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Larger Than Life and Generous of Spirit


BMInt staff photo
BMInt staff photo

Whatever you think about Ben Zander’s hyperbolic nature, it’s hard to dispute his results with the young. Upon the conclusion of his 45 years at New England Conservatory, the 74-year-old conductor started the new Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra because, as he told BMInt, “The kids wouldn’t allow me to sit around and do nothing.” In their first outing at Symphony Hall last November, they filled the place and earned fine notices for a program including Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Alisa Weilerstein, and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Hear for yourself here.

BPYO’s second outing will present Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor with George Li, soloist, along with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with a cast including: Harvard University Choirs, Edward Elwyn Jones, choir conductor; Barbara Quintiliani, soprano; and Robynne Redmon, mezzo-soprano. Tickets for the March 10th event at 3:00 in Symphony Hall appearance can be ordered here. BMInt conversed with Zander:

Lee Eiseman: After you left New England Conservatory last year, why is it that you felt compelled to start another youth orchestra?

Ben Zander: Well I wasn’t finished with my work and the kids weren’t finished with theirs. It’s amazing how it has worked out, because now there are three distinct youth orchestra programs in the city and all of them are flourishing: YPO at NEC, BYSO at BU, and the BPYO at the Boston Philharmonic. So we’ve just added to the opportunities for the most serious young musicians in the area.

Then there must be 500 Boston area kids playing in orchestras at a reasonable level each weekend?

Amazing isn’t it? Actually the level is extremely high. I don’t believe there is any city in America with as much opportunity for dedicated young musicians. Our orchestra is a little different from other youth orchestras in that it goes from 12 to 21. So that opens it up to undergraduates. I’m very excited about this. Students from Boston Conservatory, NEC, BU, MIT, Harvard, Wheelock are involved, as well as about 60 who are in high school and junior high. And the balance between these different constituencies is magnificent. Also the sectional coaches are from the Boston Symphony and the Boston Philharmonic, so there are many institutions involved in this venture from all across the city. That is unique. Every rehearsal begins with an hour of sectionals with a master teacher and that is the heart of the program. It’s amazing that, for instance, Jim Orleans from the BSO puts the bass section through its paces almost every Saturday afternoon. We take over the whole Franklin Institute and there is music pouring out from every room.

And that includes a room that looks like a miniature Symphony Hall.

That’s the jewel. That beautiful room has been unusable for music, because the acoustics were so over-resonant—it had something like a seven second reverberation because the ceiling is so high. Chris Blair, one of the leading acousticians in the country, came up from Connecticut and showed us that with acoustical panels all around and 100 foam rubber mattresses in the balcony we could turn it into a perfect acoustical space. So now there is a wonderful new place for music in Boston, with seating for around 500 people. It has also become the home of the Boston Philharmonic. It is a blessing for both orchestras to have such a beautiful rehearsal space. We bought stands and 130 chairs and tympani and percussion instruments – everything. And it’s in walking distance from most of the music schools.

The BPYO is an amazing orchestra. From the approximately 300 kids that we auditioned we chose 114, making up a perfectly balanced orchestra of forty violins, sixteen each of cellos and violas and eight basses and all the winds, brass and percussion required for really major works like Ein Heldenleben of Strauss and Mahler 2nd. It’s a really powerful sound when they all play together!

How unusual is it to have this particular age spread with 60 of high school age stretching to seniors in college?

It’s unusual in the US, most youth orchestras are only for high-school aged students, but in Europe it’s more common. The San Francisco Youth Orchestra has the same age-range and so does the New York Youth Symphony.

Do you have any sense of how many of them are on performance tracks?

I would say that a large percentage of them are capable of becoming professional musicians and are planning on that. However how many will end up doing that we don’t know yet. Certainly the older ones who are enrolled in conservatories have already made the decision to go into music. But this brings up an interesting aspect of the program. We don’t just teach them music, we’re teaching them about life and leadership, so that they will be prepared for any career path. Every week I give them an assignment, which is designed to help them grow and develop as human beings.

