IN: Reviews

Zander’s Maestro Mystique


Ben Zander congratulates concertmaster Jae Young Cosmos Lee (BMInt staff photo)

Benjamin Zander is ubiquitous at his Boston Philharmonic concerts. Present in the lobby a good two hours before starting time, he is buttonholing and offering seemingly intimate asides to hundreds of his patrons in his mission to cajole audiences into engaging with him. On Sunday, November 20, at Sanders Theatre, Ben was suited up to stamp our tickets and conduct us on a ride through Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 4.

Though I have attended concerts in Boston since 1965, Sunday’s pre-concert lecture was my first public experience with Ben’s cult of personality and force of will. Like the “great profile” John Barrymore, Zander fully inhabited his customary role: He danced, he sang, he played the piano, he led the large lecture audience in a sing-along of the principal theme in the fourth movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. He even asked us to sigh collectively with him. Those susceptible to charisma, and I expect it was the majority, became votaries at Ben’s Temple of High Culture.

There was musicological content in the talk as well. Ben talked about key relationships “for those who care about such things as much as we musicians do.” He opined on the importance of rubato in Brahms. He talked about Brahms’s turbulent and frustrated life. We heard about Brahms’s love for the rhythmic figure of two against three, though surprisingly, we did not hear Ben advance the familiar theory of the symbolism of the figure: Brahms’s hope that the triangle of himself with Clara and Robert Schumann might someday resolve itself into a relationship of two — Brahms and Clara.

As is his wont, Ben also enunciated lots of superlatives. “Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is a desert island piece, one of five for me, though I won’t tell you about the other four. It’s perhaps the best constructed symphony by anyone.” About the First Concerto he said, “It represents Brahms’s most personal feelings more than any other of his works. Everything subsequent to it was classicism.” Then he went on to say, “The finale of the Fourth Symphony is the summation of Brahms’s life.” The audience nodded in assent.

Prepared for a metaphysical journey, I was disappointed at the opening of the Concerto. Even though the first movement, Maestoso, was actually played at a rather slow tempo, it felt rushed, especially the first statement from the pianist Martina Filjack, since there was really no evidence of the promised rubato. The proceedings were rather notey and careful, probably because — as one of the players later remarked to me — “We just didn’t get enough rehearsal with the pianist and had trouble keeping together in the rehearsals.”

Boston Philharmonic accepts acclaim (BMInt staff photo)

And because of the rather slow tempo in that “Maestoso” first movement, there wasn’t enough contrast with the second movement, Adagio. By the third movement, the Rondo, there was finally some fire and excitement. The orchestra, a pumped-up mix of students, amateurs, and committed professionals, was now playing just fine. There was a sheen upon the strings, and Filjack allowed herself some freedom in her cadenza. The audience demanded an encore, and she complied with Scriabin’s Prelude for the Left Hand, Op 9, No. 1. This was free and rapturous playing though somewhat limited by Sanders Theatre’s tonally stodgy Steinway.

After intermission, it didn’t take long at all for me to register that the performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 was at a much higher level. Zander emerged from behind the piano and with his more obvious presence willed greatness from the band and total engagement from the audience. Now I could begin to understand the maestro mystique. The first movement had shape and swing. The viola section’s big moment in the second movement worked at the rather glacial tempo because the phrases had suppleness and the dramatic line had a destination. The third movement evoked a brisk walk with an enthusiastic tour guide through a classical sculpture garden. Our friendly leader was frequently tapping us on the shoulder and telling us where to look. The fourth movement had excitement and urgency, but Zander exercised just enough restraint. He knew when to pull back and where to hesitate to set up the multiple climaxes perfectly.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


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

  1. November 20 was Sunday, not Saturday, and since the review is of a performance in Sanders Theatre, it should refer to “Sunday, November 20.” (The Saturday, November 19 performance was in Jordan Hall.)

    Comment by Stephen Owades — November 22, 2011 at 9:59 am

  2. Unless it was November 17, which >was< at Sanders.
    OK, Lee, which was it?

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

  3. Sorry gentlemen- Sunday, November 20th it was…..

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

  4. I must disagree with this review. I attended the same concert on Sunday and came away with precisely the opposite reaction: the Concerto was exciting, tempestuous, fully displaying the young Brahms’ riot of emotions at that time in his life, and this was due entirely to Filjak’s playing. She was by turns subtle, powerful, daring, lyrical and brought off a coherent and thrilling performance of a piece that is all too easy to misplay. The 4th Symphony, my favorite, was well played and with a few interesting surprises. As for the cult of Zander, I don’t see how one can be upset with his enthusiasm and energy and his zeal for bringing this music to a wider audience, especially young listeners. I attended with a group of 8 friends and family members and we were all nearly giddy with delight after this concert. I’ve been attending concerts in Sanders since 1967 and this was one of the magic occasions that don’t happen often enough.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 23, 2011 at 4:15 pm

  5. I did not express any “upset” with Ben Zander’s approach. I simply tried to evoke it for the readers. I’m actually fond of the man and his methods.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 23, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  6. Time for the executive editor to comment. This review struck me, when I edited it, as an honest assessment of a performance from an endearing Boston character and in no way meant in a hostile manner. From time to time — rarely, actually —  I have excised a comment I thought unduly critical, but nothing in this review struck me as in that camp. Ben Zander is known for superlatives for the concert of the moment; his methods catch people’s imaginations and encourage their attendance at concerts of classical music. More power to him.
    As for opinions on performance/ program, whatever, as my mother-through-my-grandmother used to say (In Italian) “Difference of opinion makes horse-racing.”

