Courtesty of the Music Conservatory of Westchester
There are plenty of superlatives thrown Benjamin Araujo’s way, but “musical prodigy” is likely the most common. As the 2017 winner of the Very Young Composers Program at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, Araujo’s original orchestral composition “A Postcard from New York City” was performed by The New York Philharmonic that year. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, on January 8, the 17-year-old Eastchester native will bring his next original composition to the Carnegie Hall stage, entitled “Nine Portraits for Solo Piano.”
The work will be performed by esteemed faculty member at the White Plains Music Conservatory of Westchester and Dobbs Ferry native, pianist Irena Portenko, who is also founder of the international music institute and festival Music in the Alps.
We caught up with Araujo, who discussed just what it takes to be among the next generation of great composers.
Please tell us how you first sensed you had some musical talent.
My exposure to classical music began when, as a small child, I frequently visited my grandparents in White Plains. My grandfather, Paul Bergins, had classical music on constantly, especially music by Mozart, which I immediately began to love.
With my mother, I frequently borrowed music scores, and CDs to go along with them, from the Yonkers Will Library and the New Rochelle Library, and followed the scores as I listened to the CDs on our various car trips.
I began to sense my musical talent as a child when I had the opportunity to try out the organ at the Grace Church in White Plains and was able to play most of the first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony by ear. This was particularly surprising to my parents, my grandparents, and especially Tim Lewis, the organist at the church.
What instruments do you play?
I currently play three instruments, which are piano, trombone, and tuba. Recently I started to teach myself how to play the trumpet and expect to be reasonably capable within several months.
At Eastchester High School, I play the trombone in the full orchestra and jazz band, and the tuba in the concert band. Of these instruments, it is the piano, which I have been playing since I was six years old, that is the most important to me. I felt that it appealed to me because I am able to express different moods depending on what piece I play.
When did you first begin composing music?
I first began composing music after I saw a DVD of the world premiere of an opera based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Korean composer Unsuk Chin. Shortly after, when I was in third grade, my grandfather took me to the American premiere of this opera in St. Louis, Missouri, where I met the composer herself. I was enthralled by the entire experience and decided that I also wanted to write music.
After a few early compositions, I joined the Very Young Composers Program at Lincoln Center under Jon Deak, and began to write more substantial works, two of which were performed at David Geffen Hall.
How did you find out your work would be played at the legendary Carnegie Hall?
The upcoming recital at Carnegie Hall will feature pianist Irena Portenko and countertenor Jeffrey Palmer, the theme of which is the Danish concept of “hygge”, meaning “cozy”, and will feature several songs by Handel, Schubert, Debussy, and others, that demonstrate this.
Irena, who is on the faculty at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, premiered my composition at her Music in the Alps Festival in Austria, in which I participated. The piece was well-received, and she decided to feature it in her upcoming recital, for which I am most grateful. For me, to have my own compositions premiered at such an auspicious venue as Carnegie Hall is a great honor, and very exciting.
The composition(s) that will be featured in this recital are the “Nine Portraits for Piano” that I had written back in 2017. They were written under the tutelage of composer Daron Hagen, who had suggested the idea of writing musical portraits about several people shortly after I began studying with him (which I am continuing to this day). In each movement of the composition, I aim to trying to “paint” a portrait of a specific person based mostly on his/her personality.
The categories of the people I portray are family members, friends, teachers, and historical figures. The influences of many different composers and musical genres, including Stravinsky, Orff, jazz, Schoenberg, or minimalist music by Philip Glass, appear in the various movements.
Composition is my greatest passion, and I want to pursue that as a career. I am starting to research various music schools, one of which I hope to attend after graduation from high school.
Concert tickets are available online at www.carnegiehall.org