Benoit is back, and hopefully his orchestra too
A newly rejuvenated David Benoit is again writing music, conducting and touring
by Bondo Wyszpolski
It might have seemed David Benoit was down for the count. His kidney had been failing, taking his strength and stamina with it. After each dialysis session, he says, “I’d come out so beat-up… hungry, tired, angry, all of that.” For 10 years he dealt with it, losing energy, losing interest in interesting things. And then, a couple of months ago he received a kidney transplant.
“I’ve been given this incredible gift… and I feel like I can almost start over again.”
Benoit is our local jazz hero, radio host, recording artist, and music director of the Pacific Vision Youth Orchestra (formerly the Asia America Youth Symphony). He attended Mira Costa High School, and studied music at El Camino College and UCLA. He recorded his first jazz album in 1977, and over 40 more since then.
I’d seen a couple of photos of him in prior months and I remember thinking, “Wow, he looks like he’s 90.” So when he opened the door of his home recently I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would he now look 100? But I’ll be honest: he looks better than I’ve seen him in years. More importantly, he’s upbeat instead of beat-up. The energy’s back, and he’s moving forward.
However, he’s at a crossroad with the youth orchestra, which he started in 2001. Most of the young musicians live in the South Bay, and have studied with accomplished teachers. The result is a consistently high-quality orchestra, year after year. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it can hold its own against many community orchestras across the country.
Now it’s on the brink of ceasing to exist.
“Times changed, we started losing our donors,” Benoit says. “COVID almost killed us; it was really hard. And then our guild disbanded. It was a big support group.
“So we had to look at everything, and the decision was made to make this the last season. I was actually all in on that — until I got my kidney. Then I started thinking, ‘I don’t know, this is a pretty good thing.’ We do so much good for the community here and the kids love it.
“So what I want to convey,” Benoit continues, “is never say never. I mean, if an angel came by or somebody who really loved this orchestra, and was willing to write a check… It’s really about we just don’t have any funding source.” At the same time, “I run it a certain way, and if we can’t run it that way I can’t do it.”
Over the years Benoit has developed a method of leading the orchestra, and its young musicians in a manner that’s different from other local programs.
“We offer something that maybe the schools don’t offer, [such as] working with professional musicians, headlining artists, and (presenting) new music that’s never been performed before. So there’s some interesting aspects to the orchestra that the kids probably wouldn’t find anywhere else. And because I come from a jazz background I approach it very differently.” For example, he’ll say, “Let’s try this and see where it goes,” rather than criticizing or berating if the notes don’t sound perfect.
In short, Benoit says, “I like to feel I’m just bringing out the best in them as much as I can.” In an aside, he mentions Michael Repper, the conductor of the New York Youth Symphony, who just won a Grammy Award. “He was in our youth orchestra and started coming to my concerts when he was eight years old. He was really fascinated about conducting, so I showed him a few things.”
“Our official concert, our spring concert,” Benoit says, “is on May 14, Mother’s Day, at the James Armstrong Theater. It’s kind of a retrospective, we’re going back to some of the classics,” audience favorites over the years. In addition to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture, and Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down,” plus work by Ravel and Beethoven, Benoit will debut “Remembrance,” a piece he wrote for violin, as well as another composition of his called “Native Californian.”
In the meantime, Benoit is flush with new ideas.
“Since I had all this free time to be at home, I’m working on a cello concerto. It’s going to be in three movements; I’ve got a pretty good draft on the first and am getting started on the second. There’s no time limit; I just want to write something really beautiful.”
He’s mulling over another album, maybe elaborating on the big band themes he employed on his last CD, “Rendezvous at Midnight.” And that’s not all.
“Well, my agent called, and I guess the world has not forgotten about me, so I’m going to start doing some touring again. We’re going to go to Hawaii and New York and the Midwest, starting in May.”
It’s as if Benoit was given a big energy pill in addition to a new kidney.
Benoit will be 70 this summer. That’s still young, or young enough, for a strong second-half showing. Sure, Schubert and Mozart died when they were just kids, but Verdi, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss all lived productively deep into their 80s. As Saul Bellow once told Herbert Gold, “Don’t count any writer out while he’s still alive.” Sometimes one’s greatest adversary isn’t old age so much as it’s the unwillingness to risk failure.
At the moment, Benoit’s legacy is his jazz and movie score compositions. In addition to his 40-plus albums, he has composed scores for dozens of film and television scores, including “The Stars fell on Henrietta,” produced by Clint Eastwood; “The Christmas Tree,” produced by Sally Field; “The Peanuts Movie;”and the “Peanuts TV specials.”
Will he be remembered and played a generation or two hence? But chances may be greater that posterity awaits him in the field of classical or rather orchestral music.
He’s been the music director and chief conductor of the Asia America Youth Symphony for a dozen years, and has played or conducted in numerous venues, including Disney Hall where he led a performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”
He has served as conductor with a wide range of symphonies, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Dresden Philharmonic, London Symphony, and the Nuremberg Symphony.“One of my dreams would be to take a year off,” Benoit says, “which I’ve never done, and it’s been pretty much just doing gigs since I was 18. And all of a sudden I’m almost 70, and still doing gigs.” It isn’t that he doesn’t enjoy performing, it’s just that a lengthy retreat, a sabbatical, or what have you, would be a rejuvenating balm and, need it be said, could possibly give him the breathing room required for a larger-scaled work, one on which, who knows, he might even stake his reputation.
“ I feel like I’m doing some of my best work now as I’ve gotten older and a little smarter about things. When you’re young you think you know it all, then you realize the adage ‘the more you know the more you realize you don’t know.’ Yup, that’s true,” and he laughs. ER