IN: News & Features

Why Was BPYO Tour So Special?


Nate Klause in the garden of Wagner’s house.

The three-year-old Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra returned a few weeks ago with 120 players and 15 adults from a 17-day tuitionless tour to some of the cultural centers of Europe. Their critically acclaimed performances of demanding programs in Prague, Berlin, Berne, Basel, and Lucerne deserve our notice, and incidentally our next chance to notice them in Boston comes in a free performance at Symphony Hall on November 2nd.

BMInt asked artistic director Benjamin Zander for an evocation of the accomplishment from musical, organizational and metaphysical perspectives. He responded most fully not only with words of his own, but also with those of tour-guests—musical adviser David St. George, accompanying blogger Richard Dyer, many players and of some deeply moved chaperones. And by including recordings of all eight of the pieces performed, Zander gives BMInt readers the chance to savor the home team. If BMInt were a print journal, the entire issue would be devoted to this extended piece.

“How was the tour?” I am asked over and over since we got back. “Wonderful,” I reply. And that’s it. Short of sitting the person down for a couple of hours, I cannot possibly give an adequate sense of that life-changing adventure. It’s not like with the USA Women’s Soccer team. They won the game! That’s simple. The whole country watched in delight and awe as they soundly defeated the Japanese women in the final of the World Cup. When it was all over we even remember the score—it was 5 to 2. The team got invited to the White House and had a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue. But was their achievement any more remarkable than that of the 120 young Boston area musicians who entranced audiences in several European cities with their performances of some of the most difficult music ever written for orchestra? I think not. “But wait,” you say, “Youth choirs and orchestras go on tour all the time. What was so special about this one?” It’s true. I have myself led 17 international tours with youth orchestras, and each one was memorable. The performances were always wonderful, and the human connections were profound and lasting. Many other youth orchestra and choir conductors meet, as I do, former members of their groups years later and are told that the experience of the tour to Israel, or Venezuela or Cuba or China was one of the most impactful experiences of their youth and that it had helped them to develop into the people they are today. That’s why we keep making the superhuman effort that it takes to make these tours happen. But this one was even more so! The best I can do when someone asks me how was the recent tour is to say: “On a scale of one to ten, this was a twenty-three!” Now that some weeks have passed and I have had time to reflect, I can put some thoughts down about this tour that might be of some interest to BMInt readers. I am sure that Bostonians will feel some pride in the sterling achievements of the magnificent team of young musicians. Though there are no box scores to prove their victory, the miracle of modern technology, and BMInt’s farseeing and generous offer to let us use the website to link to some actual performances, will enable readers to experience some aspects of the tour vicariously.

BYPO plays Berlin Philharmonie (Dave Jamrog photo)
BPYO plays to a full house in the Philharmonie (Dave Jamrog photo)
 There are, I believe, four different areas that, all together, made this tour so satisfying and memorable:
  • The repertoire and the playing of the orchestra.
  • The halls we played in and the response of the large audiences.
  • The places we visited and interactions between people, both those on the tour and those we met.
  • The practice of the Art of Possibility that enabled 120 young people, aged 11 to 21, to travel, live and perform together in Europe for 17 days in perfect harmony and without a single harsh word or any untoward incident

There were eight orchestral concerts in three countries. Three in the Czech Republic (two in Prague and one in Pilsen); one at the Philharmonie in Berlin, home of the Berlin Philharmonic and four in Switzerland, (Berne, Interlaken, Basel and Lucerne), as well as a chamber concert at the Beyeler Museum in Basel. The repertoire would have been daunting for any orchestra. Former Boston Globe Chief Music Critic Richard Dyer, remarked: “The program was incredibly difficult—a lineup that would lead the players’ committee of some major professional orchestras to lodge a formal complaint with management.” Program 1 Shostakovich: Festive Orchestra Dvořák: Cello Concerto (Natalia Gutman, soloist) Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra Program 2 Mozart: Marriage of Figaro Overture Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2 Strauss: Don Quixote Jonah Ellsworth (cello) Gerald Karni (viola) Could such a young orchestra really do justice to such a wide variety of extremely difficult repertoire, night after night? Usually, when an orchestra returns from a tour, the people at home have to rely on reports from the players and management, or, in the case of major orchestras, on reviews, to know how the orchestra played. In this case you can listen and judge for yourself. Here is the 6-minute Festive Overture of Shostakovich from the magnificent KKL Hall in Lucerne, home of the legendary Lucerne Festival. A reviewer in the Neue Luzerne Zeitung wrote: “If you close your eyes you could think you were listening to the London Symphony Orchestra or the Seoul Philharmonic.” The Berlin critic wrote:

Are the orchestra musicians on stage really between 11 and 21 years old? Incredible, but that is what the program says. The Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich which the youth orchestra performs under the baton of Benjamin Zander to open the concert is already so full of energy that many a professional ensemble should go pale with envy…

 “But,” you say, “Shostakovich’s Festive Overture is not so very difficult. Youth orchestras and bands play it all the time. What about Daphnis and Chloé? That’s one of the most demanding pieces in the orchestral repertoire.” As each performance of Daphnis went by, I got more and more excited at the prospect of bringing the tape back to play for Gunther Schuller. He was so passionate about that piece and complained bitterly how rarely, if ever, all the myriad details of Ravel’s score, especially the meticulously noted tempo relationships, are realized in the performances of even the most famous orchestras. Alas, during the tour we heard of the death of this musical giant, friend and supporter of so many musicians. I owe my musical life in Boston entirely to Gunther, because he held my job at New England Conservatory open for three years, while I waited in England for a visa to return. I spoke to the orchestra about his unique contribution and his commitment to the accurate realization of the composer’s wishes and told them that I would be thinking of Gunther as we performed Daphnis that night in the Rudolfinum. Here is what Richard Dyer wrote in his blog about the hall:

The BPO was on its way to Dvořák Hall in the Rudolfinium, which is the most famous concert hall in Prague, which boasts some of the best acoustics in the world, a space of immense prestige (it is the home of one of the great European orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic) and with an extremely distinguished history*. Benjamin Zander, addressing the orchestra in a brief sound-check rehearsal before the concert, spoke of the walls of such a place and of the memories they hold—the memories of the performances that have taken place there, the memories of those who have played and sung there and the people who have listened to music there. Even for musical audiences outside the Czech Republic and people who have never been to Prague it is holy ground because of the recordings of the Czech Philharmonic that were made there, and the quality of some of its past music directors, particularly Vaclav Talich, whose recordings of certain works remain iconic more than 50 years after his death in 1961.

* In 1896 Dvořák conducted the first concert of the Czech Philharmonic in the hall that bears his name The moment the music started at the rehearsal, with Ravel’s ravishing, evocative description of early dawn, I got goosebumps. You could hear everything: the rustling rivulets of sound in the winds, the undulating basses and, mirabile dictu, the evenly balanced nine-note chord in the horns and the violas, which I had never before heard so clearly. Of this moment in the concert that night Richard Dyer blogged: “…the opening depiction of dawn in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé was like a light brush of silk against skin.” Here it is:

The next morning I got an email from Megan Shusta, a sophomore at New England Conservatory and our first horn:

Our performance of Ravel’s ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ is something I will never forget. When we were in Berlin, Simon Rattle told the audience of the concert we attended that “Concert halls remember their music.” Our ‘Daphnis et Chloé’ that night made such a great emotional and musical imprint on Dvořák Hall that the walls of the building will carry our energy forever. From the first sound of the low strings mixed with the color of the flutes and clarinets the effect in the hall was so beautiful that I almost missed my first entrance in measure two, because I was too caught up in the fact that the music sounded like pure gold. From the first downbeat I was inspired by the passionate energy you were radiating as well as the palpable emotion coming from members of the orchestra (specifically Katie, Dustin, and Hunter)* that I was inspired to contribute perfectly to this concert. I did not miss a single note (which as you know is quite a feat on the horn) and not only was my contribution accurate but I also felt as though it was the first orchestra performance of my life where I completely devoted myself to the music in the moment. I think I made the horn part drip with musicality; I took risks and made the pianos a true piano and the pianissimos even less. My tone was noble and tasteful. I fear coming across as arrogant by saying all of that, but I want you to know how proud I am of myself. I also want you to know that this performance has inspired me to always strive to perform on that level, as I hope you will too, even if it is considered impractical to have that high a standard. During the applause I turned to Nate sitting next to me and through teary eyes told him that I never want to give anything less than that for the rest of my life.

*First flute Katie Velasquez, clarinet Dustin Chung and E-flat clarinet Hunter Bennett,


Schoenberg’s Five Pieces was certainly the hardest to love of all the pieces we brought on tour. A leading German musician had warned us against performing it in Berlin. “They hate Schoenberg in Berlin.” However, in the end most of the players in the orchestra had come to love it.

BPYO horns in Interlaken (Dave Jamrog photo)
BPYO horns in Interlaken playing Wagner’s Siegfried Act 3 (Dave Jamrog photo)

That love coming from the stage seemed to have a palpable effect on the audience. At the end of the performance in Interlaken—a city that I am sure, had never heard the piece before—a woman in the front row mouthed an enormous and amazed “Wow!” and that seemed to reflect the reaction after every performance. In Basel three young women told me excitedly that the Schoenberg was their favorite piece on the program! The process of getting there was not easy. Some of the players got the message immediately back in September when we started working on it. Here is 17-year-old Joe Blumberg’s white sheet from last December:

Schoenberg…what a guy! When I first saw that we were doing the Five Pieces for this program, I was disappointed. As a die-hard fan of the “war-horses” in the classical music repertoire, I was hoping to play something a little more standard and tuneful. But over the past several weeks practicing, listening to and rehearsing the Schoenberg, my preconceptions of him as a technical and unemotional composer were totally shattered. The Five Pieces seem more fraught with uncomfortable and indescribable emotions than almost any piece I have played. While it does not sound anything like the emotional climaxes of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, the feelings it evokes are still enormously powerful. It is strikingly effective.

Despite my original trepidation, I am so glad we are playing Schoenberg. Not only has it corrected my misconceptions, it has opened up a whole new world of music that I thought I would not enjoy.

