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.