    Comment by Norton, Bettina A — November 24, 2011 at 9:56 am

  7. It might be worthwhile to discuss this in more detail in another venue. As an editor myself, in a very different field, I too sometimes edit reviewer’s comments, possibly more often than you do. I appreciate Mr. Eiseman’s clarification and am glad that we agree to some extent.

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

  8. Does anyone have the scoop on why Maestro Zander is leaving NEC?

    Comment by joe — January 12, 2012 at 11:15 pm

  9. Joe- I think we’ll leave this to the tabloids for the moment

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

  10. Zander was fired, he says, for hiring a known and registered level 2 sex offender to videotape performances. Fair coverage, and thorough, is at, not so tabloidy. No complaints whatsoever about the videographer for his work. Zander has testified in the man’s behalf (along with many other people) at the man’s nearly 20yo sentencing.

    Comment by david moran — January 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm

  11. Yes, David, I just heard the same announcement on NPR. Well, I am sure that some kind of idiot from NEC’s Human Recoursewill receive some kind of medal and will sleep well as his/her stupid life-mission was accomplished….

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm

  12. I imagine it was on advice of counsel. Have not heard of some anti-zander vendetta. It might well be overreaction, seems to me, but Ben can rub many people the wrong way, and institutions come before individuals (in many cases anyway).

    (Any way you can give your kneejerk ‘assume bad faith’ thing a rest?)

    Comment by david moran — January 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  13. It is very much notkneejerk reaction. Yes, theinstitutions come before individuals but in the situations like this the“institutions” uselessly are not institutions per se but the over-reaction of a few selected feebleadministrators to prevent a hysteria that the “ordinary suspect” who rise fear around the event.  I as well do not anticipate any anti-Zander vendetta. I suspect that the “ordinary suspects” do not even know who Zander is and what he does.  I also think that Zander himself know what is right and what is wrong. Well, from now will the  NEC wil sell tickets to sex offender, or allow parking to drag users after rehab near their building?  You did said, David, that there was no complaints whatsoever about the videographer work. This shall sett all bets off and it is very sad that we in Massachusetts allow the things like this to take place.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — January 14, 2012 at 1:00 am

  14. To “Romy:” Everyone else who posts here uses his real name.  You should do it too.

    Comment by David Bean — January 14, 2012 at 8:16 am

  15. Screen names are okay on this site. We do verify emails, though, without disclosing them.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 14, 2012 at 8:53 am

  16. David, my nom de plume has long became more used than my original name and if it is good for my coworkers, associates, parents and friends then I am sure it shall be OK for you. However, if you are desperate than I can send you a postal pigeon with my SSN and you will be able to verify that I am no sex offender, pay taxes regularly and that my grandfather never served in Hitlerjugend…

    The story about Benjamin Zander and the pathetic NEC behavior is all out and it is very indicative who demonstrate conviction and integrity and who is frightening idiot. When you see the foolishness like this take place in Boston one might understand why some Morons from Taxes laugh about Massachusetts…

    BTW, i think that this Zander’s event shall open a Pandora box for much more. Back in 1972 BSO was playing the Ein Heldenleben and when the second trombone got sick they substituted him with external 1099 player. That player bought house in 1951 and in 1968 he hired a crew of carpenters to remodel it. So, we just discovered that one of the carpenters was an emigre from Turkestan and back in his county he was convicted and served sentence for bestiality. So, in context of the new revealed facts I propose the following to BSO administration:

    1)      Ban performance of any Richard Strauss music.
    2)      Remove from the orchestra any instrument that able to produce sound remotely resembling a disturbed donkey.
    3)      Appoint the current NEC administration responsible for this shame to serve as donkeys in Turkestan for next 10 years.

    Romy the Cat

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

  17. So this poor guy served his time in the last century, went through the parole process, was hired 20 years ago and during that time, as far as we know, has done his job correctly and without scandal. He was hired by one of if not the best of the Boston conductors, who is now paying the price or political correctness gone mad. Actually it will be the students and the Boston public who will pay the price. Also sounds like both have grounds for a possible law suit against the Conservatory.Plus. if the guy had been a member of a union or a public servant, he’d still have his job and probably a raise.
    Won’t any of the liberals who believe in paroling rapists and murderers come to Zander’s and this poor man’s defence?  
    Question: Does Zander also lose his position with the Boston Philharmonic? 