It took some others a longer time to grasp the music’s power and especially its beauty. The first movement is so violent and savage in places that it is hard to embrace, though its technical and rhythmical challenges are tremendously bracing. The second movement Vergangenes—Yesteryears—which expresses a nostalgia for the past, seemingly regretting its passing, yet acknowledging that we have to let go, has a phrase at the beginning for cello solo with an accompaniment of gorgeous harmonies in the winds that is as beautiful as any phrase Mahler wrote. Jonah Ellsworth makes it sound like a Brahms song about a woman who has lost her lover. John Heiss, genius musician and cherished colleague for over 40 years at NEC, had reminded me, after hearing our Symphony Hall performance, that Schoenberg’s music is not harsh or angry. It is bursting with intense emotion, but never ugly. It took more rehearsals and a couple of performances for John’s wise advice to penetrate into the DNA of the orchestra. But, especially after one long rehearsal in Prague, the lyrical character of the music started to emerge. From Richard Dyer’s blog:

The Strauss and the Ravel have long since become standard orchestral repertoire; the Schoenberg pieces, on the other hand, remain difficult both for the performer and the listener. Thanks to painstaking hours of rehearsal spread over months, the BPYO knows the music and does not content itself with merely playing the notes. I was astonished the other night when some players sitting behind me on the bus heading back to the hotel burst into song, and what they were singing was Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. When the pieces are played as well as the BPYO plays them, most of the difficulties for the audience vanish. Schoenberg himself famously remarked, “My music is not modern; it is just badly played,” but the BPYO’s performance was superbly played. Schoenberg also said he longed to hear his melodies whistled in the streets; at least the BPYO is capable of singing them on a bus. The orchestra had been working on the Schoenberg since last fall and took it up again in earnest during the weeks before the tour. It was very interesting to hear Zander rehearse and coach these pieces; repeatedly he used the word “beautiful” to describe the way they must sound. “It must not sound painful,” he said, as he pointed out aspects of the music or moments in it that should sound lovely, like the opening of the second piece, “Yesteryears.” “Play it like a gorgeous mezzo-soprano singing Brahms,” he urged the lower strings. In “Peripetia” he spoke of Greek tragedy, “the turning point of the drama, the point from beyond which there can be no turning back. Schoenberg was talking about music, about how it could no longer go back to the past and the old language of harmony, but he was also talking about the whole culture and civilization he came from which had also reached a turning point from which there could be no retreat.” And for the last piece, he asked the musicians to do something enormously difficult—the piece unfolds as a single melodic line, in which solo instruments or whole sections of the orchestra play as little as a single note, and often just a handful, but which nevertheless coalesce to form a continuous musical line, as each player passes the melody to the next. Then Zander added all of the other orchestral activity which punctuates, accompanies and colors the rest. He ended by quoting T. S. Eliot from “The Hollow Men,” “This is how the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.”

Here it is*

 *David St George, who accompanied the tour as musical advisor, a role he has played in my life for the past 35 years, wrote this explanation of the Schoenberg. David St. George’s note on Schoenberg’s Five Pieces is here.


If the Schoenberg was the most difficult piece on the program–indeed I don’t believe that it has ever before been performed by a youth orchestra—Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote was certainly the most complex. Scarcely a work designed for kids, it depends for its effective rendition on an extraordinarily eloquent cellist and, it should be added, a very knowing violist too. Jonah Ellsworth, a 21-year-old cellist studying with Laurence Lesser at New England Conservatory has been part of Boston’s musical community for a long time. I first heard him ten years ago, playing in a trio with the equally amazing pianist George Li, who recently won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Jonah has been a soloist with YPO, BPO and now BPYO and several other local orchestras. I recently took him to perform the Dvořák Concerto in Akron, where one musical observer said that he reminded him of the young Rostropovich. This summer he is performing at Marlboro. Clearly this young man is embarking on an important career. However, the remarkable thing about Jonah is that he has been a member of the youth orchestra for all these years. He led the BPYO cello section in the very first concert and he has been a devoted member of the cello section ever since, barely ever missing a rehearsal. This, I believe, is part of the secret of his success in performing the role of Don Quixote. When Strauss wrote this tone poem he did not imagine that the cello part would be played, as it almost always is nowadays, by an international soloist, who comes in for the last couple of rehearsals, but rather for the orchestra’s principal cellist*. That’s why in this performance you will hear Jonah on the right side of the stage (or the right channel) together with the cello section, instead of in the traditional soloist’s spot to the left of the conductor. He is also playing the orchestral cello part in all the tuttis, not just the solos that represent Don Quixote. Conveniently, he is a just couple of feet from Gerald Karni, representing his companion Sancho Panza, who is placed on the outside near the edge of the stage, not on the opposite side from the cellist, as we usually hear it these days, so that when they are in conversation together it sounds (and looks) utterly natural. *One of the most distinguished interpreters of the Don was Gregor Piatigorsky who was first cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic Here is Richard Dyer on the final performance in Interlaken:

Ellsworth has a young and idealistic heart, which is ideal for most of this music, but he also has an old soul. Many young cellists these days can play all of Strauss’s notes, but Ellsworth’s grasp of what the notes mean, of the stories they tell, of the feeling behind and within the notes, is firm, and very deep. His playing of some of the quieter episodes, the yearning that Don Q feels for the idealized Dulcinea, was profoundly moving, and there was plenty of rambunction as he tilted against windmills and scattered sheep. And he plays the death sigh of Don Quixote as tenderly and movingly as I have ever heard it—it is with a profound content that this Don Quixote leaves this life, and not with a sigh of regret.

You may not have time right now to listen to the whole of Don Quixote, but  I urge you at least to hear the ineffable beauty of Jonah’s rendition of the Finale, when the Don’s sanity has returned and he has found at last some measure of wisdom and peace of mind.

 Likewise, Dyer commented on the remarkable playing of Gerald Karni that night:

The point of Sancho Panza is how irritating he can become, as he chatters enthusiastically but endlessly on in the language of (musical) cliché. But somehow the violist must simultaneously convey Sancho’s earthy human nature and essential goodness of heart, and Karni did that.

Here is a link to the entire performance from Berne



Natalia Gutman And Ben Zander
Natalia Gutman And Ben Zander

Immediately after she performed with us in Symphony Hall last November I had invited Natalia Gutman to join BPYO  for the three “big” concerts (Prague, Berlin and Lucerne) on the tour. It is impossible to overemphasize how important it is for young musicians to have the experience of performing with great masters of the past, even though their technical prowess may not always be as reliable as it once was. Her performances in the Smetana Hall in Prague and in Berlin were wonderful in their way, but it wasn’t till she got to Lucerne, where many in the large audience had come to hear her, since her years as lead cellist with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Claudio Abbado had made her a familiar and much loved figure, that she hit her full stride. Here is Richard Dyer’s report on that memorable occasion:

She came onto the KKL platform carrying her cello, but armed for bear. She was clearly determined to deliver her best, not just the best that was possible Monday night, but the best that was ever possible for her. Her three previous performances with Zander and the BPYO, in Boston, Prague and Berlin, were richly satisfying despite some labored and inexact playing; this, in Lucerne, was something else. She played with a combination of freedom and discipline, with imagination, insight and experience, and the derring-do of a young player, taking every conceivable risk and landing on target every time. Once again one marveled at the flexibility of her bow arm, and her control of perfectly-projected soft playing of almost alarming intimacy. She is not easy to follow as she enters the thick of the fray, but by now Zander and the orchestra know what to expect, which in her case is usually the unexpected. The concerto is full of wonderful opportunities for the woodwinds and then a surprise in the reflective end, a duet for two muted trumpets, in this instance Joe Blumberg and Arthur Abbate. In-drawing moments like these show the true depth of quality of this orchestra every bit as much as the brilliant and showy solo moments; these two musicians use the trumpet to play music rather than to blast it off the stage. The ovations were tremendous and seemingly endless, and Gutman was all smiles as Zander kissed her hand. She offered her Bach Bourée encore again, and it was all ineffable lightness of being, and in it the clouds only momentarily filtered the sun and flickered it with shade.

The night before, in Basel, the players had been dazzled by a performance of the same Dvořák by Jonah Ellsworth. The wild applause and stamping of feet from the players, as well as a prolonged standing ovation from the audience must have given enough encouragement to this very modest and special young man to last him a lifetime. But at the rehearsal the next day in Lucerne, Jonah was back in his seat in the orchestra and the players now greeted the return, after several days’ absence, of Natalia Gutman, with cheers and more stamping of feet. To play the same work back to back with two such cellists—one at the beginning of what is certain to be a great career, the other at the end of one of the greatest careers of any cellist in the twentieth century, was an experience that no one in that orchestra will ever forget. I was touched by Jonah’s typically succinct and modest white sheet, I couldn’t believe the hall in Lucerne. Natalia Gutman showed how she is one of the greatest cellists ever. Richard Dyer wisely warned against invidious comparisons:

At the highest levels of excellence performers are never “better” than each other; they are simply different. Gutman has probably been playing this concerto for the better part of 60 years, and she reportedly said, after her final tour appearance in Lucerne, that this was her best performance of the Dvořák in 25 years. Ellsworth’s performance was serene and centered, and he played with technical mastery, imagination, passion and deep feeling and he was fearless, despite the fact that moments before the concert his cello was knocked over and the bridge was cracked.




The other major work on the tour program was Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra—a work that tests every individual player and every section to the limit, both technically and artistically. All four performances were wonderful. Richard Dyer thought the best of all was the final one in the gorgeous and acoustically perfect KKL Hall in Lucerne, but the one I have chosen for this report is the one from the Philharmonie in Berlin. Here is David St. George’s description of the hall:

The Philharmonie in Berlin, home of the Berlin Philharmonic, is the mecca of orchestras around the world. Most of us had only seen this famous modern hall before from the countless videos made there. In pictures the place looks large—almost cavernous—and one nervously anticipated cavernous acoustics, as well as a certain alienation of the audience from the stage, due to the great distances involved. Nothing could be further from the actual fact! The sound throughout the hall is of the utmost vividness and clarity, warm and yet crystalline. And its marvelous tiered construction creates a feeling of intimacy—no matter where you sit, the feeling is that you can almost reach out and touch the stage.

From the earliest planning stage of the tour, performing at the Philharmonie in Berlin was to be the capstone of the tour. Already at the rehearsal the excitement level among the players exceeded anything that I had experienced, even at the Concertgebouw on the Holland tour, or the performance at Carnegie Hall. It is partly the reverence that they have for the resident orchestra, the names of the main members of which many of them seem to have committed to memory, as well as their admiration for its current music director, Sir Simon Rattle. Every week many of them gather in dorm rooms to watch the orchestra on the Digital Concert Hall. Now they were in the hall themselves! I do not believe the BPYO could have reached a higher peak than they did that night. Stefan Bevier, a leading Berlin musician and the esteemed chorus master of London’s Philharmonia Chorus, which sang so magnificently on my recording of Mahler 2nd, came to the dress rehearsal and admitted to being dumbfounded by the quality of the orchestra. In his excitement he suggested that my next recording of Mahler’s 8th, should not be with the Philharmonia, but with this youth orchestra. After the concert he wrote this extraordinary response:

I recently heard the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Zander in a concert in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. It was a deeply moving experience. The music told of our lives, shared personal, true experiences, full of emotion and spirit. It was outstanding. Unique in expression and leadership. I played for many years under Herbert von Karajan in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; this concert under Benjamin Zander and his brilliant orchestra reminded me of the experience with Karajan. I am forever grateful for such an experience.

