is unfortunate that teachers have to spend so much extra energy to manage the class and waste everyone’s time.

The Music Department held its semi-annual Faculty Recital the Sunday two weeks ago at College’s Performing Arts Center.  The Experimental Theater was filled with audience as well as air of excitement and anticipation by 7 p.m.  Professor Benham opened the Recital with two piano works by French composer Gabriel Urbain Faure (1845-1924) who had a major influence on 20th century composers with his harmonic and melodic language.   The pieces were Nocturne Op 33, No. 1 in E-flat minor (1875) and Impromptu in F minor.  Then she and an adjunct faculty Nancy Merkel performed together Dolly suite, a piano duet, or more precisely Piano in Four Hands, also by Faure.  This is the first time I heard Faure’s Nocturne and I just loved it.  It is one of the thirteen nocturnes Faure composed in his life.  One can literally “see” the image of the night as notes flow softly through the keys and air, while the theme by the left hand keeps reappearing to reminding us as the night progresses steadily.  To listen to the Nocturne performed by Vlado Perlemuter, a well-known French pianist and student of Faure at the Paris Conservatoir, hit the YouTube link here.

The evening was interrupted by Professor Keith Heinmann after the piano performances who made the surprise announcement that Professor Benham will be retiring at the end of this academic year and that the rest of the evening program will thus be changed into one that pays tributes to Professor Benham!  While I have attended many retirement parties before where people gave speeches and roasted the guest of honor in words, musicians do it in music!  Carly McIIvaine, another adjunct faculty sang a beautiful and untitled song (which could be called “I love you forever”) that she wrote for this occasion.  Adjunct faculty John Balme and Cynthia Springsteen, after their performance of Schubert’s songs, brought their 20+ people Concordian Chorale to perform.  After the intermission, Professors Barbara Baron, Joe Accurso and his Art Deco Jazz Ensemble brought memory of their long associations with Professor Benham that were presented with lively stories and improvisations of jazz music and songs.  It took me several seconds to figure out what was “533422” (a hint: it is referring to the five fingers of right hand when playing on keyboard with the thumb being finger “1”).

I can’t think of a more fitting way to pay tributes to Professor Benham’s 37 year career at the Brookdale.  What a wonderful way for friends and colleagues to say good bye to her with music and creativity, their common language and love.  I will miss Helen Benham for her dedication and teaching as one of her “young” and last piano class students.

Talk to you soon!

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