    Comment by Bill Gaw — January 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm

  18. *** Also sounds like both have grounds for a possible law suit against the Conservatory.
    I do not think that Ben Zander would have any interest to press charges against Conservatory. Unquestionably firing Zander was BS but why Zander would waste his time to prove anything to them? If anything NEC demonstrated incompetence and inedible foolishness. Even if the school has some kind of policy against former sex offenders then criminal record verification is NEC responsibility. The guy was 1099 for them on 1099 for many year and they suddenly woke up. For sure it is some kind of idiot-administrator in NEC is trying to make waves using the publicity of the recent scandals in other schools. I just wish public would not let them go away with it and if the kids from the Zander orchestra know that videographer and have an opinion on the subject then they need to fight. 

    BTW, Lee, can you verify that none of the authors of the articles you post at BMI has any criminal record? I think that collection of blood samples of the crew that host this site in datacenter is also long warranted.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 14, 2012 at 8:36 pm

  19. I can’t resist saying, how would we feel if the videographer were a Catholic priest or if it were a Catholic school that hired him? what if Ben Zander were a bishop?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 14, 2012 at 10:11 pm

  20. Joe, the excellent association. Let look into it.

    The guy was a Catholic priest and committed a crime. He was arrested, prosecuted, went to prison and paid his dues. For 20 years he is working as a car mechanic, has no conflict with law, no reported or accused acts of recidivism.  Your local car dealer before selling you a used advised you to take the car to an independent inspection. Based upon the recommendation of the dealer you went to this former priest and got excellent service from his shop. Then you learn about the history of this mechanic. Dose it automatically makes you to withdraw your interest about the car and stop to use that car dealership?

    Comment by Romy the Cat — January 15, 2012 at 6:50 am

  21. I think the man need to be heard.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — January 15, 2012 at 11:08 am

  22. I think both men need to be heard.

    Comment by Romy the Cat — January 15, 2012 at 11:09 am

  23. The letter from Mr. Zander says it all. The NEC has shown political correctness at its worst. Is the head of the NEC possibly a descendant of one of the elders from Salem, Ma. perhaps?

    Comment by Bill Gaw — January 15, 2012 at 11:17 am

  24. Romy, If the mechanic’s crime had been fraudulent billing for repair work not done, I might think seriously whether I can trust him with my car.

    I think there are two questions, at least, here, and they have nothing to do directly with music. One is the harshness with which our contemporary society deals with many types of crime. The other is how to deal with sex offenders where minors have been the victims, which is non-musical but relates to this case. In the light of the terrible things some priests did, the Catholic Church has adopted a “one strike and you’re out” policy. Others, like Ben Zander, believe that there can be circumstances in which it can be safe for past offenders to work around minors, particularly if they are always in the presence of others. I think these are questions which our society needs to consider thoughtfully, and as unemotionally as possible. I also think, and this was the point of my first comment, that as a society we should apply the same standard to all.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — January 15, 2012 at 12:26 pm

  25. While Romy’s (his real name, by the way, more or less) suggestions may at first blush seem radical, and Bill Gaw’s eminently reasonable, I think “on the advice of counsel” nailed it. Now all the NEC has to do is wait for any claim to be made against it and after a suitable period of silence reconcile with Zander, if not the unfortunate Mr. Benjamin.

    Also one must wonder whether anyone in this affair considered that concert videography by its very nature keeps the photographer at a distance from the subjects?  

    Finally someone should inquire of the NEC what level and sort of criminality is acceptable in any of its associates, and how long in the past must the offense have occurred? 

    Comment by Clark Johnsen — January 15, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Joe, do not bite the hook. It was exactly what NEC administration hoped: the gullible people dive into considerations about “contemporary society deals with many types of crimes” and “how to deal with ex-sex offenders where minors have been the victims”. To illustrate the point they fired Zander that had as much to do with the subject as you have to do with Tunguska event.

    The point is, as my sources indicate, that the history of this videographer was well know to anybody and in fact it never was make a secret (as it shall be). Whoever when for whatever reasons some kind of NEC executive decided to get rid of Zander then NEC embraced the mask of Captain Renault and screamed “We’re shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” If would be similar if Juilliard after years of steadily supplying boys and laying them under Vladimir Horowitz would suddenly press charges against him.

    We all understated that videographer is not in the picture in this event and I do not advocate Zander personally. However, this barbaric behavior that NEC expressed is not a reason for a conductor was disassociated from his orchestra. In fact what NEC did was a gross stupidity and I very much hope that whoever was responsible for it will not be working at NEC any longer. I do not know if Zander’s lawyers will take care for this, the unions, the parents committee or the students but if I were NEC student than they would learn how a nice and obedient feline might be converted into one very mean pussy.

    I wonder how this event will be viewed around the world. At the time when BSO is looking and can’t find a new musical director the local leading conductor is getting fired for THAT? Are you kidding me? Well, buckle up the contestant for Levine sit! We are in Boston a bit mishugina, be prepared…

    Comment by Romy The Cat — January 15, 2012 at 7:11 pm

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