Stefan Bevier Chorus master of the Philharmonia Chorus in London Chief conductor of: BAROCK Orchester Berlin European Bach Players Festival Orchestra Berlin The Berlin critic echoed his sentiments:

“Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra sounded like a fantastical steeplechase through all the registers of human emotion: from the piece, which Bartók wrote while mortally ill, the orchestra extracted hope, grief, happiness, suffering and the all-overcoming wit which is particularly present in the parody of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the fourth movement……A moving evening that embraced life.”, 23.06.2015       -Tomasz Kurianowicz, Der Tagesspiegel

But most gratifying of all was the response of the audience in the packed hall. It was overwhelming. I have asked the production engineer, to leave the entire applause at the end of the recording, so that the players in their later years will be able to savor the memory of the amazing outpouring of warmth and enthusiasm from that sophisticated Berlin audience. Also included are the brief remarks I made about the Bartok before the performance with its reference to the Boston connection in the creation of his final completed work.  

This was also a very special and profoundly moving occasion for me personally, as I explained to the audience in the brief remarks I made to them before we played our traditional encore. I will leave it to Richard Dyer to describe the scene:

Event concerts are one thing; concerts that become an event are another. An event concert is created by publicity, summons big names to perform predictable programs, television cameras record the proceedings, and then the music congeals on PBS. A concert that becomes an event is one that does what concerts are supposed to do—music is performed on such a high level that it communicates something deeply personal to an audience, that throws out challenges and bestows such rewards that the concert lingers permanently in the memory. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra gave such a concert tonight (Monday) in Berlin’s Philharmonie. So as BPYO conductor Benjamin Zander has repeatedly said, this concert was a really big deal and the young musicians were really keyed up for it; so was Zander himself. In fact this concert was a profoundly moving experience for him, and he explained why this is so to the audience before conducting the traditional BPYO encore, the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. “I was not born in Berlin,” he said, “but I should have been.” If it hadn’t been for Hitler and the Third Reich, he would have become a German musician. Zander’s siblings were born in Berlin, but he was born and brought up in England, where his immediate family had found shelter. Nevertheless he grew up in a household profoundly imbued in German culture; his father had memorized the whole of Part II of Goethe’s Faust. He then pointed out that on a street in Berlin today there is a plaque embedded in the sidewalk in front of what was once his grandmother’s home; the plaque commemorates her murder in the concentration camp; several members of his family died in the camps. But now, at the age of 76, he was conducting for the first time in Germany, and on the nation’s most prestigious platform, and he was leading 120 young musicians from America who themselves come from the most varied national, ethnic and religious backgrounds. He described his feelings as those of “joy mixed with sadness,” remarking that music has an astonishing power to convey many different emotions simultaneously. He said that the Elgar movement “speaks of deep friendship and love which can help overcome sorrow.” He said he was sure that his parents would have been very happy, and then he led a most remarkable performance of the variation, drawing out of it all that is tender, intimate, confiding, and reassuring, while jettisoning all the pretentious overlay that too often weighs the music down. This concert was visually and audibly a cathartic experience for Zander, as it was also for the musicians who in their individual and sometimes droll ways admire him so much. But they were also thrilled to be in this space so resonant with memories of great performances and eager to give their own special best—their best for the music, for Zander, the audience, and the hall.

At the end the entire audience rose to applaud the orchestra. It was a night none of us will ever forget. The comments to me from many in the audience, often through tears, about their gratitude for the music and for the words of reconciliation before the Elgar touched the deepest corner of my heart.


The only other piece that we brought on tour was the Marriage of Figaro Overture. It was a considerable risk to program the Mozart in Prague, not least because we performed it with the full complement of strings. In the Estates Theater in 1787, it was played with a tiny orchestra, but I never like to leave out players if I can help it. Moreover I knew of an exuberant letter from Mozart to his father enthusing about a performance (of the 34th symphony) with 40 violins! Well, we had 40 violins, so why not have them all play? It was a terrific training piece for the orchestra and I think they brought it off rather well. Dyer seemed to think we did OK:

Zander’s leap of faith proved justified; the violins of the BPYO are a group with virtuoso solo and ensemble skills, and in addition they are apparently fearless. Zander was smart in rehearsal by letting the bassoons begin by playing the opening music as fast as they comfortably could, and in effect they set the effervescent tempo—one heard all the upstairs/downstairs bustle of activity.


The Final Concert

Even after the high point of Berlin, the final performance on the last night of the tour in the KKL was really the ultimate climax. David St. George describes the magnificent hall:

Finally what might have been the most remarkable hall of all, the Lucerne Culture and Congress Center, which is home of famous Lucerne Festival. The newest of the halls we played in, it was finished and inaugurated by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado in 1998. The pellucid delicacy of the acoustics, the transparency of texture that was possible in that hall, was utterly uncanny. One heard every instrument, there was simply nowhere to hide. It was as if the acoustics had been modeled on the unique sound that Abbado had been magically able to draw from virtually every orchestra he ever conducted. At one point Zander addressed the large audience in English without a microphone and the sound of his voice had such clarity in the hall that he didn’t even need to raise his voice.

Here is Richard Dyer again:

The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra in Lucerne may have been the finest performance of this piece on the tour—an observation hardly worth making. No two performances of any piece, even by the same musician, are the same, unless you choose to play a recording twice. That is the appeal of live concerts which are always unfolding in the present; it is also the appeal of a series of performances by the same musicians, hearing how an interpretation develops and changes under different circumstances, facing different challenges. A march towards perfection is not what a set of performances is about; there is always a step forward here, a step backwards there. There is a sense in which every performance is simultaneously a rehearsal for the next one. And in any case perfection shouldn’t be a goal, even of a recording engineer. What is important is for a performance to remain alive and engaging to those who are playing it and to those in the audience who are experiencing it. And that is one of the things Zander is very good at, very good indeed. He is especially drawn to pieces with a narrative or pictorial element, like Strauss’s Don Quixote, or even the more “abstract” Bartok Concerto for Orchestra. Bartok himself described a narrative arc from the dark nocturne of the opening to the life-affirming energy and blaze of the finale. “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” I particularly enjoyed the shorter movements that surround the central lament. The second movement is a sprightly series of duets for paired instruments—bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes and trumpets interrupted by the blessing of a brass chorale. At a couple of the performances Zander related an interesting anecdote from his friend Eugene Lehner, who played viola in the Boston Symphony’s world premiere performance. Lehner suggested to Bartok that the pairs represent petitioners for a ride on Noah’s Ark. When the bassoons return, there are three of them, which hints that the Ark enclosed a lively scene. Bartok hadn’t thought of it that way, but he was apparently delighted at the suggestion. The fourth movement is full of dancing—and a moment of broad humor. Bartok had heard Toscanini’s famous broadcast of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad,” and Bartok did not care for it. Then in a famous moment in this movement an obsessive theme from that work erupts into the texture; Bartok embraces it with brazen vulgarity and gives it the raspberry. The effect is hilarious; Zander had prepared the audience for it verbally, but he also relished the joke when he told it in purely musical terms. Some of the playing was almost beyond praise—the “crescendo” that Bartok creates in the strings at the beginning of the Finale, by beginning with the inside players in the second violins, then adding the outside players, the inside of the first violin stands, then the outside, for example, was a model of collective discipline; similarly a long solo section for the massed violas. But there were memorable solo moments as well, the exquisite English horn of Nicole Caligiuri, the stout trombone of Alfred Brewer, the haunting beat of John Stapleton’s side drum, the deft and solid tympani of Carley Yanuck. There was another standing ovation and the inevitable encore, the “Nimrod” Variation from Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ which has long been the “theme song” for Zander’s youth orchestras. This time Zander reverted to a more stately tempo than Elgar wanted because this was a commemorative occasion mingling joy and sorrow—the conclusion of the tour, a tremendous achievement for everyone, players, staff, donors, and for many the conclusion of their time in the BPYO. Afterwards there was hardly a dry eye onstage, and some moist ones in the audience as well, and backstage there were many tearful embraces.  

How Did We Fill the Halls?

I have now covered the first two of the four reasons why I believe this was such an extraordinary tour: the music and the way it was played and the magnificent halls in which we performed. There is only one question still to be answered. How was it possible that we had such large audiences for the concerts? No concert was literally sold out, but the audiences at every concert were considerably larger than anyone could have anticipated. The concert agents we had approached to promote the tour had all turned us down: an unknown foreign youth orchestra playing challenging 20th century repertoire, could hardly expect to attract large audiences in European cities where they are inundated with performances by all the greatest orchestras and conductors. In the end we self-promoted all eight concerts.

Estates Theater Prague
Estates Theater where Mozart conducted premiere of Don Giovanni

It’s a long story, but let’s say it was a fantastic ongoing exercise in enrollment. Of course, Classical Movements, the tour company, played their part, but it was the work of many hands. I devoted much of my time leading up to the tour and during the tour itself speaking to anybody who would listen—a complete stranger sitting next to me on a plane who turned out to be an executive at Roche Pharmaceutical, agreed to inform everybody at Roche in Basel, through the company email; a free talk at IBM and another to a group of teachers in Zurich, were relayed on their respective media channels; I was invited, at a day’s notice, to give an impromptu address to 80 business executives on a roof in Zurich. Furrerhugi, a top Swiss public relations firm pressed into action too with pro bono support; people mobilized their friends through social media; I was dragged to newspaper and radio interviews, and to an hour-long media “hangout” in Zurich. In Basel the brilliant musical entrepreneur Etienne Abelin, who has a finger in every Swiss musical pie, caught the spark and contacted everyone he knew, as well as arranging a get-together with BPYO and 50 students from the Basel Conservatoire, before they all trooped to the concert. The kids themselves were tireless, busking in the streets, accosting strangers and handing out fliers in every city. Michael Stefan, our tuba player, stood outside the hall in Prague, playing and handing out fliers right up to the time he was needed for the second work on the program. As soon as an outdoor concert conducted by Daniel Barenboim in a park in Berlin finished, a group of our players took out their instruments to play, while others handed out over one thousand fliers, urging everyone they saw to come the next day to hear the BPYO. To walk out in the Philharmonie the next evening and see a packed house stunned us all. Against all odds the orchestra gave two concerts in Prague—playing in the Smetana Hall and the Dvořák Hall—so that we could present both programs! Both were almost full. And by the last concert of the tour, word about the orchestra had spread and people were travelling to Lucerne from all over Switzerland. We would, of course, have had a fabulous time on this tour if the halls had not been so full, but the thrill of playing to so many people and seeing their shining eyes after a successful concert is one of the grandest joys for a musician.


