Benjamin Zander, Maestro Who Works to Motivate

Thursday, December 05, 2013 - 01:00 PM

Conductor Benjamin Zander in the WQXR studio. Conductor Benjamin Zander in the WQXR studio. (Brian Wise/WQXR)

Benjamin Zander is known for being many things: a late-blooming conductor, a veteran of the Boston music scene, a motivational speaker whose TED Talk has received 4.5 million views online, plus an educator, author and Mahler specialist. What he’s not known for is shyness behind a microphone.

Zander’s exuberance (and shock of white hair) was on full display when he sat down with host Jeff Spurgeon recently at WQXR. It was just days before the Carnegie Hall appearance of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a training ensemble he started in 2012, comprising some 120 students aged 13 to 21.

The group was founded with the intention of shaping musicians who were “interested in developing leadership, something more than just playing their instruments,” said Zander, who was born in Buckinghampshire, England and has lived in Boston since the 1960s. Along with auditions, he said, "there was a conversation where I looked into their eyes and saw whether there was a spark there for something more than just playing.”

The BPYO launched in November 2012, with a pair of sold-out concerts at Boston’s Symphony Hall. In June it undertook an ambitious five-concert tour of the Netherlands, which included a radio broadcast of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. A portion of the tour’s $350,000 cost was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, which surpassed its $35,000 goal by roughly $10,000. The ensemble arrives in New York on Monday night to perform Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, as well as music by Verdi, Ravel and Michael Gandolfi.

The group's current efforts suggest a dramatic change of tone from the storm clouds under which it was born. In February 2012, Zander was fired from the New England Conservatory after school officials learned that he knowingly hired a convicted sex offender a decade ago to film its youth orchestra. Zander has maintained that the films were mostly of college or graduate-level performances at the Conservatory; a vocal group of Zander's supporters argued that he was a scapegoat amid school politics. He declines to discuss the incident further today.

"I had 45 wonderful years at the NEC which I treasure every day of," said Zander. "And then there was a parting of the ways. It was an unfortunate parting. However, we’ve created something new and wonderful that couldn’t have happened before."

The 74-year-old Zander co-founded the BPYO's parent ensemble, the Boston Philharmonic, in 1979, and currently serves as its conductor and music director. He has led other major ensembles, and has been recording a Mahler symphony cycle with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London over several years (their recording of the Second Symphony came out in October). He also regularly makes corporate speaking engagements, in which he draws parallels between orchestras and business leadership.

Zander's recordings have received high marks from critics but the conductor says he's most drawn to teaching young people because they lack cynicism. "I say a cynical person is a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again,” he told Spurgeon. “Professional musicians have to remind us what an experience performing was when they were young. That’s my job. That’s the job of a leader, to constantly play on those emotional heartstrings – not just to conduct clearly and make sure they’re together.”

Listen to the full interview with Benjamin Zander above.

Hosted by:

Jeff Spurgeon


Brian Wise


More in:

Comments [8]

Anne Peretz from cambridge ma.

As someone close to the situation, I can assure Mr Fischbein there were never charges of any kind against Ben Zander. And there was no cover up, He has been granted the honorific title: Faculty Emeritus at the New England Conservatory and relations are back to normal. There is no more to be said about the matter.
The sad thing is that by bringing up and then dwelling on this long gone incident, you have drawn attention away from the purpose of the interview on WQXR which was to inform the New York classical music audience about Mr Zander's wonderful new orchestra and their upcoming concert in Carnegie Hall on Monday December 9th.

WQXR had no reason or obligation to go into an unrelated matter that has long since been settled. We, in Boston, who know this amazing orchestra want to tell our friends in New York to go hear it!
Following the good laws of journalism:
Who: Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Benjamin Zander, conductor
What: Verdi La Forza del Destino; Gandolphi Garden of Speculation; Ravel Piano Concerto in G with Christopher O'Riley; Shostakovich 5th Symphony
Where: Carnegie Hall
When: Monday December 9th at 8 PM
Why: because 117 young musicians with deep passion and a high level of accomplishment wan to share with the people of New york what they have discovered about four great works of the orchestral repertoire

Anne Peretz, Founder of The Family Center, Somerville Mass..

Dec. 07 2013 06:53 PM
Gary Gruber

This was rejuvenating. An excellent interview replete with answers to many unanswered questions in music and in society. Ben, you are a true inspiration to all people and hopefully they will listen to this interview and see that they can develop passion and meaning in their life. I will still never forgot the six hours we spent together when you visited me in Mill Valley, CA, many years ago.

Dec. 06 2013 10:18 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Dr. Sheckman, one of my recent Cello teachers, also a NEC graduate knew Mr. Zander quite well, and spoke highly of him as a musician. You are quite correct that every person has his/he personal failings, no one is immune.
However there were serious charges placed against this man and I am sure that an institution with the ability to seek council from highly respected attorneys and advisors did not rush to judgment when they terminated Mr. Zander.
I am a firm believer in the five w's of Journalism, be it print or broadcast journalism. They are Who/What/Where/When/Why, and the WQXR article left out a great deal of information needed to judge this man in a fair light. I am sure I could have gained greatly in my Cello studies from him, but that does not excuse his lapse of judgement and the cover up,and the fact that WQXR seemed to gloss over it. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 06 2013 12:14 PM
richard viano from Santa Fe NM

