April 1, 2005 Larry Benjamin says he cannot imagine life without music, and St. Thomas' musical community for the past 40 or 50 years would be the less without him.
Benjamin's rich, multi-faceted career has taken him everywhere from the patio of the late Bar Normandie in Frenchtown to Paris and to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. On one bleak Sunday afternoon shortly after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 a time of no music, no electricity, no water, little spirit Bandmaster Benjamin and the 666 National Guard Army Band brought Frenchtown to life. The area was soon filled with cheers and dancing. "We set out to cheer people up," Benjamin says.
As for New York and the Met, we have to go back a few more years to the earlier part of a career that has always been defined by music and the desire to teach others.
Benjamin discovered his voice in his high school years. "I just loved music," he says. "I joined the Charlotte Amalie High School choir and the church choir."
In 1962, Benjamin married Linda White, a music educator herself, and they moved to New York, where Benjamin received a bachelors degree from the Manhattan School of Music in 1969 and a masters degree two years later. He earned a degree in School Administration and Supervision from the Manhattan School of Music and Fordham University in 1974.
They have two sons, Lawrence, who has followed in his father's foot steps, acting and directing plays in Florida, and Sean, who has followed a business career.
Benjamin was in the thick of the New York music world as a Metropolitan Opera chorister from 1966 to 1973. It was an exciting time. Leonard Bernstein was conducting, and Leontyne Price was singing, to name just two. Although Benjamin had parts in many off-Broadway productions during that period, they didn't measure up to the Met.
"That was my biggest joy, the opportunity to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House with the stars," Benjamin says. "We were living in Brooklyn then, and I was teaching at a junior high school and working on my Master's degree. I would hop in my car at 4:30 after school, and drive to New York for the performance, and then drive back home, and do the same thing the next day."
One incident around that time stands out; a moment which could easily define Benjamin's priorities: art over politics. In 1969, he performed at the White House in the Manhattan School of Music's production of, "The Salute to American Theater." There was a formal dance afterwards. "Linda and I were dancing, and I felt a tap on my shoulder, but I ignored it," Benjamin says. "When I felt the second tap, I turned around, and there was President Johnson. 'Oh, go right ahead, sir', I said."
He later learned that Johnson made a practice of dancing with all the ladies, Benjamin says.
His career is so rich with experience, it's only possible to capture the tip of the baton, so to speak. Over the past 30 years, he spent 15 years as the National Guard Band bandmaster and 14 years conducting the local Caribbean Chorale. He has held numerous posts as conductor or guest conductor in New York, including guiding the Brooklyn Borough-wide Chorus and the Brooklyn Museum Young Peoples' Choir.
This is to say nothing of his stage performances, where he had the lead in Irving Burgie's Broadway musical "Ballad for Bimshire" and performing with the late Hall Johnson Chorus. (Johnson is widely regarded as a foremost authority on Negro spirituals and gospel music).
And we haven't even touched on his TV and radio work. Many may remember Benjamin's voice on the WVWI talk show, "Community Music Room," which he did for almost a decade, or his "Tropic Topics" and "AMVI/PMVI" shows on WBNB television.
In the mid-1980s, Benjamin and Linda traveled to the University of Illinois, where they each received doctorates in education. Benjamin was a research assistant in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, where he developed multicultural programs. He later used his experience on those projects at the University of the Virgin Islands.
After his time in Illinois, Benjamin returned to St. Thomas, where he managed the University of the Virgin Islands' Reichhold Center for the Arts from 1984 to 1991. "That was an exciting time, Benjamin says, "We had so many great artists. It's hard to remember them all, but Ray Charles performed and the tenor Robert Merrill and the African Ballet Company."
After the Reichhold, Benjamin spent about five years as assistant director of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in the Farrelly administration. After that, he made an unsuccessful run for the Senate, "but I'm not a politician," he says.
Benjamin is easy to talk to, unassuming. "I'm blessed to be able to do what I do," he says as he talks about the choirs he still conducts and the workshops he holds. "And I'm busier than ever," a comment not usually heard from retired folk. Benjamin is anything but retired.
In early 2001, Benjamin's powerful voice rang out in Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in the maiden performance of Polymnia, a chamber choral ensemble founded and directed by Lorna C. Young-Wright, the chairwoman of UVI's Humanities Division. The group of well-known local vocalists was accompanied by the Puerto Rico Chamber Orchestra as it performed Johann Sebastian Bach's "Mass in B Minor" to an almost standing room only audience.
The name Polymnia comes from the Greek muse of sacred music and harmony. In 2003, the group was invited to perform in the Paris Music Festival. Benjamin smiles recalling the experience. "We sang in a lovely little 15th century church, and we stayed in the Latin Quarter," he says. "Linda had studied at the Sorbonne, so we knew a bit about the city." They sang Mozart's "Coronation Mass" and Franz Schubert's "Mass in G," a performance they repeated last December at the Nisky Moravian Church.
With a big smile, Benjamin says the international days are not over: The group has been invited back to the Paris festival for 2006, he says.
In another venue, Benjamin sits on the board of the Tillett Gardens Arts Alive concert series, which was started years ago by the late Rhoda Tillet. The popular series features national and international artists. "We want to keep alive what Rhoda started," he says.
And then there's his marine career. He glances down fondly at his Crucian bracelet which sports a gold anchor in place of the traditional knot. Benjamin holds a 100-ton U.S. Coast Guard captain's license. He even took time away from his musical interests in the mid-1990s to captain the V. I. Hydrofoil for two years.
He has supported an ongoing youth cadet marine program for years, along with another sea captain, Bingley Richardson. "We developed a course for the Department of Education to teach youngsters about boating, so they could get hands-on experience and pursue a marine career, be a captain on some of the big yachts," he says.
"It goes back again to teaching," Benjamin says, always his first love.
And he is still composing music. He is currently setting to music some of the poems of J. Antonio Jarvis, the historian and teacher who co-founded The Daily News in 1930. "I'm working on 'Memory of a Mother.' His poetry is beautiful," Benjamin says, adding that the piece could be ready later this year.
He's also setting up some other music for choirs — about 10 or 12 pieces, he says. It is demanding work.
"I get a piece orchestrated, and then I go back and revamp and revise and revise," he says.
He's working so hard in his "retirement," in fact, that Benjamin was pressed to squeeze in time for this interview. "I'm so sorry," he said, almost out o
f breath after a lope across a nearby parking lot. "I almost lost track of the time. I was composing from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. this morning."
And time is short now, as it turns out. Benjamin looks at his watch, and bids a kind farewell. "I've got to be at the Lutheran church in a few minutes," he says, "Choir practice."
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