 What Else Did We Do

We wanted to offer as many cultural experiences as we could cram into the available time between rehearsing, performing and travelling. Reading through the schedule before we left, my brother in England wrote: Amazing, impressive, daunting*. However, when it was all over, I didn’t hear from a single player that they felt that it had been too much. On the contrary they were thrilled and grateful! (*The tour schedule is attached here) Many of the things we did were the obvious ones that any tourist might do. In Berlin, the fabulous Pergamon Museum, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, The Berlin Wall, Check Point Charlie and the Reichstag were all on the itinerary. In Prague, Zurich, Berne and Dresden there were guided tours to some of the main tourist attractions. But the brief walking tour in Leipzig became a mini musical pilgrimage: the Thomaskirche, where Bach produced his weekly cantatas and his mesmerizing improvisations, and some of the places where Wagner, Schumann and Mendelssohn and others in the pantheon of musical history lived and worked. When I asked Johnny Helyar, the tour’s much loved and indefatigable Production Manager, what it felt like sitting on the seat where Schumann had his coffee each day, he responded with a faraway look in his eyes, “It made me feel I was in touch with a higher power”. It is impossible to measure the value of such experiences on the psyche of aspiring musicians. Walking in the Alps and hearing the sound of distant cow bells; sitting in the theater where Mozart conducted the first performance of Don Giovanni, or standing in the very room in the house on Lake Lucerne where Wagner composed Die Meistersinger and the final act of Siegfried, which the BPYO had just performed, had a molecule shifting effect. Dyer noted:

Some of the musicians in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra have already played Smetana’s ‘The Moldau,’ and most of them are likely to at some point in their lives. But they will play it differently, and with richer mental imagery, an enhanced understanding and an awakened imagination because they have now seen the Moldau and the great city it flows through and they have crossed the river on the same bridges that Smetana and Dvořák walked. It was both moving and instructive to stand in a building that Mozart knew and it was appropriate that the stagehands were setting up for the evening’s performance of ‘The Magic Flute.’

Charles Bridge, Prague (Dave Jamrog photo)
Charles Bridge, Prague (Dave Jamrog photo)

In Prague, the city that was voted by virtually everyone as the most beautiful they had ever seen, there was one experience that imprinted itself indelibly on the mind of each person in the group. It was not a musical event, but it was a profound human one and who is to tell how such experiences infiltrate the minds, the bow-arms and musical sensibilities of young musicians. Richard Dyer’s description of the visit to the Holocaust Museum is so beautiful that I include it in its entirety:

The day in Prague began with the most shattering experience of the trip, one that no one will ever be able to forget—the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. For centuries there was a large Jewish community here in Prague that flourished despite oppressive and respective laws and dreadful pogroms. Before World War II there were 118,000 Jews living in Prague; today there are only 1600. We began at the Old-New Synagogue, which is the oldest synagogue in all of Europe. It was originally built in 1270, and it is still active; a rabbi was chanting prayers while we were there. The other synagogues in the quarter are now museums. The Spanish synagogue, built in the 19th century in a Moorish/Sephardic style is ornate and beautiful; there is an incongruous pipe organ there now because one of the present uses of the synagogue is as a concert room. Picture-taking is permitted, but not flashbulbs. Horn player Lorenzo Robb and violist Julia McLean were therefore startled when an official intervened when Robb steadied his camera on McLean’s head. “This young woman,” the official said, “is too beautiful to use as a tripod—and in any case, tripods are forbidden!” We also visited the old Jewish cemetery, a jumble of 1200 tilted headstones; the last burial there was 1787 because the cemetery was so full there wasn’t any further room—there is no way to know how many people are buried there because the graves are so deep, sometimes as many as 12 layers. It is a beautiful and peaceful spot that leads to long thoughts. Life also endures; we saw a singing bird perched on a headstone. The most piercing experience came, however, in the Pinkas Synagogue, which has been converted into a Holocaust museum. On the walls of the large main hall are inscribed the names of 77,297 Jewish Czech citizens who were forced into the Terezin Concentration and then sent on to the death camps. The impact of all those names, commemorating all those lives, is indescribable. Although the place was crowded the reverent silence was broken only by the recorded sound of chanted prayers and there were many stricken faces, and some even had to leave. It was horrifying to learn that the present memorial represents the third time all those names have been painted—the Communist regime unthinkably plastered them over; later they were damaged by the terrible Prague flood of 2002, but they have all been repainted with deep devotion. Up a narrow flight of stairs there is an exhibit of some of the famous drawings by the children of Terezin, most of whom were murdered in Auschwitz. These drawings exist because of a remarkable woman named Friedl Dicken-Brandeis, a Bauhaus-trained painter and craftsman in many genres who gave art lessons to the children of Terezin (and designed sets and costumes for the operas created there). One of her own teachers said, “Today, show me your soul,” and that became a kind of motto for her work at Terezin where art became order and therapy in their cruel and chaotic environment. There was no decent paper and few tools for artists in Terezin but she and her pupils scrounged around and found what they needed. Thousands of drawings survived in suitcases Dicken-Brandeis left behind when she and some of her pupils were sent to Auschwitz; they were discovered only after the liberation of the camps. Some of the pictures in the small exhibit depict the actual world the children lived in, the dorms they lived in, the games they played, the guards they feared. Others represent heartbreaking memories—six little girls dancing in a circle, near a green tree, “Dance in the Meadow,” drawn by a 10 year-old girl who perished at the age of 12. Still others represent hopes and dreams, dreams of returning to an earlier life or dreams of a new life in the holy land, all of them to remain unfulfilled. It was difficult to look at the drawings through tears, impossible not to. Two days afterwards, violinist Hikaru Yonezkai, speaking softly said, “This is the experience I will always remember.”

Later Hikaru in an email explored this experience more fully:

The Jewish Quarter was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. Going through the building with the children’s paintings and the cemetery opened something in me, although I find it difficult to put in to words. As I stepped into the gallery of the children’s artworks, tears filled my eyes—I felt so connected to these people whom I had never known or even heard of. I left that trip feeling so grateful and happy, not only to be living, but to be living with each other and having incredible people around me. Perhaps because of this new appreciation and joy, I felt like I had let go of something that had been restricting me—I felt cleansed and completely free. Thank you for allowing me to experience something so powerful. That’s only one of the many memories that I carry with me—it amazes me to think of all the other valuable experiences. Thank you for creating this journey—thank you. With love, Hikaru

Becoming a musician is a complex and mysterious process. As with an athlete, it requires discipline and countless hours of physical and mental training from a very young age; but unlike an athlete a musician must develop a capacity for emotional expression, gain historical perspective and intellectual understanding; above all, a musician, in order to be able to interpret the works of the greatest composers, must embrace the totality of human nature. Some of that is developed in the practice room and the teaching studio but much of it is discovered over a lifetime, from experiences like the one Richard Dyer and Hikaru described. You can read about events in a library but to travel with 120 other like-minded, passionate souls, all of whom are on a similar path of discovery, and see the 77,297 names or the children’s paintings with your own eyes is a different matter altogether. The musicians of the BPYO after their visit to the Holocaust Museum probably dug just a little deeper with their bows into the string whilst playing the Elegy in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and thus dug a little deeper into the souls of the listeners. Who knows? All of these experiences that I have mentioned are available to anybody who goes to these countries. So, too, the spellbinding concert by the Berlin Philharmonic on our first evening in Berlin and the concert in Zurich of the Tonhalle orchestra with Yuja Wang were events attended by many people. However there were some experiences on our tour that were available exclusively to the members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The most keenly anticipated of which was, without doubt, the meeting with Simon Rattle.

Simon Rattle talks to Ben and the entire BPYO (BMInt montage from video)
Simon Rattle talks to Ben and the entire BPYO (BMInt montage from video)

Simon had been an enthusiastic booster of the BPYO from the time I visited with him at the Philharmonie in Berlin three years ago and told him about the new orchestra. He wrote a beautiful testimonial at the time:

Even in faraway Berlin, the news that Ben Zander is founding a new youth orchestra is extremely important. These fortunate young people will experience an intense musical and emotional engagement which will remain with them for a lifetime. My warmest best wishes for your new adventure, and long may it prosper!” – Simon Rattle

Well, we were going to be in Berlin, playing in his own hall, so I wrote to him several months ago and asked if he would be willing to meet with the group. A letter came back from his assistant Andreas Knapp, saying he would be happy to meet with us. I immediately sent back a CD of the BPYO playing the third act of Siegfried,* asking Andreas to see if he could get Simon to listen to it before he met the orchestra. Amazingly, when he walked into the session he began by complimenting them fulsomely on their performance.

It was completely astounding,” he said. “You knew it so well, and you told the story in a performance that blew the pros away, and that makes me very happy—I wish I could have done it with you.

It had been agreed that the conversation would be private, nevertheless it was startling at how frank he was in his answers to questions from the kids. It was a wide-ranging conversation including many observations about the differences between American and European orchestras, and he shared several anecdotes about his youth including the first time he heard the Mahler’s Second Symphony, which inspired him to become a conductor. He also told us that accompanying Yehudi Menuhin in the Beethoven Violin Concerto had been a life-changing moment He ended by praising the BPYO again, You are our future; keep that energy.” He gave them some advice that he had gotten from Brahms:Practice an hour less every day and read a book instead. Music is about life, not the other way around.” He apologized that he couldn’t come to the concert that night because he had to babysit his youngest child, but ended by sayingI raise my tattered Starbucks cup to you.” After that the whole orchestra filed into the hall to hear a rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic, a rare privilege, because the initial rehearsal of a series is never open to guests. But it was clear that the BPYO was not being treated as “guests”, they were esteemed younger colleagues. Simon began the rehearsal by telling the players of the Berlin Philharmonic how impressed he had been with the BPYO’s Wagner performance and welcomed the orchestra to Berlin. Then the two orchestras applauded each other. It was a deeply gratifying moment. *Here is a link to the performance of the third act of Wagner’s Siegfried with the BPYO in Symphony Hall on April 19th 2015. Alwyn Mellor, Deborah Humble, Stefan Vinke and Thomas Jesatko are the soloists.




BPYO horn section
BPYO horn section rehearsing Strauss’s Don Quixote

BPYO horn section rehearsing  Strauss’s Don Quixotte At least as gratifying as these encounters were the meetings that ensued between the members of the BPYO and their Berlin Philharmonic counterparts. The horn section made their own contact with their hero, the legendary fourth horn Sarah Willis, who is by general agreement the beloved “mother” of the world-wide horn community (check her out on Facebook). She came bounding right over to greet her colleagues, and apparently several other meetings and photo ops followed. Gerald Karni, whose father is the first violist of the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and had played with the Berlin Philharmonic for a time, managed to contact several of his father’s colleagues in the orchestra. You should have seen the look of delighted amazement on the face of first flutist, Katie Velasquez, when I told her that Emmanuel Pahud, her opposite number in the Philharmonic, had said that he wanted to get together with our flute section. Edicson Ruiz, the Venezuelan phenom, who, at seventeen, had been the youngest player ever accepted into the Berlin Philharmonic, met for a session with our bass section.The bassoons had a long conversation with Stefan Schweigert, one of the principal bassoons, who decided on the strength of that to come to the concert in the evening. Afterwards he told me that he would never forget the concert as long as he lived. I have no idea what other meetings and connections might have occurred between our young musicians and their heroes, but one of the most memorable moments of the tour occurred at our dress rehearsal. The Berlin Philharmonic trumpet section were rehearsing in one of the practice rooms. I walked in to introduce myself and tell them how privileged we felt to be there. The principal trumpeter told me that they had heard that we had a fabulously gifted young trumpeter, Elmer Charumpi, and that a couple of them were hoping to be able to come to the end of our concert that night so they could check out how he managed the notoriously difficult passage for trumpet at the end of the Bartok.

