The Goodlife

The Offbeat of Symphonies — Fun and flavorful performances remain the best-kept secret of Palm Desert's arts scene.

The nature of secrets is such that some of the very best things in the world remain lost to those who might most benefit from their knowledge — so it’s to no one’s favor that Indian Wells Desert Symphony remains one of the desert’s best kept. Even after 15 years of distinguished service, chairman and conductor Edwin R. Benachowski sees a vast wealth of opportunities to bring music to the ears of a community long on intrinsic beauty but often woefully short in cultural programs.

Since taking the helm in 1989, Benachowski, 80, and his wife Marilyn, the symphony’s contractor and co-concertmaster, have advanced an agenda of diverse and rich programming through a rigorous and varied lineup of musicians and performers. For this season — the 15th anniversary — the Benachowskis collected broad headline talent, including Grammy Award-winning singer (and official symphony spokesperson) Jack Jones, violinist Jennifer Frautschi, jazz clarinet impresario Eddie Daniels, soprano Lori Stinson, and in a stroke of fusion that marks the symphony’s eclectic mix, Mariachi Sol de Mexico led by Jose Hernandez.

It’s a five-star lineup, certainly, but it hasn’t always been so easy for the Indian Wells Desert Symphony — especially before it took permanent residence at McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert. “We were homeless,” Benachowski says of the early years, when the symphony bounced from hotel to hotel, the quality of the performance more often gauged not by the expertise of the players — which culls from both the figurative and literal virtuoso talent found across the Southland — but by, well, the food. “We were more concerned about the meals than the show,” he says. “We knew the show would be good — but, my goodness, if the food was bad we heard about it!”

While it may be hard to imagine a vagabond group of ragtag musicians carrying wind instruments across the valley, the perception alone that the symphony didn’t have established roots has long fed into the secret quality of the troupe — a quality the Benachowskis have also tried to assuage by attacking misconceptions about who and what a maestro should be, and in the process challenging what one might expect from an evening at the symphony.

In a pragmatic sense, Benachowski is indeed the very essence of a maestro: educated at Julliard and Columbia University; a performance history seasoned with names like Gene Autry, Pat Buttram, Henry Mancini, and Frank Sinatra; a phalanx of protégés who’ve gone on to their own widespread success; a tall and graceful physique that looks smart in a tuxedo, narrow baton clutched lightly in hand. But in person, he is quick with a story, quicker still to laugh (often at himself), and blessed with the personality of a talk-show host. It is this mixture that brought about a most unnatural turn, but one that has become a fixture with the symphony: Maestro Benachowski talks to the audience.

“Part of our mission statement is that music should bring communities together,” he says of his pioneering decision to make performances interactive. “I would perform Mozart’s Movement 39, which is a tough piece, and wonder, ‘What’s the solution to connect with the audience?’ And it was to have them take part.” What Benachowski did was break his audience into thirds, with each third giving a pneumonic response to Mozart’s notes, creating an ad-hoc chorus of voices singing, “In the middle of a book/Uh-Oh/Digga-digga-digga-dig,” which ends up being the whole theme of the 39th movement.

Since then, he has ensured that each concertgoer feels a personal connection with the music. It’s a part of the symphony experience that for a long time has been neglected, says Marilyn Benachowski. “In the old days, music was played in people’s homes, in salons — it was an intimate relationship with the music,” she says. “Where the stuffiness came from, I just don’t know. Everyone now knows the caricature of the conductor with his back turned to the audience, his hands out, his hair messed, but it wasn’t always like that. And it shouldn’t be.”

Part of the challenge the Indian Wells Desert Symphony faces, then, is still largely about awareness. As Palm Springs Valley grows and demographics skew younger than ever before, the Benachowskis see a dearth in the field of music education and appreciation, which means a wealth of their potential audience must be cultivated.  Through its Children’s Music Discovery Series, the symphony conducts performances especially geared toward fostering music education in young, often underprivileged children valleywide. For some, it is their very first up-close-and-personal interaction with a musical instrument. For others, it may be their only immersion in the arts whatsoever.

“It is a musical happening,” Benachowski says, “and it’s often also a miracle. There will be 1,100 children in an auditorium and I swear you’d be able to hear a pin drop. I greet them, I make them feel comfortable, I talk to them, and I put on programs for them that they can understand, with musicians often from their own age group. And they respond beautifully.”

The tragedy is that more children aren’t yet taking part — Benachowski estimates that the program reaches only 5 percent of local children, a funding issue that remains one of the symphony’s top concerns.

As the lone local symphony, Indian Wells Desert Symphony holds a key to a not-so-distant past when entire cities flocked to the halls of music for both entertainment and education — a conceit that might be difficult to imagine for a new generation raised via on-demand arts pumped directly into the privacy of their home computers. Nevertheless, for 15 years and hopefully many more, the Indian Wells Desert Symphony has held one thing true in both spirit and practice: “Music can change and inspire people,” Benachowski says. And that, certainly, is no secret.

Palm Springs Life

Related Articles

Wesley Eure Will Co-Emcee at Desert AIDS Project Benefit

Chelsea Lane Bodywear presents Under & Out 3, a fashion show and poolside party on Oct. 5 as part of a benefit for the Desert AIDS Project.

"Top Rock" Commands Stage at Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs

"Top Rock" brings a brash, rockin' musical tribute to the Hard Rock Hotel Palm Springs on Friday and Saturday nights through September.

Palm Springs Horoscope - August 2014

Just persevere through these tough times, and know that the hard way will become the right road in 2015.

Palm Springs Horoscope - July 2014

Entering Leo on July 16, Jupiter ramps up the social calendar. There will be more summer parties than last year — expect an overbooked schedule.

Star Power

The Palm Springs Walk of Stars honors philanthropic superhero Lynda Carter for shattering stereotypes and blazing new paths for generations of women.

Promotions + Contests

90 Days of Summer Romantic Palm Springs Getaway 2014

90 Days of Summer Romantic Palm Springs Getaway 2014

Experience the beauty, romance and excitement of the Palm Springs area when you enter to be the lucky winner of this romantic couple’s getaway
90 DAYS OF SUMMER Instagram Contest 2014

90 DAYS OF SUMMER Instagram Contest 2014

Win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!

Win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!

Each month, a first place winner will be selected to win a fabulous Palm Springs weekend!And, each month, three additional runners up will be selected to win a wonderful Palm Springs area Dining certificate!
2013/14 Best of the Best

2013/14 Best of the Best

Palm Springs Life’s annual Best of the Best. Readers tell us who their choice is for the “Best of the Best” of the Coachella Valley in over 40 categories.
Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon Caption Contest

Each month, we provide a vintage 1950’s cartoon illustrated by Alice Rovinsky. You are invited to submit a caption or vote for your favorite caption.
Enter to Win A Celebrate Dance Experience!

Enter to Win A Celebrate Dance Experience!

Enter just once for a chance to win tickets to one of the second annual Palm Desert International Dance Festival performances.