Now this sets you apart.

I think it does. Before they were admitted, I interviewed each one in order to ascertain whether they were interested in something other than just playing their instrument.

So no cynics allowed?

I believe there are no cynics. A cynical person is a passionate person who doesn’t want to be disappointed again. There are only passionate people in the BPYO—members and their coaches! The atmosphere in that room on Saturday afternoons is electrifying.

Do you really think you can hear that?

Oh absolutely. It’s palpable. The moment you walk into the room you feel it, everybody’s engaged, they’re excited, and they’re passionate. Many of them write about how excited they are on their “white sheets” each week. I often come back from a rehearsal with 40 or more, “white sheets” bursting with enthusiasm about the music, their experience, and suggestions for the interpretation. They take it all very seriously.

I often put their comments on my website. I have a very active Facebook life, with people writing in to comment on the assignments or what the kids write on their “white sheets”.  I am told that about 10-12,000 people come on to my website each week. That’s pretty exciting for the kids to realize that what they are experiencing and writing is being shared with people all over the world.

How is it financed?

No one pays to play in the orchestra. It’s all free, so we have to raise all the money. We recently received a $100k challenge grant from a generous supporter and we have until the end of March to fulfill it. I am confident that we will. The parents are very engaged and so are a number of former students who worked with me when they were kids. Some have become very successful and feel that they want to support this opportunity for a new generation of students.

We will ask the audience in Symphony Hall to contribute extra if they can afford it, because the tickets are priced very modestly. Perhaps somebody reading this will be moved to contribute. They can go on our website here.

So tell us about this concert that’s coming up. It seems unusual in the sense that they’re not just kids here. There’s a chorus from Harvard and George Li as piano soloist, and grown-up singers in the solo parts.

Very impressive grown-up soloists—Barbara Quintiliani is a big star, Robynne Redmon is from the Metropolitan Opera and George Li is at the threshold of a meteoric career.

Our first concert with Ein Heldenleben and Alisa Weilerstein playing Elgar cello concerto was a huge success. Symphony Hall was full. There were people who couldn’t get in and there was a line out to the parking lot! We hope that with soloists like we have this time and the Harvard choirs and Mahler 2nd we will be able to do that again.

And it wasn’t free.

And it wasn’t free.

They played so beautifully that people were really amazed. The father of one of the members of the orchestra, who is the first violist of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich, played a trick on his colleagues. He played a tape of the BPYO performance of Ein Heldenleben to a group of his colleagues and asked them to identify which orchestra it was and one of them asked if it was the Vienna Philharmonic! Lloyd Schwartz at the Boston Phoenix named the concert as one of the ten top musical events in 2012—pretty extraordinary for a youth orchestra.

In June we will be traveling to Holland to participate in the Haarlem Biennale Choir Festival as well as several concerts in different cities. On June 27th we will end the tour with a performance of Mahler’s 2nd and the Schumann concerto in the famed Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, one of the greatest concert halls in the world.

Mahler 2nd is one of the most beloved pieces in the repertoire. Like the Beethoven 9th it is a communal celebration of possibility for human beings. We have a wonderful choir of 140 singers from Harvard and two great soloists plus the Schumann Piano Concerto with one of the most gifted pianists before the public today. It’s an irresistible event.

One of the members of the orchestra called me up at home the other day and said “my whole life has changed since the BPYO came along, everything about my life has changed and I want you to know that.”

So what would you do with yourself if you didn’t have people’s lives to change?

That’s what my life is about. I had 45 glorious years at the Conservatory. I loved every minute of it, and now this is a new world. I don’t spend a lot of time hankering after the old. I say that’s that, I did that and it was great. But the kids wouldn’t allow me to sit around and do nothing. Starting a new youth orchestra has been a wonderful solution. It keeps me highly energized, excited and engaged. The kids themselves wonder how it is possible that they can sound this way, with this kind of intensity and finesse. So our job now is to make sure that lots of people find out about the concert and get over to Symphony Hall at 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

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