Berlin trumpets join BPYO in Philharmonie rehearsal
Berlin Philharmonic trumpets join BPYO in Philharmonie rehearsal

On the spur of the moment I asked if they would consider, just for fun, to slip into the beginning of our rehearsal to play the extra trumpet parts that Shostakovich wrote in the coda of the Festive Overture. They looked doubtful and said that they would be finishing their rehearsal in five minutes. “That’s just when we are going to be playing the Shostakovich!” I replied. A few minutes later, to the stunned amazement of the BPYO trumpet section, in walked the five members of the Berlin Philharmonic trumpet section to sit beside them to play, not just the final coda, but the entire overture, all together! It was yet another never-to-be-forgotten moment, not just for the brass players, but for the entire orchestra! Gerald Karni sitting on the front stand of the violas looked up and me and said “Mr. Zander, how did you pull that off?” I smiled down at him and said: “Gerald, that’s what I do.” There were many other memorable occasions during the tour. At the rehearsal in Berne we were delighted by the presence at our rehearsal of the great Moldovian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose performance of the Bartok Violin Concerto with the Boston Philharmonic the previous year, Lloyd Schwartz had named as the best concerto performance all year in Boston! Patricia lives in Berne and I had asked her if she would come and meet with the orchestra. At the end of the rehearsal, after a charming and eloquent welcoming address by the American ambassador, Patricia came up on stage and wowed us with a dazzling performance of a piece by Heinz Holliger written to a text by her seven year old daughter, which she sang and played simultaneously. The BPYO violinists, who had all heard her Bartok in Boston, were visibly gobsmacked.


On another day, after a whole afternoon of sight-seeing in the picturesque historic town of Berne, we all went up to the top of a mountain on a funicular railway, where a group of 40 students from the Berne Conservatoire joined us for a tasty meal, at the invitation of my former wife Roz Zander, who was there with her partner Swiss philanthropist, Hansjoerg Wyss. After dinner there were performances by the Big Band from the Hochschule, with Dan Katz, Alfred Brewer sitting in and Elmer dazzling them with his jazz improvisations, to which we all got up to dance. I had asked Hansjoerg if he could get hold of an Alphorn player, so that everyone could have the experience of hearing that most characteristic Swiss instrument. Megan Shusta astonished us with her versatility in her rendering of the great horn solo from the Brahms First Symphony, which Brahms said he wrote after hearing an Alphorn on a visit to Switzerland! No doubt, the next time Megan plays that theme in a performance of Brahms’s First, it will sound quite different. But one of the most moving and memorable moments of the entire tour for many of us, came at the end of that remarkable evening. Here is Richard Dyer’s description of that moment:

After the release of the dancing had ended, the whole group adjourned to the outdoor terrace overlooking the city—the lights were beginning to twinkle—Res Margot, the Alphorn player, standing at some distance, played a traditional sunset song as the daylight dwindled and everyone sat in a hushed silence. Reverie gave way to reverence, and Liz Eschen, a Boston-based mezzo soprano, who was one of the chaperones on the tour, spoke quiet words of gratitude to Roz Zander. “Thank you—I feel that this evening represents everything good in the world.


A Philosophical Digression

While we are talking about gratitude to Roz, I need to digress from my description of the tour, but don’t worry I will get back to it, and you will see how what I am about to say is both relevant and necessary. I want to say something about the philosophical ideas that Roz and I have been developing over past 40 years that lie at the heart of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra enterprise. Anyone who has read our book The Art of Possibility, or heard my recordings or performances, will know that we have turned many of the age-old assumptions about psychotherapy, musical interpretation and leadership on their ear. In the arena of musical interpretation it is hard to remember how shocked people were by the performances of Beethoven that I was presenting in the 1970’s, because so much of that approach has now been absorbed into the mainstream. When I first performed the Beethoven Fifth in Jordan Hall in 1973 with the Boston Civic Symphony, Michael Steinberg, Chief Music Critic of the Boston Globe, wrote a review under a headline, “Zander’s Fifth Was a Mind-bender”.

With Zander’s from-the-ground-up reconsideration of tempi, articulation, his feeling for cohesiveness and for character, the Fifth was suddenly a new piece—very exciting, because so unmistakably a new and thoroughly characteristic piece by Beethoven…. It was an event that left me with very much to think about concerning specifically Beethoven’s Fifth, but also more generally about how to think about music.

Ten years later the Boston Philharmonic went to Carnegie Hall to perform Beethoven’s Ninth. The following week Andrew Porter ended a long article in The New Yorker on Beethoven and the metronome with the words: “If Mr. Zander is right, we have been listening to the music of the greatest composer only in misrepresentation”. * Link to New Yorker article is here. The ideas in book The Art of Possibility are no less revolutionary, and after 15 years since its publication we are finding acceptance of its premises and practices in some of the most unlikely places—namely in corporate board rooms. In the case of Beethoven—and Mahler and many other composers, the question was always: “what did the composer write?” Which would be followed by, “OK let’s do it! To hell with tradition!” In the case of leadership the question is “what will make the people who are being led feel most effective, engaged and joyful?” OK, now let’s do that! “To hell with hierarchy!” When I was presented with the chance to start a new youth orchestra three years ago, naturally we saw it as a wonderful opportunity to create a new institution “from the ground up” to use Michael Steinberg’s phrase. What did that mean? It meant that every idea in the book and in the talks, which I was delivering to organizations here in the US and abroad, could be put into practice in the new organization. Much of it, admittedly, was already in place in the Boston Philharmonic, but now it was truly a clean slate. We didn’t even have music stands or chairs, let alone a practice hall—so that, too, we could design from the ground up. We took an unusable, though spectacularly beautiful hall at the Benjamin Franklin Institute and invited one of the country’s leading acoustical engineers to turn it into a perfect space for music, and then we went from there. A music journal is not the place to attempt to describe the entire Possibility model, but a few points might help to explain how it came to be that we took a group of 120 kids, aged 11 to 21 for a tuition free tour to Europe for seventeen days with only four chaperones, never doubting for a moment that it would all work perfectly—and it did.

The White Sheet

One of the fundamental assumptions in the possibility model is that orchestra players, because they are the ones who actually play the music, have a huge amount to offer the conductor. The music world operates under the opposite assumption, that the conductor is always more knowledgeable than the players, and above all he is always right. So conductors generally don’t know what the players think and they wouldn’t consider to ask. However, I recently attended a rehearsal at Tanglewood of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was thrilled to witness an exception to this. At one point there was an exchange between Music Director Andris Nelsons and the winds. At a notoriously tricky moment in the epilogue of Don Quixote, Andris went into eight, instead of the more obvious slow four. It worked perfectly. Then Andris did something he absolutely didn’t have to do. He asked the wind players: “Is it alright that I go into 8 there?” I heard first oboe John Ferrillo assuring him that it was fine. At the concert it was once again perfectly rendered. I made a mental note to do it that way next time I conduct the piece. Now, imagine another conductor comes to conduct the BSO. They get to that passage and it doesn’t work quite as well. Wouldn’t it make sense for John, or some other caring member of the orchestra, to put up his hand and recommend that that conductor try Andris’s solution? It wouldn’t happen, of course, but actually why not? Well, it simply isn’t built into the system. You can’t have people in the orchestra interrupting the rehearsal and throwing out ideas and suggestions. It would also most likely undermine the authority, not to mention the confidence, of the conductor. The conductor is the boss, and the players have to follow him whatever he says or does, like it or not. But what would happen if every single player had a sheet of paper on his stand and received an invitation from the conductor to write anything on that sheet that they thought might enhance the performance. That would draw on the collective wisdom of the entire group and, as a by-product, most likely greatly increase the engagement of every single player. That has been happening at the Boston Philharmonic for years. It’s called the White Sheet. I explain to the orchestra that the “white sheet” is an invitation for each player to participate fully with me in the process of making the music. If a player doesn’t like something that is happening, or doesn’t agree or doesn’t understand, or wants to make a suggestion, he or she can put it right down on their white sheet. When I get back home after the rehearsal I read their comments, and then I can get back to them to discuss the matter further, explain what I was trying to do, or simply absorb their idea into my thinking. This is why I always ask them to sign their white sheets, even if they think I might be offended by their comment. I tell them that I see criticism as invaluable coaching. They never abuse that privilege. The professionals in the BPO and other orchestras I conduct usually use these white sheets to clear up technical matters or to offer suggestions about the way I am conducting something or the interpretation of the piece. In the Youth Orchestra they do that too, but there is another dimension. The members see the white sheet as an ideal way of communicating with me. It is the one-on-one conversation that we would have if we had time to meet for coffee after rehearsal. They share their observations and questions about the music, but also about life. Often they just convey their appreciation for what happened in the rehearsal. Usually these are quickly written, sometimes scribbled, notes written on the spur of the moment. Sometimes they are well-considered essays delivered by email. I frequently write back my comments and responses to their white sheets, either directly in an email, or on the orchestra Facebook page, if I think the discussion is of general interest. They come to see that they can make a difference by communicating, and over time most of them also become increasingly articulate and expressive, which I dare say helps their musical performance. It certainly prepares them for the leadership roles that we have in mind for them. The tag line of the youth orchestra is “Shaping Future Leaders through Music.” The conductor has enormous power, but in the end his power depends on his ability to empower others. How do we know if it is working? I discovered that there is a fairly foolproof way of knowing if the power is being released in the players rather than hoarded by the conductor: Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining you know it’s working. If the eyes look dull or the player looks bored, instead of blaming the players for being difficult and resistant, you can ask the question: “Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?” Of course, that question could be asked by any leader, teacher, boss or parent: “who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining and they look disengaged?” At that same rehearsal of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, John Ferrillo played the famous oboe solo near the beginning of Don Quixote, introducing Dulcinea, in a sumptuously full blown way. It was, as you would expect, some of the most beautiful oboe playing one will ever hear. No oboist today has a more gorgeous sound than John Ferrillo. Later I saw him on the grounds and asked him if he would consider playing it pianissimo, as Strauss had written it. I explained that I thought the reason Strauss had marked it that way was because he didn’t want to suggest a flesh and blood woman, but rather an intangible dream-like vision of idealized womanhood. “I’ll think about it”, he replied sweetly, but realizing full well that I was asking him to give up one of the greatest moments for oboe strutting in the repertoire. The next day at the concert he did play it pianissimo and it brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know if anyone else noticed, but as a result of John taking the bloom off his sound, another tiny musical miracle occurred: Strauss accompanies the solo with a single harp, also marked pianissimo, and four violins in the 7th and 8th stands. Usually this goes unnoticed or is even inaudible, because everybody is so dazzled by the sound of the oboe. In this performance the sound of those distant violins added immeasurably to the mysterious depiction that Strauss must have had in mind. I could actually distinguish all four notes of that disembodied violin chord! I was giving John a verbal “white sheet”. Should I be concerned that Andris Nelsons would be offended by my going around protocol and talking directly to one of his players? Of course not! In his beautiful article about Andris Nelsons in the Sunday Globe, Jeremy Eichler reveals a portrait of a new kind of leader: “…declining to play the role of the omniscient grand maestro, choosing instead to present himself as a decisive yet fallible co-creator. Conducting not from on high but from deep within the music’s flow.” Corporate titans, take note! Andris is 36 and surrounded by veteran musicians, I am 76 and surrounded by young musicians. He assumes that there is wisdom and insight to be drawn from those around him. So do I. If you want to hear this passage in the Strauss played exactly as Strauss indicated it, here is a link to the BPYO performance from Interlaken, with the suitably chaste-sounding Liz O’Neil, a fabulous student of John Ferrillo, resisting the temptation to strut her stuff. Listen from the beginning—the oboe solo comes after 1 minute 20 seconds.   And listen for those distant violins. [


