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The D.F. Cook Recital Hall mimicked the skies on Sunday — blue, yet bright and sunny, as the MUN school of music honoured the late professor Paul Bendzsa with a tribute concert featuring faculty members, current students and alumni, local musicians and friends.
Bendsza was well-known around the city for his involvement in the St. John’s music community. Retired from the MUN school of music, Bendzsa, a multi-instrumentalist, teacher, composer and performer, died in November 2019.
During his career he played with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and the Sound Symposium, the Kubasonics, Spanner and Roarshack. One of the first faculty members of the department of music at MUN in the late 1970s, Bendzsa founded the MUN Jazz Ensemble, which is still going strong today.
It was fitting that the tribute concert would begin with the MUN Jazz Ensemble, performing back-to-back Maria Scheider works, conducted by Florian Hoefner and featuring Christine Carter on clarinet.
The Jazz East Big Band, conducted by Bill Brennan, continued with the uptempo tunes. The audience clapped after every impressive solo, with vocalist Katie Hopkins filling the room with Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”
In between each performance, friends and colleagues, such as professor Clark Ross and Dean Ian Sutherland, spoke highly of Bendzsa, listing his many accomplishments and accolades in between sharing funny and heartwarming stories, like the time Bendzsa crammed a crew of music students and instruments into an elevator – his take on “elevator music.”
Kate Read (viola), Christine Carter (clarinet) and Kristina Szutor (piano) played a Max Bruch piece, followed by free improvisation on piano by Florian Hoefner.
The MUN single-reeds studio was next, playing Gershwin’s “Liza,” dedicated to Bendsza’s wife, Lisa.
Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther” brought laughter to the somewhat sorrowful crowd – a welcome treat, as many had been moved to tears following Christine Carter’s touching tribute to her friend.
Members of Ouroboros added Peter Perez and Rob Power to perform “Marjan” by The Tiptons, with the Roarshack Trio (Brennan, Power, and Andrew Staniland) then performing “Paulyphony.”
A real treat followed, with Brennan and Hoefner hitting the stage armed with a very unusual choice in instruments – two melodicas. The pair proceeded to play Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba,” with many giggling throughout the performance, myself included.
The tribute concert finished with two songs by Tom Gordon (piano), Christine Carter (clarinet) and Jane Leibel (soprano). The first was a movement from Clifford Crawley’s “Personal Column,” followed by “Jack Was Every Inch A Sailor,” arranged by D.F. Cook.
While the concert was enough to draw a crowd on its own, it was obvious that most attendees had come out to celebrate a life well lived.
There were so many beautiful words used to describe Bendzsa – imaginative, creative, engaging, dedicated, magical, beautiful, treasured, appreciated, loving. A family man. A jokester. A source of inspiration. A wealth of knowledge. A teacher.
Though gatherings of remembrance can often be sad or sombre, the tone of this event was very different, focused on paying homage and respect to a local legend, who will evidently live on forever in the hearts of many.