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Benjamin Zander on Two Sides of the Russian Soul


For thirty-two years Benjamin Zander has been guiding musicians of the Boston Philharmonic and their audiences in intense journeys through the greatest orchestral literature, often with famous soloists. On April 30, May 1 and May 2, the “legendary” cellist, Natalia Gutman returns for the third time. The all-Russian program with Shostakovich’s introspective Second Cello Concerto and Prokofiev’s exuberant Romeo and Juliet (in a suite assembled by Zander) will be preceded by Zander’s popular pre-concert talks on the first two nights.

F. Lee Eiseman, the publisher of BMInt, interviewed Zander on April 17.

BMInt: Ben, BMInt has a mission to get people thinking and writing about classical music in a constructive forum in the post-newspaper era. You seem to be on a mission as well. One that’s possibly harder to summarize, but please try.

BMInt staff photo

BZ: Well, my mission is based on a very clear notion that all human beings love classical music, but most of them haven’t found out about it. I don’t make any distinction between the people who’ve been brought up listening to classical music and who know about it and studied it and taken courses, et cetera, and those who come “off the street” as it were. My mission is to make sure that I create an environment for them as well as for others where they can come in, feel safe, don’t feel threatened, don’t feel ill at ease, where they’re helped to understand the music. Where programs make some sense, so the program is journey, it’s not just random pieces of music. Where I use my desire to communicate actually in the concert, either before it or during the concert in the Discovery Series, to keep them up-to-date with what’s happening.

I use the best analogy I can think of; when I came here I had no idea what American football was about. It was complete nonsense for me, I had no idea. Somebody took me aside and explained. ‘This is what’s happening, these are the rules’. I now love to watch American football. Without that information I was swimming, so, like BMInt, I believe that the word is the best access. The spoken or written word is a way of getting people inside something they otherwise would not know about. Most of the people in your organization are insiders, but my hope is that through more explanations at concerts that more people from the outside who don’t know about it will be drawn to the conversation and say “Oh, that’s what all these classical music people are getting excited about!”

BMInt: So you realize that by developing somewhat of a cult of personality and talking to your audience and making them feel, you are, if not an oracle, then at least some sort of a guide.

BZ: There’s nothing grander than that. It turns out that not only the relatively untutored people who’ve never studied music or don’t know anything about it come to concerts, but also the real music lovers come. We had over 500 people come an hour before the concert for the talk at the last concert in Jordan Hall. That’s a staggering number of people who are taking the trouble to come an hour and one half early. This is not some professor giving background information, this is me telling from my heart what this music is about, so that they have something to think about all the way through the piece. Of course, what it does, it changes the appearance of playing the music, because then the players know that the audience is listening for those things because they were at the pre-concert talk on the Thursday night.  For the Discovery Series [ed: this time on Monday night, May 2], every time I make a comment about the music they can hear it because I have the orchestra on stage to demonstrate.

BMInt: Do you feel like Leopold Stokowsky with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia?

BZ: Fantasia is more of imaginative connections. It’s not explained, and they’re random …

BMInt: I meant in the sense that Stokowsky really is addressing the audience in a way that conductors don’t, in most of their concerts.

BZ: It’s more in the tradition of Bernstein. He felt exactly the same way I do. Music is for everybody. Mahler didn’t write a symphony for a few Mahler lovers, he wrote it for everybody. It’s about everybody and for everybody, and that’s so true of all this music. Take the example of this concert:  Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Everybody knows the story of Romeo and Juliet and it’s amazing how few stories there are that are in the culture. Everybody knows the story, every child. This audience is going to be packed with kids because all the kids in the neighborhood are reading Romeo and Juliet. The interesting thing about Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is that it’s a ballet, therefore it’s very long. It’s a huge ballet and it’s very rarely played. We’re not doing the entire piece, because it is three hours. Usually in the theatre it’s the ballet — there are lots of dances and extra things, and then there are the three suites. Two of them are the main ones that are done all the time.

The trouble with the suites is that although they are full of gorgeous music, but they don’t make any sense. There’s not a story; it’s just a lump of music. So I’ve taken all the elements of the three suites that tell the story from the beginning to the end. All the way through until Juliet’s death, it’s all there. With this concert form, it’s the only way that you can hear one of the three or four greatest works of the twentieth century. I’ve done it before and it’s immensely effective. By the end, it’s devastating because it ends in C Major, the most tender C Major imaginable. I usually say it’s the saddest C Major in music history, that moment, because you’ve been through this incredible drama.