The Assignments

Another practice unique to the BPYO is the weekly assignments. Each week I ask Roz to help find a suitable assignment for that week. She asks me “Where are they in the rehearsal process? What are they concerned about in their lives (exams, concerts, auditions?)” I tell her, and usually a beautifully apt assignment tumbles out of her brain. Around the time we were frantically raising money for tour: BE MORE GENEROUS THAN YOU THINK YOU HAVE THE RESOURCES FOR Around the time of the BPYO Concerto Competition: COMPETE, BUT GIVE UP NEEDING TO WIN. The beginning of the year. THROW YOURSELF INTO LIFE LIKE A PEBBLE INTO A POND AND WATCH THE RIPPLES. At one point when I was feeling they were becoming oppressed by the challenges: COME FROM THE POWER OF A CHILD These assignments are not like their school assignments. They are open-ended, spiritual inquiries designed to engage people’s deep awareness.


 A Tour of Possibility

Before we left, we called a meeting after rehearsal at the Benjamin Franklin Institute. Everyone who was going on tour—all 135 people—were there. In addition, about sixty of the parents were in attendance. Elisabeth did some last minute housekeeping and I gave a mini-course in possibility thinking. I had two flip charts. On one, I drew several black downward spiraling arrows and on the other a red circle with arrows pointing in all directions like a sun. Then I asked them to distinguish in their minds two separate realms: Firstly, the Downward Spiral of competition, success, failure, expectation, measurement, winning and losing, where the goals are wealth, fame and power. Just like in the TV ads where they list all the terrible symptoms that are possible effects from taking a recommended medicine, the likely symptoms of the downward spiral are fear, pressure, disappointment, despair, stress, complaint and frequently alcohol, drugs and dis-ease—in other words, the world they are all too familiar with in their daily lives at school. The other realm is the world of Radiating Possibility—a world of creativity, grace, lightness, openhearted laughter, love, sharing and community. A world in which being a contribution is the game and gratitude and joy are the rewards. That is the natural habitat for classical music. Classical music lifts our souls—ours and that of our audience. Leon Fleischer said classical music is an act of anti-gravity, That is the world of our Saturday afternoon rehearsals. I consider the week an inconvenient interruption between Saturdays.” wrote one of the players on his white sheet. I told them that we were going to go to Europe in Radiating Possibility. If anyone falls into the downward spiral, there will be a whole bunch of people ready to jump in and help that person to get back to on track. It’s a very simple idea, but it is not easy to do. It needs constant practice, which is why we call it the ART of possibility. We will all be practicing along the way. I addressed the issue of the rules and the question of punishment. I explained that if someone in a normal organization on tour breaks the rules they would be punished or sent home. In a possibility organization everyone is responsible for the effectiveness of the entire venture. We can’t send anyone home because it’s an orchestra and we need every single player. I promised that If anyone on the tour goes “off track” we will call a meeting and get the whole group back on track. I went over many of the other practices of possibility, most of which were by now familiar to the regular players, though new to some new members who had been added for the tour—Giving an “A”, Rule #6, Vision, Enrollment and the most popular practice: When you make a mistake throw your hands in the air and say “HOW FASCINATING!”* At the end of the meeting, each member of the orchestra signed an agreement*. And then I gave out two assignments designed to support us for the 17 days of the tour: WALK WITH SPIRIT AND LOVE And BE THE WHOLE I knew that if these 120 young people would walk about the streets of the places we were visiting, and play our concerts emanating spirit and love, people in those cities would respond in kind. And they did. And I trusted that if the musicians focused on the WHOLE rather than just enjoying the trip for themselves, the orchestra would come together and play with spectacular unanimity of sound and spirit—and it did.  


When I got home from the meeting I read all the white sheets from the rehearsal that afternoon. I found one from Hayley Miller, one of our first flutists.

 Dear Mr. Zander In the first movement of the Schoenberg If you go into two at bar 57 it makes it much more difficult for those of us winds who are in 3/8. Would you consider staying in one? Hayley

I immediately wrote back: I get your point about going into 2 at bar 57. I think I should stick to 1 in a bar. Thanks Love, BZ (Please note the precision of Hayley’s “coaching” and the grace with which she asks if I would consider changing the way I was conducting. I saw her point and was easily able to change, in order to make that moment more comfortable for her and her colleagues.) The next morning I found an email from Hayley:

Dear Mr. Zander, Oh great! Thank you so much. And thank you so much for putting everything into perspective last night. I feel as though we are a cohesive unit going to Europe with a purpose, rather than a group of individuals going to travel and play music. It was such a great reminder that we have to be so much more than that. I know it will change the lives of the people who are there. Thank you, Hayley

I knew Hayley was speaking for the whole orchestra. We were ready, not just musically but spiritually! Nothing could go wrong with such a group and, of course, it didn’t. It was a magical 17-day dream-journey that changed the lives of every person on the tour and many, many people beyond. *The full talk, in written form, can be found in the Appendix along with the Agreement that each student signed before leaving for tour. All of this material was sent to the parents A Tour Of Possibility here. Anyone interested in delving deeper is encouraged to read The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Harvard Business Press and Penguin) which has now been translated into seventeen languages. As she was writing, I kept saying to Roz: “it must be understandable to an intelligent ninth grader.” And it is. Incidentally, on the audio version, which Roz and I read, the musical examples are all played. Link to Art of Possibility on Amazon here. My TED talk, The Transformative Power of Classical Music, posits the notion that: “everyone loves classical music, they just haven’t found out about it yet”. Apparently, it’s been seen by over 10 million people.  It’s a good start. Ted Talk here.

Possibility in Action

I will tell only one of the many possibility stories that happened on the tour. It deals with a difficult issue that directors of tours involving teenagers invariably have to face. On the fourth day I was beginning to feel that it was time to have another meeting. It’s true that everything had been going smoothly, but it was beginning to feel like a regular youth orchestra tour and I wanted to recreate the amazing feeling of community and joy that we had had at that tour meeting in Boston. However Elisabeth and some of the other adults thought it better to let the orchestra have a much needed free evening. Early the next morning I received an email:

Can we talk at breakfast? Something came up tonight that needs to be addressed. Thanks, Elisabeth

I went down to find Elisabeth visibly upset. “Four high school kids came in intoxicated at 2.30 a.m.” OK, I said, “let’s have a meeting!” A meeting was announced for that evening, the hotel manager was persuaded to move all the tables in the cafeteria to accommodate all 135 members of the group sitting together in rows with the all-important flip charts with the downward spiral and radiating possibility signs in place at the end. I began by saying that I had promised before we left Boston that if somebody went “off-track” while on the tour, we would have a meeting. “Four people of high school age went off-track last night, coming in at 2:30 in the morning clearly intoxicated. I didn’t appear to be the least bit upset. “It was absolutely predictable that somebody was going to go off track.” I said. “This gives us a great opportunity to get together to remind ourselves why we came on this amazing trip”. For the next hour we shared wonderful experiences that we had had so far. I told them about the stunned reaction of a couple at the concert the night before at Smetana Hall, who had told me that the concert had touched them more deeply than any concert they had ever heard. One after another BPYO members and adults spoke about the reason why we had come on this journey. I then explained that Mark, Elisabeth and I had structured the tour so that they would have as many challenging performing opportunities as possible—nine concerts and all the necessary rehearsals—as well as many musical, cultural and social occasions that we could possibly cram into seventeen days. We had booked performances in some of the most prestigious concert halls in Europe where we would be playing to some of the most sophisticated audiences we would ever find. The Philharmonie in Berlin and the KKL in Lucerne!—halls in which few of us would ever be likely to perform again. We were also making professional recordings of all the concerts for possible release. “It is only possible to do all we have set out to do with excellence and joy if everybody gets enough sleep and avoids the consumption of alcohol.” Dr. Peter Scheckman added emphasis by reminding everyone of the need to look after our bodies and to get enough sleep lest we would become vulnerable to illness, which already, after only a few days, was starting to happen. I also reminded them that all those under US drinking age had signed an Agreement to not drink alcohol. The tone throughout was cheerful, warm-hearted and light. Of course the four miscreants came to apologize. They happened to be four of the most committed, passionate and loveable kids in the orchestra. Their tears and warm hugs convinced me that their promise that they would never do such a thing again would hold. And it did. I asked one of them what she was thinking when she came into the room at the beginning of the meeting. “I was terrified,” she responded. “I thought we would be reprimanded and punished. That’s what happened at the other youth orchestra I used to play in. You didn’t even make us feel bad. It just makes me realize how stupid it was for me to do what we did.” The deep hug we shared was as moving to me as I am sure it was to her. For me it reinforced yet again the notion that the pathway to growth is love and we never fail to be moved by that realization. A few days ago I received another letter from that young lady.

