Joan Benson is internationally known for the beauty of her clavichord and fortepiano playing as well as her delicate approach to the modern piano. Her artistry is enhanced by her remarkable life.
As a child, Joan Benson lived in the New Orleans of early jazz. The first progressive school in the Deep South stimulated her talent for the arts. She heard Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ignace Paderwski play and studied with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger.
While a graduate student in piano at Indiana University, she received the Kate Neal Kinley International Award for “outstanding powers of artistic communication.” As a concert pianist her affinity for highly nuanced, delicate piano tones, praised by critics, led naturally to her discovery of the clavichord.
For seven and a half years, she studied in Europe with the finest pianists and clavichordists, in the lineage of eighteenth and nineteenth century masters. She became a protégée of the great Swiss pianist and pedagogue Edwin Fischer, who deeply influenced Alfred Brendel, Paul Badura-Skoda and Jorg Demus.
For three years, Benson studied clavichord with Fritz Neumeyer in Freiburg im Breisgau. His teacher, James Kwast, is linked in a direct line to G. A. Homilius, an organ student of Johann Sebastian Bach. Benson’s second clavichord teacher, Macario Santiago Kastner, inspired her with his breath of outlook and depth of knowledge concerning the clavichord and its literature.
After returning to the United States in 1960, Benson joined the faculty of Stanford University, home of one of the first early music programs in America. From here, her international performing career was launched.
In the vivid career that followed, the excitement of travel as an artist and the beauty of exotic places inspired her. In the Middle East, she wandered on her own around Lebanon and parts of Syria and Turkey in remote areas dangerous for a Westerner. She danced the hypnotic dapki with young Syrian peasants, worked with English archaeologists among the pink tombs of Petra, and heard a nomad playing the rebaba by moonlight in a remote Jordanian valley. Among the ruins of Balbec, she listened to the ecstatic singing of Egypt’s Om Kulthum.
After hiking for days in New Zealand’s highest mountains, Benson gave a concert in Auchland cited as one of most exciting of the year. At the Chinese University in Hong Kong, she introduced a yang-chin player to the audience and spontaneously compared this soft instrument to the clavichord. As the sole guest in the Javanese palace of Keraton, she responded to the finest of Indonesian music with rhythmic intensity in her performance on national television.
All such experiences are reflected in Benson’s life and music, enlarging her outlook of the world and her understanding of rhythm, ornamentation, melody and tone.
Benson also traveled inwardly as a Buddhist. By 1970, she was studying with Japan’s Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara, and later with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France. Tibet’s Venerable Bokar Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche led her to take long silent retreats in the monasteries of Salt Spring Island and Nova Scotia. Today she lives quietly, continuing to publish while enjoying the natural beauty of Oregon.