The beauty is that I will have told the kids in the hall all the things to listen for, so that when they get to the end, they will have gone through the experience – Juliet was 13 and Romeo was around 17 –the age of many of the kids in the audience, and so their access to music, for me, is so thrilling. It’s got everything that you could possibly want — sex, love, death, fighting, the works. That’s why it’s the most romantic story. It’s caught the imagination of everybody. A lot of people have set the story, but the Prokofiev is far and away the greatest. The beauty of hearing it in the concert hall rather than the ballet is that most ballets are about movement, about dancing, and this is about music. Prokoviev wrote the music first and the dance was added later: The ballet is actually incidental. There are lots of different versions. There’s no set version of Romeo and Juliet, unlike the great Russian ballets by Tchaikovsky where the music is there for the dancing. You need to hear the music on the stage, for instance, to know that when the saxophone comes in for the first time, it’s an intruder. Romeo is an intruder into that Capulet dance. If they don’t know that than how are they going to know? But if I tell them that, they’re going to say “Oh, there’s Romeo coming into the Capulet dance!”

BMInt: There are many composers whose works you’ve never programmed. Can you tell us why you connect with only certain pieces or certain composers?

BZ: Well everybody only connects with certain composers. If they don’t, they’re not really connecting. You can only connect with the things you feel passionate about. I feel passionate about the entire German tradition and the entire Russian tradition.

BMInt: Going back to Bach?

BZ: Absolutely. I teach Bach every week. It’s one of my main obsessions, but you don’t do Bach with the Boston Philharmonic.  The orchestra is huge, so you play music that is written for huge orchestras.

BMInt: So it’s not a matter of your personal taste, it’s just what is appropriate to those forces.

BZ: I have three orchestras that I conduct regularly in town. They’re all huge and they all want to play as much as possible. The Conservatory, the Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonic… Incidentally, for a long time I didn’t program French music because it’s so refined and so demanding of an orchestra. But now we’re over that. We did [Debussy’s] La mer this last year and it was an exquisite performance.

BMInt: Was that because you felt that the orchestra needed to get to a certain level first?

BZ: Exactly. It’s really a world-class orchestra, it’s become an extraordinary instrument, so now there really isn’t any limitation.

BMInt: Do you take the role of humor in music seriously?

BZ: It seems to me there is a lot of humor in music. In the Prokofiev it’s mostly sardonic humor. It’s sarcastic or ironic. The belly laugh is rare. Haydn is the master of the belly laugh and he does it because of expectation. He understands exactly what our expectations are.

BMInt: Does every piece you play have to be an existential journey?

BZ: No. I love pieces that are light. I love all music. I just did An American in Paris at the beginning of the year with La mer. We started with An American in Paris and then we did the Ravel Piano Concerto, and then we did the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, and then we did La mer. The stories that were going around about these composers, arriving in Paris, and connecting with each other, Gershwin asking Ravel for lessons, Stravinsky and Ravel knowing each other. … I love that stuff.

BMInt: That’s not a concert that you would have done twenty years ago.

BZ: Certainly La mer is an extraordinarily demanding piece of music, and you know, this is a town with the greatest French orchestra of the world. The tradition of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it’s the greatest French symphony in the world.  For a long time I said that’s not repertoire we should be handling because we don’t have that kind of finesse. Now, you listen to La mer, and it’s just flawless and thrilling. Now we can go anywhere. There are two very great traditions in our music, in our concert halls. One is the German/Austrian tradition, in which I am steeped, right from the beginning to the end, from Bruckner and Mahler and Strauss, and the other one is the Russian tradition. I’m equally happy and at home there.

A very interesting thing I was thinking about today was, what is so special about this concert? Because that’s what we’re talking about here. In the German tradition, it’s the composers who dominate throughout. There are very few individual performers who are crucial to the development of that tradition. In Russia, it’s very different because we have been taught this music by a great line of Russian golden age performers: Richter, Rostropovich, Heifetz, Oistrakh. We heard this music through their ears. Natalia Gutman is the last of that golden era. There are many people out there who play this music, but when you hear her play Shostakovich, for instance – she knew Shostakovich, she studied with Richter and Rostropovich — she’s deeply immersed in that world. When she draws her bow across the string, the only world she knew was the world in which Prokofiev wrote. That was the world she was born into. She didn’t know anything else, she’d never been anywhere else. So for us as performers, we hear the music. When we did the Sinfonia Concertante last year with the Prokofiev, it was incredible, and I’ve heard many people do it. But that authentic Russian voice is something that you can’t find in many places now.

