A Farewell to Jack Benaroya

It was as if the room was built for the occasion. Three days after he passed away in his sleep at the age of 90, philanthropist Jack Benaroya was honored with a public memorial at the building that bears his name: Benaroya Hall, the 2,500-capacity room that has housed the Seattle Symphony since 1998.

On May 14, family, friends, business partners, artists and fellow patrons gathered at the hall to honor the pioneering real estate developer who became a pillar of Seattle’s artistic and Jewish communities.

As the lights dimmed, the orchestra’s string section quietly took the stage. Gerard Schwarz, maestro of the orchestra for 26 years until his retirement in 2011, ascended the podium to a rare silence. The violins eased into Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod,” starting a moving tribute to a man held in high esteem.

Friends and family took to the lectern to remember Benaroya—businessman, art lover and father—and to express their sympathies to his family. Friend Joshua Gortler dedicated a Hebrew proverb to his memory: “Tov shem tov mi-shemen tov.” A good name is better than good oil.

David Austin, a gallery owner in Palm Desert, where Benaroya spent his winters, spoke of the business savvy and the love of art in the man he called an uncle. Austin recalled asking Benaroya for advice in expanding his gallery.  “Build two stories,” Austin remembered Benaroya saying. “You only have to buy one roof.”

“For an artist to have a piece in Jack’s collection was better than to have it in a museum,” he added.

Benaroya’s grandson David Naness took to the lectern, recalling the way his grandfather would kiss his forehead, the love he showed his wife and his approach to appreciating art. “He never told me what was good art,” Naness said. “He just pointed out what interested him and asked me what I thought.”

Schwarz memorialized the man who built the Hall with a composition, In Memoriam, which featured Schwarz’s son Julian on solo cello. At first disquieting and distraught, the piece took on a lucid understated beauty as it progressed, settling into a pastoral calm. In the end, Julian played a strident yet mournful flurry of runs before finishing the piece with one long, drawn, low note.

“I remember when I showed Jack an early rendering of the building,” Schwarz said at the close of the memorial. “Because a concert hall must have walls without windows, there was that entire side of the building facing Union Street that was bare. When he saw the design, the blank wall on Union, he said, ‘You can’t do that. You’re shutting out the community.’”

At Benaroya’s request, the wall was given special attention. Carved into the stone façade, towering above Union Street in tall letters, is a quote from composer Aaron Copeland: “So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it.”

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