Southern Illinois Music Festival

Festival performance: The Southern Illinois Music Festival Orchestra performs at Carterville High School Performing Arts Center. (Photo provided)

January 17, 2020

Southern Illinois Music Festival earns national award for ‘American Symphony’

by Jason Franchuk

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Edward Benyas turned a surprisingly refreshing phone call he received about six years ago into a conductor’s dream. The result was a significant award for himself and the Southern Illinois Music Festival.

Benyas, the festival founder and Artistic Director, recently learned that “American Symphony” received third prize in the Ernst Bacon Memorial Award for the Performance of Music. The award recognizes and rewards the best performances of American music by ensembles and individual artists worldwide, based on submitted recordings.

“Our 15 year old Southern Illinois Music Festival is the only professional summer music festival in Illinois south of I-80,” said Benyas, who is also a professor of oboe and conducting in the SIU School of Music. “This award gives national recognition to our decade and a half of artistic excellence, and support of American music, all in residence at SIU Carbondale.”

Award also honors World War II veteran, composer

The award also honors the late composer Lionel Semiatin, a World War II veteran who composed much of the score while on World War II battlefields. The award, announced recently, recognizes the musical festival for promoting Semiatin’s music in 2014 and 2015, including the “American Symphony” world premiere in June 2015, Benyas said.

Benyas said Semiatin, who was from White Plains, New York, first contacted him in 2014.

Benyas believes Semiatin’s work is likely the only chamber orchestra piece written on the battlefield by an American World War II veteran. Benyas is a military history buff and said he was immediately moved by Semiatin’s initial phone call. He noted that like many conductors, he regularly receives calls from composers wanting to get their work performed. Semiatin created his compositions between 1944 and 1975, in time for the nation’s bicentennial.

Semiatin’s work stood out for being “jazzy” and Gershwin-like, Benyas said. Semiatin was born in Ireland and moved to the United States when he was 3 years old. He landed in Normandy about a week after D-Day, according to reports, and eventually assigned to the chaplain’s office overseas in part because of his musical abilities.

Composer able to hear some of his work performed

Semiatin, who was retired from a 30-year role as executive director of the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, visited Carbondale in 2014 to hear three of his pieces performed during the 2014 music festival during a D-Day 70th anniversary concert. He died in 2015 at 98, two months after his entire “American Symphony” premiered in June.

Benyas said he received an email from one of Semiatin’s daughters recently, praising Benyas for “capturing the essence of what he had in mind when he wrote it — the expansiveness, potential and huge energy of our nation.”

It was special enough to earn a special judges’ citation for championing Semiatin’s music.