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Spotlight on Alumni: Benjamin Cantú

Spotlight on Alumni: Benjamin Cantú

Benjamin with his parents, Eduardo and Manuela Cantú

Quite a lot transpired between the years when I was cradled to bed by the evocative, opening melody of the English horn in the second movement and my taking the stage with Jacob and the Pueblo Symphony at Hoag Hall, beginning in many ways with my time at Oberlin.

Oberlin came onto my radar when I noticed a three-ring binder filed between various scores in a bookshelf belonging to my high school classical guitar instructor, John Holenko. I vividly recall asking John,“ What is Oberlin?” 

He told me about Oberlin and how his mother was a librarian there, perhaps even at the Conservatory, and how it was an amazing school. I applied, auditioned, and matriculated in the Fall of 1997. By the end of my first lesson with Steve, I was assigned nine new, unfamiliar pieces.

I have a lot of little stories like that from my time at Oberlin because Oberlin was really an amazing experience for me. Many of those stories were focused around Steve and the exceptional players (and great friends) in the guitar studio. I’m not going to lie and say that my four years studying under Steve were perpetually watercolored visions of unicorns dancing upon rainbows, but what I learned from the positive and the difficult alike, created the musician and person I am today. 

Ben and Stephen Aron after Ben's senior recital

After I graduated from Oberlin I studied with Ricardo Iznaola at the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine. I met Ricardo at Oberlin when Steve invited him to give a masterclass and concert. I had such an amazing experience with Ricardo in his masterclass that I felt I needed to continue to work with him. After studying with Ricardo that summer I auditioned for him at the University of Denver, where I matriculated in the Fall of 2002. 

Ben with Ricardo Iznaola

While I was completing my master’s degree at the University of Denver I began directing the Classical and Jazz Guitar programs at Colorado State University at Pueblo. I continued to attend the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival where I had the privilege of performing George Crumb’s “Night Of The Four Moons”. The ensemble was honored to meet and work with Maestro Crumb, and after our performance he said the following words:

“I had the great good fortune to hear my Night of the Four Moons at the Bowdoin Summer Music Festival in Maine. It is rare that one’s music is prepared with such sensitivity and insight, combined with such superb technical skill.”

L-R: Simone Fontanelli, George Crumb, Ben Cantú, after performance of Night of the Four Moons. (Man behind unknown)

I graduated with my master’s degree in 2005 and continued teaching at CSU-Pueblo until 2009. During those years I collaborated with The Ars Nova Singers in a performance of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s 

Romancero Gitano, the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra in a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s Oceana, founded and performed concerts as a member of Duo Soledad, performed the Concierto de Aranjuez (as mentioned above), and entered competitions throughout the United States (and even managed to place in a few). It was in the summer of 2008 that I ran into Steve for the first time since I graduated from Oberlin, at the Sierra Nevada Classical Guitar Competition in Lake Tahoe. It was such a gift to get to sit down with Steve and catch up on our lives, reminisce about the past, and discuss future projects.  

Despite all these wonderful musical opportunities and experiences, my most proud and rewarding moment from that time period was when one of my students from CSU-Pueblo, Samuel Cogburn, won First Prize in the Senior Division of the 2009 National ASTA Solo Competition. I had worked with Sam since he was a freshman at CSU-Pueblo, and through those five years I had the pleasure of watching him develop into not only a wonderful musician, but the gentle, sincere and kindhearted man he is today. 

Ben with students Samuel Cogburn and Hiroshi, with Theresa Richards

Two moments that were particularly special for me as an instructor were when Sam attended the National Guitar Workshop in New Milford, CT and had a lesson with Steve, and when Sam was accepted in the Graduate Guitar Program at the University of Denver to study with Ricardo. I feel it is an exceptionally proud moment in a teacher’s career when your student goes on to study with your instructor-- there is something familial about it.

Ben with the Colorado Guitar Quartet--Benjamin Altman, James Cline and Kevin Garry (photo by Kyler Deutmeyer)

In the Spring of 2009 I was accepted into the D.M.A. program at The University of Colorado at Boulder. At this point I had decided to focus my energy more into my studies and playing and so relieved myself of my teaching duties at CSU-Pueblo. I also became a member of Denver’s preeminent contemporary music ensemble, The Playground Ensemble. I have always been interested in contemporary music since my high school days when John Holenko introduced me to Brouwer’s works and I attended a performance of Berg’s Wozzeck (the first opera I had seen!) That interest in contemporary music transformed into love and passion through the nurturing guidance and support from Steve and Ricardo. 