Dear Mr. Zander, Now that it has been nearly a month since the end of tour, I have had an ample amount of time to reflect upon my actions…. Going into the meeting, I knew exactly what to expect. Punishment, anger, and disappointment where three of words that came to mind. I was extremely surprised by what happened. The idea of using this act as an opportunity for thinking in possibility was a foreign concept to me. Throughout the meeting my shoulders loosened, my heart stopped pounding furiously, and I quickly became intrigued. Once the meeting was over I asked myself, ‘In how many cases has punishment solved an issue?’ Being raised in a society where punishment was expected, the idea of possibility was refreshing. As time progressed, I reflected upon my actions as well as the concept of possibility. I asked myself questions such as, ‘Are others aware of this notion?’ or ‘what would life be like if the world was run this way?’ I appreciate your approach to the situation. I thank you for taking a negative situation and turning it into an opportunity to learn something. It was as if a layer was peeled off my eyes revealing a fresh new pair of eyes, eager and ready to approach the world. Every situation in the future will no longer be just another situation, but a chance to gain knowledge and grow as a human being. Love Esther

I wrote to Esther to ask permission to use her name in this article, because I felt her achievement in the human development department was just as noteworthy as some of the musical achievements of the tour. Dear Esther, I have written up the story in my article. I would like to add your signature to your amazing letter to me. I am imagining you are going to be fine with that because it is something of which you can be so proud. As I said, it is predictable that kids will go “off-track.” What is wonderful is how you dealt with it and what you learned from it. I think it will inspire a lot of people. Let me know Much love BZ   Her response came this morning, just as I was sending this off to the Boston Musical Intelligencer:

Dear Mr. Zander, Of course. I hope my mistake will allow others to learn something, and will hopefully open up their eyes to new ideas. I love you, Esther Pak


 Breaking Down Barriers

Just as we conductors instinctively know when we have every member of an orchestra fully aligned in a rehearsal, I knew that, at that moment in the meeting everyone was totally focused and open to possibility. How did I know? Because everywhere I looked, I saw shining eyes. So, instead of ending the meeting, after having addressed the main issue, I saw an opportunity to address another that I felt we could transform while on the tour. It is predictable that people of like mind and experience in a group will stick together. This was likely to be particularly true in a youth orchestra where the age range was so wide and where the members came from so many different schools and colleges. During the short breaks in rehearsals in Boston, little groups would gather: brass players in one, 15-year-old girls in another, wind players from NEC in another, a group that had attended a summer camp together in yet another. I tried various strategies to get them to integrate more, but with such a short time to be together each week, the draw of their friends was simply too great. And then there was Henry, aged 10, always wandering around on his own at the breaks.

It begins with youth
11-year-old Henry Ayanna with his stand partner, 16-year-old Emily Chen

What was a ten-year-old doing in an orchestra of kids from 12 to 21? I had had great misgivings about taking Henry into the orchestra because of his age. His playing at his audition was terrific and his interview convinced me that he was very mature for his age, but our cut-off age of twelve was there for a reason. How could a ten-year-old possibly integrate into a group where the vast majority of the players were from 15 to 21, especially on an international tour? The final thing that had persuaded me to relent was his mother’s anxious plea: “But what is he supposed to do—play with other 10 year olds?!” I remembered the vision of the Boston Philharmonic: Passionate Music without Boundaries! And took him into the orchestra. Everything went along fine and last April Henry became the first 11-year-old to perform the final act of Wagner’s Siegfried! But now I saw a perfect opportunity to help the whole group break out of their tribes.

I know how wonderful it is to have this extended opportunity to deepen the friendships that you have with the people you already know and love, but how would it be if for the rest of the tour, you would start to look around to see who else there might be for you to connect with, like, for instance Henry.

I told the group about the misgivings I had had in taking Henry in to the orchestra, especially with a tour in the offing and why I had decided to take him after all. I then read out an astonishing email that Henry had sent me about a difficult situation in his life and how he had come to see a different way of looking at the problem after our group meeting in Boston. I am not comfortable making the whole letter public, but suffice it to say that it concerns an adult authority figure who had not been behaving in a very mature way. Eleven-year-old Henry wrote to me:

 He was being selfish, and he seemed caught up in the downward spiral. I was in the car talking about it with my mom. I thought I didn’t want to be in the downward spiral, so we talked about how I don’t have to be discouraged, and I can be a strong person. We decided that if he is caught in the downward spiral, I will just carry on and be myself, not for reputation, and not out of fear. He is great, it’s just that he tends to miss the beauty around him, and he is often faint of heart. Thank you for showing the difference between negativity and possibility, and how to try to give the gift of possibility to everyone I meet, even when things seem discouraging. I am very exited for this tour. It will change the way I think about things. The more I see of things in the world, the more I learn to love it. Sincerely, Henry Ayanna

I repeated Henry’s words with heavy emphasis: “To give the gift of possibility to everyone I meet, even when things seem discouraging” could be the motto for our tour! “Now who thinks I did the right thing to take Henry into the orchestra?” This was greeted by wild applause from the entire group and, of course, Henry became a star. “I couldn’t have written a letter like that at that age,” remarked a college sophomore. “Come to think of it,” she added after a moment’s pause, “I don’t think I could write a letter like that now.” Many barriers were broken that night. Henry started hanging out with the brass players, especially with the hulking tenor tuba player John Niro, who had just turned 22 and is headed to graduate school in the fall. All the artificial barriers seem to dissolve for the rest of the tour and in their final white sheets almost everyone, including the adults, spoke of the thrill of new and unexpected relationships opening up in all directions. Here, a 13 year old who had been somewhat isolated up to the time of the tour, writes of his experience:

Dear Mr. Zander, This tour has been a huge learning experience. Not only did I learn about music, but also about people, life, culture, and about myself. Before this tour I never realized the importance of the impact music has on others. For thousands of years humans have been playing and listening to music. This means that we share an emotional connection. In other words, these patterns of sounds make our brains release stimulants to all of our cells, which make us feel joyful, or upset, or angry. Yet, music serves no evolutionary purpose. The mystery behind music is why we are attached to it. After this tour, I have realized that there is a purpose. Music shares the same simple basis as to why we laugh or smile. Music exists to bring us together. I enjoyed discovering new things about BPYO. I can say that I have met more people on tour than during the entire two years I have been in the orchestra. I have experienced moments in my life that I will never forget and will never experience again. Performing on the stage of the Berlin Philharmonic was the greatest honor any musician could dream of. During my audition, you noted that I shut myself off from the people I know less. Tour has connected me with incredible people and has shown me that communication is one of the most important skills to master. Through our travels over these 17 days I have seen firsthand the many different types of people in the world and have learned that they all love music, even if they don’t know it yet. Thank you Mr. Zander for this incredible life experience. Eric Zaks

There was one other meeting during the tour and there were a few other minor incidents that might have warranted a meeting. One of the students was left behind when we went out on an outing. “Is there something wrong with me?,” he wailed, because something like that had happened to him on the last tour. “Not a thing,” I replied, “it was a simple breakdown of the system. We will have to get that fixed. How Fascinating!” I am not sure that everyone behaved like angels for the rest of the trip, but what I am sure is that everyone, got a chance to reflect on responsibility, commitment and giving your word. That process will continue to give value for the rest of their lives.


The Beyler Museum

On the one but last day Hansjoerg Wyss, invited the whole orchestra to the breathtakingly beautiful Beyler Museum in Basle, of which he is Chairman of the Board. The day started with a solo and chamber music concert by members of the BPYO for about 150 of their patrons*. It was followed by a lavish picnic on the grounds and a visit to the Gauguin exhibition, the largest collection of Gauguin paintings ever assembled. It was the last day of the exhibition and it was fascinating to see Boston’s greatest Gauguin treasure, “Where do we come from? Where are We Going? What are we doing?” in the context of his entire oeuvre. The Fine Arts Museum had never loaned that painting before, but as a result of Hansjoerg’s persuasive efforts, the museum relented. That gigantic painting placed on the main wall as you entered was the centerpiece of the entire exhibition. Hansjoerg was so impressed by Elmer’s playing at the concert and so charmed by his personality when he heard about the extreme financial difficulties that his family in Peru is facing—his father is a street musician—and that therefore his return to Boston was in jeopardy, he offered to support his return to NEC. So Elmer will be back in the BPYO in September after all ! Another miracle on the tour! *Here is a link to a video of the concert. It includes a riveting performance of the Bach Chaconne by Max Tan; a beautiful jazz performance on the harp by Charles Overton, Elmer Charumpi playing the Finale of the Hummel Trumpet Concerto,  Yuki Beppu playing Piazzolla, a moving rendition of the Hymnus by the 14 members of the BPYO cello section and two more violinists playing Bach. A link is here.


The Last Day

On the final night of the tour, after all the standing ovations and the tears and embraces when the music was done, there was a celebration dinner in the KKL hall in Lucerne. The ovation which the kids gave Natalia Gutman when she entered the room was evidence of the deep affection and admiration that she had won from all those young people. Another huge ovation was given to the one person without whom the tour would not have taken place, Hansjoerg Wyss. Hansjoerg had decided that he wanted to make this tour not only a success for the BPYO, but also for Switzerland. He called on several leading Swiss businessmen to join him in making extraordinarily generous contributions, which provided more than half the cost of the entire tour. This is not the time or place to thank the individual donors, but I think it is the place to hear the words that Hansjoerg spoke at that dinner:

I wanted this tour to make a difference to the people of Switzerland. We have a very organized society; everything is always correct, and we usually don’t smile. We work all day and then come home and brush the stairs. I think your concerts unleashed something in the Swiss; you opened our hearts and our souls and we started to clap. This response was different from that at most concerts; your programs were fun and exciting. You showed us your feelings and we showed you ours; you brought happiness to the Swiss.


Wrap Up

 Back at the hostel I gave my final tour wrap up. I acknowledged Johan representing Classical Movements, which had been instrumental in so much of the organization of the tour, including the hotels, the busses and all the tour guides; the four wonderful chaperones, Liz Eschen, Kysha Bradshaw, Michael Czitrom and Stanford Thompson; Johnny Helyar, the brilliant Production Manager who, together with Andy Kim, kept the machine running perfectly smoothly throughout the tour in so many venues and so many countries; Richard Dyer who kept a constant and scintillating blog of our activities, musical and cultural; and Dave Jamrog who captured the story of the tour in video. David St George, who as our musical guide throughout the preparation of Wagner’s Siegfried and then on the tour, has added so immeasurably to the lives of every single person, gave an extraordinarily moving speech about what the tour had meant to him. I spoke about the contribution of Dr. Peter Scheckman and his wife Maryanne, who provided medical and occasional psychological relief and Ben Vickers, my much beloved, brilliant and attentive assistant conductor and personal assistant. I acknowledged the amazing players who had joined us to replace the regular members of the orchestra who had not been able to go on the tour: Liz O’Neil, Sam Waring, Dustin Chung, Breanna Ellison, Justin Smith, Michael Stefan, Bethany Hargreaves, for the way they became totally integrated and supported the group and especially I acknowledged Jonah for playing not only Don Quixote and the Dvořák Concerto, but every single moment of every rehearsal and concert. Then I recognized the other two members of the troika, which has imagined, executed and loved this whole organization into existence. Mark Churchill who has been my close collaborator and freind for 42 years, and Elisabeth Christensen, whose genius for organization and deep love of young people had enabled this to be the best tour that any of us has ever experienced. Finally I acknowledged the kids themselves who because of their dedication and accomplishment and their energy and devotion had played the music, filled the halls and created such an amazing community. And then, as the final action of the tour, I asked each person to write a last white sheet. What I get from reading these communications (some of which were written that night, while others came to me as emails after we got back) is the conviction that if we ask of people, even very young people, the best of what they are capable, if we give them the richest opportunities that resources can provide, and if we approach life in possibility, we can have a perfect world. We came back to Boston with 135 pairs of shining eyes! No one would suggest the BPYO should get a ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue, but a visit to the White House, with a little music to celebrate their triumph? Now, that would be fitting recognition!  It might remind people that great music is at the heart of a great society.


