Eric Benjamin’s earliest experiences with music still motivate him: Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as heard in a sixth grade music class in his native St. Albans, Vermont. “I was transported from the mundane world of a classroom in a school in Vermont to a cave in Norway. Firelight danced with the shadows of trolls. It was mystery and power, communicated in a magical language of rhythms, pitches and timbres.”
In the years that followed, during which he taught himself guitar, played in rock bands and revered the music of the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, and Blood, Sweat and Tears, he never forgot the experience that Grieg’s music had given him. Participation in a school festival band (on baritone horn) prompted a decision to pursue classical music diligently and he taught himself score reading and music theory, took lessons on trombone, baritone, cello, voice and piano and made first attempts at composition.
At New England Conservatory of Music, where he majored in music education, he had the opportunity to study traditional and twelve-tone harmony with jazz great Joe Maneri and to observe rehearsals and concerts conducted by Gunther Schuller. “I skipped classes to watch a rehearsal of Mahler’s Third Symphony and it was another touchstone moment – one of those events in life which you can refer to in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’.”
His career as a teacher and conductor began at Newton(MA) North High School. “I love to engineer interactions between music and young people. The challenge and joy for a music teacher is to connect up the intellectual, technical and scholarly aspects of music study with the electrical current that runs through kids and makes them want to study music in the first place.”
In 1987, he returned to New England Conservatory to study orchestral conducting with Carl St. Clair. Further conducting studies took him to Gunther Schuller’s Festival at Sandpoint (ID) and to Tanglewood, where he studied with Gustav Meier, Kurt Sanderling, Lukas Foss and Leonard Bernstein.
“Eric” is a Scandanavian title for a leader, and “Benjamin” is Hebrew meaning “son of the right hand” – with a name like that I had to go into conducting.
A brief tenure as director of the Mozart Society Orchestra at Harvard University was curtailed by his acceptance of a position on the conducting staff of the Akron Symphony, a position he held for eleven years. During that time, he served as director of the Akron Youth Symphony and appeared as guest conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, Erie Philharmonic, Canton Symphony, Columbus Symphony and as music director of the Tuscarawas Philharmonic.
His interest in education programming brought him to the attention of Robert Conrad and WCLV and for five years he hosted, wrote and produced the award-winning radio program “Klassical Kids”.
He also acquired experience as a composer and arranger, with works performed by orchestras locally and across the nation. In 2017 he returned to the Akron Symphony as associate conductor.
He is adjunct faculty at Kent State University and at the University of Mount Union, where he directs the Alliance Symphony and teaches courses in conducting, composition and arranging.