Festival of Music to present Benoist tunes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 17, 2004

NATCHEZ &045;&045; Listen carefully as you walk down South Union Street. Is that a piano playing? Are they tunes you’ve never heard before?

Many of those tunes will be performed at 6 p.m. Thursday at First Presbyterian Church in a free concert of the music of the late Dr. Edwin Benoist, a physician for many years in Natchez and a man of multiple talents.

The Natchez Festival of Music will sponsor the event and the festival’s guild will host a reception in Stratton Chapel at the church after the musical presentation, which will include songs never performed before.

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Loneka Wilkerson on piano, soprano Lynn Blailock and tenors Marvin Kehler and Brian Kehler, also violinists, will perform.

&uot;Loneka Wilkerson is a professor of music at Alcorn State University,&uot; said Dr. David Blackburn, music festival director and also a music professor at Alcorn.

The others are his students. &uot;They will be good. It will be a very nice evening,&uot; Blackburn said.

For Jack Benoist, who grew up in one of the three Benoist houses in the 400 block of South Union, piano music was a familiar sound &045;&045; particularly if his uncle, Dr. Benoist, was around.

&uot;As a young child, I remember we could tell where he was in the neighborhood. We could recognize his playing. It was strong,&uot; Jack Benoist said.

All the houses had pianos, including Dr. Benoist’s home, which then was on South Commerce Street, backing up to the family homes on the next street east.

&uot;There was my grandmother’s house, Uncle Louis’ house and our house,&uot; Jack Benoist recalled. &uot;And my grandmother was a music teacher. She had parlor furniture she said she bought with the money she made teaching music. She probably taught him.&uot;

The family story goes that Edwin’s father packed up the children and sent them to Cincinnati during a yellow fever epidemic in the early 1900s. &uot;He took lessons at the Cincinnati Music Conservatory while he was there,&uot; Jack Benoist said.

A lifelong love for the piano and for composing songs resulted in a body of work now preserved by grandson Paul Benoist and his wife, Ginny.

The idea of presenting Dr. Benoist’s music came from two music festival boosters, Dr. Don and Katherine Killelea, also residents of South Union Street.

&uot;They called us and said they wanted to do some of Dr. Benoist’s music,&uot; said Doris Ann Benoist, Jack’s wife. &uot;Ginny and Paul had all the music and had copied it. They gave it to David Blackburn, who has the musicians lined up from Alcorn for the program.&uot;

Doris Ann Benoist has her own memories of the physician-composer, as she described the room where he had his piano and did most of his musical work. &uot;He was so frugal. Instead of having acoustical tiles installed in the room, he nailed empty egg cartons to the ceiling to help sound proof it.&uot;

Jack Benoist said he did not know of his uncle’s compositions until about 25 years ago. &uot;I do remember he gave my mother a piece of music, something he had written. And I have books that he wrote music in the back of.&uot;

Paul Benoist recalled that his grandfather had two pianos at his last home off Lower Woodville Road. &uot;Papa Ed had two pianos, one each in the house and his workshop studio, tucked right in between his welding equipment, cutting torches and table saw, with 78 rpm discs and, later, 33s and reel-to-reel tape, scattered all about.&uot;

Dr. Benoist always hoped to have his music published, Paul Benoist said. The Thursday concert will be a fitting tribute.