Ben "conducts" Nate Klause (horn player) in the garden of the Triebschen, Wagner’s house of Lake Lucerne
Ben “conducts” Nate Klause (horn player) at Wagner’s Triebschen on Lake Lucerne (Nathan Kwak photo)

I close with two white sheets. The first gives an adult perspective. It comes from one of the chaperones, a violinist, teacher and mother, sharing what she observed on the tour. The other from one of the kids, Julia MacClean, who is going into her sophomore year at Tufts and suddenly finds herself, after tour, confronted with a stark choice. Both seem to sum it all up in a telling way. In the appendix [here] you will find the rest of the white sheets. None has been edited or omitted. Few people will want to read them all, but it is only when you read one after another, after another and see the impact that this experience has had on each person, that you realize that, just as an orchestra needs every one of its players, when a tour touches and transforms every single person, it can really be considered a true victory. From one of the Chaperones (7/1/15)

Maestro Zander, Thank you a million times over for giving me the opportunity, two times now, to come as a chaperone on an incredible, life changing journey, with some of the most talented youth in the world. There are no words that can adequately express what I felt as I listened and watched from the audience at every concert. You are such an inspiration to these young musicians as they begin their journey through life. The encouragement and possibility you instill in them through music and the spoken word will never be forgotten. I felt so uplifted by the music being performed in halls where the composers actually walked and talked and performed and conducted. I will always remember the passion of the Dvořák, especially when Jonah took center stage. I was drawn into every note and was moved to tears by his beautiful and articulate playing. Jonah has the ability to draw his audience in and tell a story with his playing and every listener felt that in both the Dvořák and the Strauss. His playing inspired me to be better as a person on tour and I will never forget how I felt. Another blessing for me was hearing you speak during the “meetings.” You give encouragement to these young students like no one I have seen or heard before. They were challenging each other on the bus to not get caught in the downward spiral of life. You have taught them to be ambassadors for good and use their talents to bless others, so I say “Thank you” for instilling greatness in them and being part of the “whole.” I am so richly blessed to have met you through my amazing friend, Elisabeth, and because of our time together, I will try to be my best self and I will do my best to be a better mother to my musical children and teach them the things about life that I have learned from you. Thanks for everything. I am eternally blessed. Love, Kysha  

Julia McClean: Dear Mr. Zander, I have always loved BPYO firstly and foremost for the opportunity to play powerful and incredible music. But the greatest thing that BPYO has given me is a pure vision of what life can be. Your philosophy on possibility has given me an invaluable sense of hope. We as an organization have proven over and over again that we can create a society based on trust, passion, spirit, and love. Of course these are all values that you have instilled in us, and I think that is the most wonderful part of being a part of this orchestra. The values BPYO teaches are fundamentally influential, unlike other teaching organizations where information and values are forced and not deeply effective. The way I have changed my lifestyle based on your philosophy in the past two years is drastic, and I cannot thank you enough. These past two years have been the best of my life, and almost all of the most staggering and moving moments I have experienced can be attributed to BPYO. I realized that throughout this tour, and through all of our concerts throughout the year, I have been very conscious of my breathing. Now I realize that I have been so aware of it because these are the moments when I feel most alive. Playing music with this orchestra brings out the most passionate, emotional, and youthful parts of our spirits. I must constantly remind myself that I am really experiencing each moment. I feel a desperate need to document and remember everything I do in BPYO because each new experience seems to top the last. Playing in such stunning historic halls, seeing Bach’s resting place, visiting the place where Wagner wrote Siegfried, visiting the towns where so many influential composers were inspired, and seeing some of the most beautiful places in the world that will serve as our own inspirations for our own marks on history. I have spent the past year trying to decide if I want to go into the music world or not. I have been torn between pursuing my music with all my energy or moving into the science world and keeping music up in my free time. I often decide that it is more sensible to study biopsychology and sacrifice some time I devote to my music. However it is in moments like watching the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle from the choir seats or getting a standing ovation in one swift movement from over 2,000 people that I question why I am not going to conservatory and playing music every day for the rest of my life. All of my happiest and most inspired moments I have experienced have been through music. I wrote my college application essay about BPYO in 20 minutes because the words just spilled out. The most moving moments I have experienced are from the pain and suffering I can hear in Shostakovich and Mahler’s heart wrenching symphonies. I feel a purity of spirit and a fullness of life when I immerse myself in music that simply does not exist in the other parts of my life. Hearing a moment of deep musical beauty is like filling a hole in my heart, a sense of life complete. During this tour I have had the greatest opportunities I could ever ask for in the most stunning locations I have ever been to. We have played music in the most significant places in the history of classical music. Never in my dreams did I believe that I could experience all of that, let alone all at once and so early in my adult life and my musical career. I want to clarify that BPYO and this tour have not only inspired me musically, but that my entire perspective on my lifestyle and my impact on the world and the people around me has been profoundly shifted. My moments of stress, anxiety, frustration and anger become learning experiences rather than contributions to the downward spiral. I don’t fear anything the way I used to because I know that my life can be lived so fully and passionately when I live based on the values instilled in me in the past two years with BPYO. I cannot thank you enough, and you will always be in my heart. See you next year! Love, Julia


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

  1. I’m just leafing through this for the first time– I must say that the Schoenberg is a raging success. Here’s hoping the other recordings live up to this excellent result!

    Comment by Camilli — August 12, 2015 at 6:21 pm

  2. How very fine to read again the observant, informed, nicely phrased writing of Richard Dyer after so long! (And this is no shot at his able successors.)

    Comment by david moran — August 12, 2015 at 10:41 pm

  3. I am friends with several members and alumni of the BPYO, and while I am a musician myself, I have always been first and foremost a dancer, and have never committed myself to music the way I have committed myself to ballet. However, my love for ballet has introduced me to and increased my love and appreciation for classical music over the years, especially through works choreographed to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and the like.
    My love for classical music has also been influenced wholeheartedly by my many friends in BPYO. Every time I spend time with them, I can feel their love and passion for what they do reflected in their expression, their voices, their words, and their spirits. I think many people search for romantic love that compares the love my friends have for their music and their orchestra. The rich knowledge and appreciation for what they do is truly awe inspiring; I have never met anyone who loves something as much as they do, except for one of my ballerina friends who is a professional dancer in New York City. Throughout their time with this group, I have witnessed them not only become better musicians, but better people.
    I know this group means the world to them, and I know they will be forever grateful for their tour experiences. I look forward to attending future BPYO concerts and marking the Stravinsky violin concerto from the audience (go watch the Balanchine, seriously, it’s remarkable).

    Comment by Erin — August 17, 2015 at 2:06 pm

  4. To the publisher,

    This is to express my sincere thanks for your publication of Ben Zander’s essay, “Why Was The BPYO Tour So Special?” (August 10, 2015). Your use of the entire edition of The Boston Music Intelligencer is unprecedented and greatly appreciated. I am the grandfather of a member of the BPYO, and was able to attend several of their concerts on the tour (including the final concert in Lucern). I can assure you that Ben Zander’s comments understate the impact of the tour on the talented young musicians in the BPYO, the audiences and the musical communities in the countries where the BPYO performed. The Boston musical community is fortunate to have Ben Zander as one of its leaders. His outstanding work with the young musicians in the BPYO will assure that classical music will continue to play an important role in all of our lives.

    Bradley G. Lorimier
    Vero Beach, Florida

    Comment by Brad Lorimier — August 18, 2015 at 11:06 am

  5. This could be a New Yorker article with added gush.

    Comment by denovo2 — August 18, 2015 at 8:14 pm

  6. BPYO’s concert at the Philharmonie in Berlin was deeply moving.
    Listening with closed eyes it seemed as though a professional top orchestra were under the spell of a congenial baton leading it beyond its limits.
    Open eyes could hardly believe that this heaven of music was emenating from – just youths !
    But a congenial baton it was that evoked their potential to be taken to unearthly recreations of musical works.
    Transparency, accents, inflections, cantabile, dolce, feroce, timbres, character, the extreme loud, and, most dificult, the extreme soft: never have I heard the ‘voices’ in Dvorak’s cello concerto immerse into the almost inaudible with the whole audience holding its breath – to mention just one of the many magical moments of the concert.
    Too bad, you didn’t play the Schoenberg pieces in Berlin.
    I listened to them on the website.
    It’s the premiere !
    Never have I heard them played better – which equally applies to the other works on the program.
    BPYO , Benjamin Zander, and your dual congruety: keep daring !
    Berthold Tuercke, Berlin, composer & ear-witness to Ben Zander’s recreation of Mahler’s IXth in 1979.

    Comment by Berthold Tuercke — August 31, 2015 at 4:29 am

  7. Dear Staff at the Intelligencer:

    I read your comments often with great pleasure.

    Mr. Levin, I go back to that concert in the sixties at Memorial Hall at which, if my memory isn’t playing tricks, an unknown pianist by the name of Murray Perahia played, and you presented your completion of the Mozart Requiem. Maybe I’ve confounded two concerts? I know for sure I was present a few years ago when you played the Beethoven 2nd piano concerto at Symphony Hall on short notice.

    Even though the comment period has passed, I wanted to write to commend you in publishing Mr. Zander’s article on the recent European trip of his BPYO under his baton. The article, combining words, pictures, and the sound of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra playing the repertoire it unfolded in Europe in several venues in three countries, is a tour de force worth any music lover’s time. I felt I was on that trip as I digested it all in one sitting. Plus, I relived the BYPO’s astounding playing of the Wagner Siegfried Act III love scene, when Siegfried pierces the ring of fire to win Brunnhilde, last April at Symphony Hall. I’m truly amazed that such young players can be brought to play with so much maturity. In the world today much that we witness is a downer. This orchestra not only thrills us with its playing, but reassures us that there are young people out there who have a spirit of collaboration which will give us leaders who will bind rather than fracture society. So thanks Ben Zander!

    Larry Ruttman

    Comment by Larry Ruttman — September 17, 2015 at 9:15 am

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