Ben, third from left, in Playground Ensemble Poster

My D.M.A. years were quite difficult personally and professionally. In one hand, I had lost a dear friend of mine; on the other, I found myself in an estranged relationship with both the guitar program and the music program at UC Boulder. Nevertheless, I persevered and completed my D.M.A. in the Spring of 2013. My final dissertation project was a solo CD titled: 

Distillations, Chamber works for Guitar and Strings by Dusan Bogdanovic

Ben playing Bogdanovic Quintet with violinists Marcin Arendt, Brett Omara, cellist Marcelo Sanches and violist Dan Fellows.

My interest in Dusan’s music began when I was in high school and deepened at Oberlin. My parents were always extremely supportive of my interest in music, for which I am eternally grateful, and allowed me to buy scores and recordings according to that particular moment’s interest. The attention of a few of those moments were directed towards Dusan’s works, and in particular his A Fairytale With Variations. Not but one year later I attended his concert at the Northeast Ohio Guitar Festival hosted Steve at the University of Akron. It is amazing how many aspects of my life return to my time at Oberlin, as if there is a full circle effect in place. 

Currently I am continuing my work with The Playground Ensemble as a performer and a board member, as well as maintaining a large private studio. I am also collaborating with vocalist Megan Buness on an all Spanish program that includes works by DeFalla, Gerhard, Lorca, and Apivor with intermezzos by Asencio, Rodrigo, and Albeniz. Another collaboration is on the horizon with flutist Carolyn Keyes to perform a repertoire that will focus on music inspired by nature. 

Here, Ben plays with flutist Carolyn Keyes in an ensemble performing John Drumheller's Llanto

On August 26th, 2013 Anna Swenson made me the most happy man by marrying me, and we continue to live in bliss with one another. Aside from music, I have been working with a dear friend of mine on a business idea that we are quite excited about, relating to the ever-so-prevalent beer culture in Denver. In my spare time I enjoy brewing, skiing, hiking (rather tall) mountains, cheering for the Denver Broncos and FC Barcelona, reading, and just being in the general vicinity of my wife. 

Ben plays his vows to new wife, Anna, with best man, Bill Dull.

The community at Oberlin while I was there was incredible, even electric, and as a result I met a few life-long friends. My freshman class consisted of 6 students, including myself, and I am still in touch with three of them (Nick Ruth, Julius Carlson, and Jason Pollack). The upperclassmen were big bothers to us, and Tristan Gaiser and I still plan yearly ski trips in Colorado and California. Just the other day Anna and I were in Minneapolis visiting her family and I reached out to a few Obies in the area through Facebook. We were fortunate enough to meet up with Pat, a trumpet student at Oberlin, and the night transpired as though Pat knocked on my practice room door on a Saturday evening and we left our instruments in the room to throw back a few pints at the Feve.

Oberlin Studio 1999, l-r: Rami Vamos (visiting), Benjamin Cantú, Julius Carlson, Bret Hoag, Jason Pollack, Stephen Aron, Kyle Gilbertson and Nick Ruth.

And, of course, there is Steve


I now really can appreciate the pain in the hind quarters that I must have been and I am so very happy/grateful that Steve stuck through thick and thicker with me while I was his student at Oberlin. Having finished my formal education with three Classical Guitar performance degrees, I feel as though I can reflect back on my education and acknowledge that I wasn’t a typical student. I wasn’t a big-picture student, I wasn’t a quiet student, I wasn’t a patient student, I wasn’t an obedient student…some of the times, but I was a passionate student. I loved, lived and consumed music, and I adored the unique musical environment that Oberlin offered. And in retrospect, having a grounded, experienced, intelligent, realistic, creative, supportive, personable, and community-oriented instructor/mentor such as Steve was the best thing for me at that stage of my development as a musician and a person

..AND now I can say that I can balance voices properly without having to sing them and potentially jeopardize my marriage, and I feel as though my slurs are rather solid. 

Thank you, Steve.


And thank you, Ben, for the kind words, lovely recollections and wonderful recount of your life since Oberlin. I wish you every continuing success and happiness!

The Arpeggio II: Preparing (Planting)

The Arpeggio II: Preparing (Planting)

Crispin Swank's Final Oberlin Recital

Crispin Swank's Final Oberlin Recital