A! Magazine for the Arts

Youth Spotlight: Benjamin Dawson

July 27, 2010

KINGSPORT, TN - Symphony of the Mountains (SOTM) presented A Night at the Movies Saturday, on Aug. 28, 2010 at the Eastman Employee Center in Kingsport.

The orchestra played music from a variety of films, including James Bond movies, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Stars Wars and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. The program also includes "A Tribute to Henry Mancini," "Pomp & Circumstance" and Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), an opera in one act by Pietro Mascagni.

Featured were selections from "In the Claw's Grasp" by Benjamin Parks Dawson of Bristol, Va. The composition was written for the soundtrack of a student film project entitled Pirates of the Claw.

Benjamin is a violinist in SOTM's Youth Orchestra, directed by Ross Bader, and his composition was first performed by the Youth Orchestra last November. "This is a fun story," Benjamin recalls. "I met a young man named Jacob Austin in 2004. He and his brother were interested in making home videos. I was just getting into composing at that time, so I did some short sketches to put in their videos. In 2009, Jacob decided to make a film about pirates - on a bigger scale than he had before - and I was 'hired on' for the music. I told Ross Bader about this project, and asked if he would consider having the Youth Orchestra perform the music if I put it together into a collection."

Cornelia Kodkani-Laemmli, SOTM Music Director/COO, describes Benjamin's composition as "a mix of classical and more modern music. I am very happy that we found a place in our season where we can play a piece by this highly talented young musician. I have been watching his musical growth over the last four years, and I have to say that I hardly ever met a young musician more talented on such a wide spectrum like Benjamin."

Benjamin composed his first piece, a piano solo, at age 8. His compositions include piano solos, a piano trio, a string quartet, string solos, choral work, and scoring for film. His compositions include "String Quartet #1" and "The Lord is my Shepherd," his second choral work and the first one to be performed. He composed "String Quartet #1" at age 13. He recalls, "My violin teacher, Jane MacMorran, was very supportive of this, and it was performed at the next violin studio recital. Much later, I wrote another movement and then had half of the quartet; this was performed in the spring of 2009. I figured I better finish the work and wrote the fourth movement later that same year. It took me until April 2010 to get the third movement completed because I kept getting burned out! But finally it came into place, and I'm happy with how the quartet turned out."

Benjamin was Concertmaster of the Youth Orchestra for three years and served as Concertmaster for the Appalachian Classical Music Association's Honors Orchestra. "Knowing that Mrs. MacMorran was also the Concertmaster for Symphony of the Mountains meant that she could relate to any difficulty I was having, and that was very nice," he says.

A six-time winner of the Bristol Music Club scholarships, Benjamin was a winner in the senior division of the Appalachian Classical Music Association's Sonata Festival. In the past 12 months he has received additional honors, including performing with The Paramount Chamber Players and winning the Bland Music Scholarship funded by the Lions Club of Virginia and the String Composer Award from the National Federation of Music Clubs (NFMC).

Benjamin recalls, "Playing with The Paramount Chamber Players was great fun! At first I was concerned because the piece we were playing was not terribly difficult technically (I like a challenging piece) and it wasn't one of the big piano trio warhorses, like those by Schubert and Mozart. But once we started rehearsing, Dr. Craig Combs (director of the ensemble) showed me different things I could do to make the piece more interesting. Once I began thinking of the piece that way, I found there were a lot of fun techniques I could implement to make the piece more flashy, plus more fun to play. These were all things that you couldn't do in a classical-era trio."

He practices violin at least an hour a day, less on piano. "When I enter college, I know the time commitment will go up," he notes. His music teachers include Ann Holler, who also is a composer, "so she is able to give me good tips on different ways I can implement my ideas into a piece, while still keeping a good musical form."

Benjamin continues, "A lot of composers talk about coming up with this great theme or motif in their heads. Unfortunately, I never hear any of that. It's kind of funny: I usually stumble upon my music. If I'm writing for a film, I'll often sit at the piano and work out a main theme. But otherwise I usually toy around with notes and rhythms at the computer until - aha! - I find something I like, and then I'm off to the races."

He also enjoys singing in the Highlands Youth Ensemble choir under the direction of Jane Morison, and he sang in the OAKE national honors choir. Benjamin plays violin and piano for Abingdon Presbyterian Church and is in the church choir. He is a member of the "Runaway Piano Trio" with his sister Bethany (cello) and friend Zachary Hughes (piano).
"I guess you could say I've been around music since birth," Benjamin laughs. "My mom has two degrees in music and was a concert pianist/piano professor. She started teaching me how to play the piano when I was 4 or 5. My dad played the viola in high school and is a good singer. My parents' love of classical music transferred over to me, and now that I'm composing, I'm maybe even a bit obsessive at times."

Benjamin, 17, is the son of David and Regina Dawson of Abingdon, Va. He has been home schooled his whole life. This fall, Benjamin will study composition with Dr. Maria Niederberger at East Tennessee State University, where he has been awarded the Walter Marshall Scholarship, the Lamar Alexander Scholarship, and an Academic Performance Scholarship. Meanwhile, he will perform for several weddings this summer and is taking three music courses from Southwest Virginia Community College.