Zander Brings Energy To Young Symphony And To The Overall Music Scene

August 02, 2009|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,

"I believe the music world is about to burst into a new age of glory," says Benjamin Zander.

If so, it may be because the British-born conductor has been responsible for so much combustive fuel over the past several decades. His intensely committed level of music-making from the podium has earned him cult status.

Zander's primary musical outlet during the regular concert season is in Massachusetts, where he's the founding conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, a dynamic orchestra of professionals, students and amateurs.

This week, Zander arrives in Maryland at the helm of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, which puts musicians through rigorous training and then showcases the talent on tour.

The combination of eager young musicians and Zander - a born teacher, he's also a popular motivational speaker who co-wrote The Art of Possibility with his wife - is likely to be galvanic when he leads the orchestra in works by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Bernstein on Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore.

"It's a tremendous bunch of kids," says Zander, 70, from Boston. "The very remarkable thing is that they come from 21 countries, from the southern tip of Peru to the northern tip of Canada, and none of them have met before, but they are already sounding absolutely spectacular."

The Youth Orchestra of the Americas is assembled each summer, this year at the New England Conservatory, where Zander has been on the faculty for more than 40 years. He led the ensemble's first public concert in 2001 and its first tour in 2002.

For Zander, the opportunity to engage young minds in the art of expressing music is highly energizing. "The beauty of this youth orchestra is that they are incredibly open," he says. "There is no downside, no disciplinary issues at all because they are so committed. It is a shot in the arm for staid old classical music figures."

On the first day of rehearsal, he chatted with players about relationships between measures in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.

"Once you understand that each bar is part of a long phrase, everything changes," Zander says, singing some of the music over the phone. "I demonstrated it at the piano and they got it immediately."

Zander, who believes strongly in Beethoven's controversial metronome markings (they used to be dismissed as impossibly fast, a mistake blamed on the composer's deafness), invited his young musicians to discuss matters of tempo in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. He was especially interested in whether they might want to slow down, as is done in some performances, for the final, whomping statement of the famous four-note theme.

"One of the kids said, 'Don't even think about it. It should be like lava bursting through a volcano.' I thought, 'Right!' "

Not that Zander would mind if students disagree with him. It's just that he likes to have them think about music from all angles. When facing a minuet, for example, "I'll ask if they know anything about dancing in buckled shoes and a wig. I'll dance to them, sing it, whatever it takes - and they'll get it," he says.

Zander's magnetic personality has been known to leave a deep impression on those who work with him.

"Any good qualities you hear in my playing, and my taking chances, I'd say I got from Ben Zander," says Baltimore Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Andrew Balio, who did some of his studies at the New England Conservatory and performed in the Boston Philharmonic.

"I used to go over to [Zander's] house in the middle of the night just to talk about music," Balio says. "He's such a Renaissance man, with such a deeply emotional temperament. He's a man of extremes, the opposite of routine. You should see his concerts in Boston. They're like rock concerts and always sold-out."

Balio describes the Boston Philharmonic as "an orchestra of all music lovers. [Zander] thinks music is for everyone, not just the cold professional who executes perfect notes. And he really demands expressive, meaningful playing all the time," the trumpeter says. "He's the opposite of the bean-counter conductor who just wants a sterile, controlled thing. He's not there to clean things up, but to try to make things more powerful to the ear."

That emphasis can be felt instantly on several superb recordings of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies Zander has made with England's Philharmonia Orchestra, each containing a bonus disc of the conductor discussing and illustrating the music in an exceptionally vivid, involving style.

While a member of the Israel Philharmonic, Balio urged that orchestra to engage Zander. The response was, "Who?" But Zander did get invited - and invited back.

"When I did Beethoven 5 with [the Israel Philharmonic,] I was asking them to do things nobody had asked them to do," Zander says. One example: "I wanted the double basses to play their solo in the scherzo like laughter." Over the phone, he demonstrates, wildly singing the melodic line.

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