BMInt: Is she challenging to follow as an accompanist?

BZ: She is. She is challenging to follow. I love following her. I’ll go anywhere with Natalia Gutman because it’s so imaginative. But it’s unpredictable.

BMInt: Is she as mercurial as Russell Sherman?

BZ: No. She is solid as a rock. It’s like being in communion with the steppes of Russia. All the string players just look at her and say, “How does she do that?” She just draws this rich sound. There are a lot of other people who play that music extraordinarily well, but with Natalia you just say, “So that’s how the piece goes.” That’s why I keep having her back. This is the fourth time we’ve had her. When she plays Shostakovich, the second concerto … Nobody’s heard the second concerto. Everybody knows the first concerto; it’s a great piece from beginning to end. But the second concerto is right at the end of his life. That esoteric style of the fifteenth symphony and the fifteenth quartet and the viola sonata, the last thing he wrote, it’s weird, it’s so sparse, so spare, and so without middle, often just two voices. It’s kind of depressing in a funny way, but it’s an important work, and people don’t know it. I want people to hear it.

The beauty is to juxtapose it with the most lavishly rich peopled world of the Romeo and Juliet which is full of dances, and full of people and full of color, character and vitality, and then this sparse piece. Those are two sides of the Russian soul. They are two essential parts. That’s what I feel my job is, to bring these stories forward so that people can broaden their experience. It’s not just about hearing somebody play the cello. It’s about absorbing a culture, about understanding more about life by hearing how they saw the world. The best people to do it are those people who lived it.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The presence of Natalia Gutman in Boston is an even of higher caliber.

    In my estimation there are handful soloists of her magnitude visiting our city per year. She was here in spring 2009 and the played she showed was beyond believe (BTW, the WCRB broadcasted it yesterday at 3PM and as usealy there was no announcement of the broadcast at their web sites!) As much as I do not like all that semi-moronic Prokofiev/Shostakovich music I have to admit that watching and listening Gutman live was truly transcending experience. The Gutman’s play does emphasize what the different between a person who play cello well and the cellist who has God’s gift to play cello. I have no idea why Lee Eiseman put the word “legendary” in quotes when he mentions Natalia Gutman. For our generation Ms. Gutman is what Pablo Casals was in 30s and in 20-30 years those of us who still were not destroyed by Alzheimer’s will be bragging that we’ve heard Natalia Gutman live. A deep bow to Mr. Zander that he makes Mr. Gutman available in Boston.

    BTW, another symbolic moment of our time: the “amateur” Boston Philharmonic brings soloist like Natalia Gutman while the pompous BSO plays with somebody like Jonathan Biss, who demonstrate sub-sophomoric artistry at his best…

    Anyhow, put your kids in pawnshop and for the money you get buy tickets for the Natalia Gutman’s show. If the stars come together then it might be VERY memorable event.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — April 25, 2011 at 12:59 pm

  2. “I don’t make any distinction between the people who’ve been brought up listening to classical music and who know about it and studied it and taken courses, et cetera, and those who come “off the street” as it were. My mission is to make sure that I create an environment for them as well as for others where they can come in, feel safe, don’t feel threatened, don’t feel ill at ease, where they’re helped to understand the music.”

    I’m not sure how to reconcile this with Maestro Zander’s nearly hurling his baton at some young people who had the temerity to begin applause after the first piece in Sunday’s Romeo and Juliet Suite. A suite, by nature, is discontinuous, and a little well-earned applause would have caused no disruption.

    I was told by Joseph Fuchs that he loved hearing applause between movements “because it means there are new people out there.” I am a great admirer of the music of Benjamin Zander but sometimes he goes too far.

    Comment by jemery36 — May 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  3. What introspective Second Cello Sonata are you talking about, Mr. Publisher? Are you getting your readers warmed up for provocative comments to follow or just checking if anybody is paying attention :-)

    Substituting Sonata for Concerto is only a part of the problem. If only you used your press credentials to get into the aforementioned performance of the concerto you would have found out that the Shostakovich’s 2nd cello concerto has all the introspection of a public flogging scene.

    Comment by TheCartesian — May 3, 2011 at 8:54 pm

  4. I accept Cartesius’s flogging over my typo- yes, it’s the Second Concerto. As for the adjective, introspective, that was a reference to Mr. Zander’s description. I’ve never actually heard the work, nor was I attempting any critique in that innocuous introduction.

    I hope to have BMInt’s review from Steven Ledbetter up soon.

    Thanks for the alert correction.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm

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