Let's not leave out what a great cello teacher he is!! i had the best year of my life at NEC studying cello with Ben;

Dec. 06 2013 10:59 AM
Peter Sheckman

It has been my joy and privilidge to have shared my musical life with Ben over the past thirty eight years since I came to Boston to finish medical training in infectious diseases. In speaking for the hundreds of amateur players who have gone through the orchestra, we have all had a rare privilidge to work with Ben as well as the many great musicians of Boston. Those of all ages have learned, wondered, enjoyed, found meaning in music and in many areas of life with Ben's leadership. I have told Ben that he has no idea how often I have used lessons learned in music, life, friendship and leadership in teaching students, residents staff MD's and office staff. Now having the pleasure of watching him work with the BPYO I have seen his greatest talent. He makes music important, real an engaging for the youngest of players. He stimulates them and traps them for life in the most wonderful web of classical music. Just before writing this note, I read an article about Nelson Mandela - the greatest leader of our lifetimes. His great joy was to sit listening to classical music watching the sunset. A sensitive brilliant man felt the meaning and depth of music with obviously no early background or traning. Music is clearly the messenger of the heart and soul. There are probably thousands who thank Ben for bringing the same message. Having just read the biography of Mandela - by A. Sampson -and reading the reviews of the mew movie of his life; we learn of the man - the miracle but also the faults and the humanities. Ben Zander fits the description of a man - a great teacher and musician who, yes, may have had sorrows, misjudgements and more in his life. So have we all. This is the time to praise and recognize the importance a a life well spent and not to delve into the past problems. At near 75 this man has done well and lived well.

Dec. 06 2013 07:20 AM
LarryJ. Livingston from Los Angeles, California

I have known Ben Zander for thirty-six years. I was Vice Presdient and Music Director of New England Conservatory from 1977 to 1982. Ben and I took the NEC Symphony to France in 1982 playing with Rostropovich, Agerich, Zimmerman, and Loriod. Subsequently, when I became Dean of the Shepherd School at Rice, I brought Ben to conduct numerous special projects ranging from Bach, B minor Mass to Mahler 2. In 1986 I became Dean of the Thornton School of Music at USC and, again, I invited Ben to guest conduct on several occasions. I know Ben, have watched his rehearsals and concerts, have had numerous discussions with him, have interacted with him often and with great purpose. Without exception, he has been a beacon of musical insight, pedagogical brilliance, and a tireless servant both of his art and, even more important, of the by now thousands of young musicians who have been conducted or coached by him. I have been witness to his remarkable power to redefine the musical boundaries for everyone, me included. Throughout, he has been a dedicated and compassionate mentor to his charges. Their testimonials aggregate and dramatically validate the impact he has had on them not just as musicians but as human beings. Ben's quest is as much about the people as the music. His care for his players is both genuine and endless.

Ben has spent virtually his entire adult life as a musical missionary, a bringer of light and hope through his astonishing capacity not just to change people but to transform them. His music speaks only of deep revelation and his teaching is unforgettable.

While many conductors are inspiring, Ben is something more. He is a sage who has chosen to anoint young people with his heart, a vessel which knows only of the ineffably poetic and good. His players live their whole futures in the afterglow of his sentient and priceless gift to them, the sacred voice of an original and profound weaver of magic.

Larry J. Livingston
Chair, Department of Conducting
Thornton School of Music
University of Southern California
Director of Educational Initiatives
Guitar Center, Inc.
Chair, Teacher Training
Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium

Dec. 06 2013 12:29 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Plz excuse misspelling of Mr. Zander's name, I used Zandler several times, could not correct after posted, please excuse. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 05 2013 06:56 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

WQXR is making Mr. Zandler look like a victim. He is in fact a conspirator. He had known for some 20 years about Mr. Peter Benjamin and his arrest for pedofelia. Your article fails to even mention the name of the pedofile Mr. Zandler hired. ( Mr. Benjamin) It also does not mention cancellations of many of Mr. Zandler's speaking engagements which occurred after his firing from The NEC.
According to published by The Boston Globe,(Feb. 5, 2012) Mr. Zandler wrote a letter of support for Peter Benjamin just prior to his sentencing for sexual crimes against children. Zandler never mentioned this to any NEC personnel and then tried to blame the Opera Department for hiring Benjamin to film children after his release from jail.
Mr. Benjamin is not the only person with friends in high places in the classical music world that have found support and comfort after being arrested for pedofelia.
I suggest for further interest you google the following ( sandow) to see just how far alleged coverups of sexual improprities of some in the Classical and Operatic world can go, and just how much pressure is exerted so that no one will be willing to expose the alleged perps.
Mr. Sandow is a serious musician and critic, a Juilliard Graduate who wrote for a number of years for The Village Voice, hardly a right wing paper.
It is unfortunate that so many in the Classical and Operatic arts are willing to look the other way when talented peers take advantage of children.
It has happened before and is happening now, perhaps if more respected people like Mr. Sandow and publications like continue to probe people like Mr. Zander, high ranking respected musicians and conductors can be exposed for their alleged crimes against children and put in jail where they belong if found guilty.
The Boston Globe did a fair an balanced article on Mr. Zandler and did not attempt to make him look like a victim as the above WQXR article did.
I think that people like Zandler and Benjamin should be put in jail together, or at least shunned for their utter disregard for the welfare of children.
Merry Christmas, God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Dec. 05 2013 06:53 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.