Students taking music classes at Auburn University at Montgomery have probably encountered Dr. Mark Benson. For three decades, the Auburn Montgomery associate professor has taught music history and theory in the Department of Fine Arts.
But many in the River Region will be familiar with his professional off-campus activities – Benson is also principal percussionist for the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra which he joined around 1990 after earning a Ph.D. in historical musicology from UCLA.
“I intended to become a scholar and do research on the music of the early 20th century,” Benson recalled. “I did publish some scholarly articles, but over the years my interests transitioned toward performing. I play mostly ‘mallet instruments’ – orchestra bells and xylophone. I also crash a lot of cymbals and play my triangle and tambourine fairly often.”
He became principal percussionist for the MSO about 12 years ago.
“That means I not only play, but also help select players for the other parts and organize the section,” he explained. “My relationship with the MSO – as performer, program annotator, etc. – has been one of the most rewarding activities of my 30 years in Montgomery.”
But Benson still writes about music which includes his entry on Montgomery’s music heritage in the prestigious reference volume “New Grove Dictionary of American Music.”
“It’s not very long but I was proud to be chosen to write it,” he said. “I am probably most proud of the program notes I have written for concert presenters. This is a special kind of writing that blends scholarly and popular styles. I’ve written notes for the Montgomery Chamber Music Organization for 25 years and for the MSO for almost as long. Early on, I came to the realization that this kind of writing was more immediately useful to people.”
Benson has also been the director of the Promenade Concert series at AUM for 25 years which has seen nationally- and internationally-known artists perform on campus including David Finckel and Wu Han, co-directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
“The last time they were here they premiered a work for cello and piano by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Tsontakis that was commissioned by AUM. They have since recorded the piece.”
Although not trained as a composer or songwriter, that didn’t prevent Benson from tackling a new challenge several years ago when he co-wrote the AUM athletic “fight song.”
“Then-AUM student body president Marie Reuter and I wrote the words, and I composed the music. A fight song has a straightforward formula that most good musicians can duplicate,” he explained.
Benson’s students have also benefited from his local music connections.
“I’ve been able to take AUM students to concerts and rehearsals, and I have brought orchestral colleagues to campus to speak to my classes from time to time. I’ve always been given the freedom at AUM to pursue projects that interest me.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).