“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic: A Historical Perspective

Richard Dyer - The Boston Globe
Articles — September 1, 2008

For most of its history Boston has been a major center of musical life. Back in the 1940s, the early-instrument, historically-informed performance movement began here – and one of its tasks was to recover what had been accomplished in New England centuries before, when early music was still new music.

Over the centuries, many generations of composers, performers and ensembles have kept musical life at a boil, and so have the city’s wealth of universities and conservatories, their distinguished faculties and their adventurous students.

Today Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic help make sure the kettle continues to whistle. The Boston Philharmonic has become one of the defining musical institutions of Boston today, and one of the city’s defining musical personalities is Zander, its founding conductor.

This season the Philharmonic celebrates its 30th anniversary – a milestone no one three decades ago could have confidently predicted the ensemble would reach.

The orchestra was born in crisis, and it has weathered more than a few since then. In a way the Philharmonic is actually thirty-eight years old, because it grew out of another ensemble, the Civic Symphony of Boston. In 1964, Zander, a young British cellist had arrived in Boston; six years later, the Civic Symphony named Zander – then thirty-three – as its music director, and almost immediately he began to shake things up.

Some of the changes he made, and some of the challenging repertoire he programmed, put him on a collision course with the Board. When Zander and administration of the Civic Symphony parted ways, all but one member of the orchestra left with him; the players themselves created a new orchestra specifically to continue its work with Zander.

The Philharmonic is unusual in its personnel, which embraces professional musicians, advanced students, and dedicated amateurs, working together, side-by-side, to their mutual benefit. The proportions among these constituencies vary from season to season, although the orchestra is now heavily weighted in the professional direction, in part because so many students have decided to stay in Boston and develop their musical lives here.

Both Zander and the institution inspire loyalty and stability. Zander estimates that there are probably ten players who have been with him since 1972, and there are twelve who have played in the Philharmonic since its debut concert in 1979. Its concertmasters have included Daniel Stepner, Arturo Delmoni, Valeria Vilker-Kuchment, and Joanna Kurkowicz. Zander goes out of his way to praise all of them, and indeed all of his section leaders. He calls them “great teachers,” and he knows what he’s talking about, because he is above all else a teacher himself. The players themselves have taken their share of responsibility for the astonishing technical and artistic advancement of the orchestra, and Zander has encouraged them to do so.

Over the last three decades, the Philharmonic has improved almost beyond recognition. Zander too, whose unusual career trajectory has led him to youth orchestras and prominent professional orchestras all over the world. He has brought all these new experiences and perspectives to bear on his work with the Philharmonic, just as the experience of the players as soloists, chamber musicians, teachers, and participants in other orchestras enriches their playing in the Philharmonic.

During the Philharmonic years, Zander unexpectedly developed a second career as an internationally prominent transformational speaker, and he strives to practice what he preaches.

Years ago, he was consulting a distinguished senior member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a violist who had enjoyed close connections with the composers of the second Viennese school, particularly Arnold Schoenberg. This man had much to say about how many kinds of music ought to be performed, and when Zander asked him why he had not said those things before, he replied, “Nobody ever asked me.”


‘The Boston Phiharmonic has become one of the defining musical institutions of Boston today, and one of the city’s defining musical personalities is Zander, its founding conductor.’


Zander was determined not to make that mistake himself, so every folder on every stand in a Zander rehearsal and performance contains a blank sheet of paper, on which each player is invited to write down whatever is on his or her mind. Zander reads these comments and takes them seriously; the final musical decisions are of course his, but every player does have a voice in forming those decisions; each has had an opportunity to make an investment in the performance beyond following orders in playing his own part.

The makeup of the orchestra and the white sheets are only two of the many unusual aspects of the Philharmonic that make it unique in the city and probably in the world. The repertoire, the approach to the repertoire, the soloists, the symbiotic relationship with the conductor and with the public, and the whole attitude towards music and performance- all deserve comment.

The Philharmonic made its debut with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony- a work that was one of the “last straws” for the Civic Symphony Board. Mahler, a composer for whom Zander feels a profound affinity, is the Philharmonic’s signature composer. The group has played the entire cycle of the symphonies, and some of the individual symphonies many times. It has also performed Das Lied von der Erde, the Rueckert Lieder, Kindertotenlieder, and the Songs of a Wayfarer.

Zander and the orchestra won an intensely attentive and appreciative audience for their Mahler interpretations during the same seasons that Seiji Ozawa and the BostonSymphony Orchestra were performing the complete cycle, and recording it for a major international label. Those recordings swiftly disappeared from the catalogue. On the other hand, the Philharmonic’s one commercial recording of Mahler, the Sixth Symphony, became a worldwide cult classic, and ultimately Zander began to record the complete Mahler symphonies with one of London’s major professional orchestras, the far-famed Philharmonia. These discs appear on one of the few record labels that is still standing, Telarc, which has pursued a course as independent as Boston Philharmonic’s own.

In addition to the Mahler cycle, Zander and the Philharmonic have also explored some of the major oratoios, most often in collaboration with the Chorus pro Musica – Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Brahm’s German Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius.


‘…this orchestra never coasts. The attitude is never “Here we go again”; instead the effort is to rethink and explore.’


The ensemble has generally skirted around the edges of the Baroque and classical repertoire, but has programmed most of the standard Romantic and 20th-century works, all the symphonies and concertos of Brahms, for example, and major works of Schubert, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, Nielsen, Sibelius, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg and Shostakovich.

Works by living composers have been small in number but choice in quality – two sym~honies, an overture, the Concerto for Oboe and Concerto for Viola by Boston’s own John Harbison, as well as the cello concerto by Henri Dutilleux, “Tout un monde lointain.” And the orchestra did commission A Kennedy Portrait from composer William Kraft, a piece that has interested other orchestras and other audiences.

Zander and the ensemble have also developed a sleek repertoire of lighter music by Johann Strauss, Jr., Ravel, Shostakovich, Sousa, Gershwin, and Morton Gould.

The ensemble’s outreach events have included a series of “Jazzicals,” collaborative concerts with the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, and a series of “Classical Fever” events designed to introduce concert music to audiences that have never encountered it before. The Philharmonic was also in the early forefront of those who realized that the best “educational” effort is simply to make tickets available for youngsters to attend real concerts and discover, feel, the excitement on their own.

Zander and the orchestra like to begin even the most familiar piece with a clean slate. The conductor and his players enjoy digging deep and discovering surprises in what they thought they knew; this orchestra never coasts. The attitude is never “Here we go again”; instead the effort is to rethink and explore.

And Zander and the Philharmonic were among the first to apply the combination of intuition and research that characterized the best work in the historically-informed performance movement to later music. Zander decided to see what would happen if he hewed to Beethoven’s metronome marks, which generations of scholars and performers had dismissed as inaccurate or even impossible, and the results were revelatory. These pieces again reverberated with the shock value they had when they were new and controversial.

When Zander learned there was a piano roll of the Danse Sacrale from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that might provide clues to the tempos Stravinsky really wanted- as opposed to what was technically possible for orchestras when the music was new – he sought it out, and the orchestra mastered those headlong tempos. The Philharmonic’s recording created a sensation in 1992 when it was internationally acclaimed as one of the major releases of the year.

These ideas about tempo were never simply about speed; they were insights into color, character, and drama as well.

When they are at the top of their game, Zander and the orchestra operate at white heat, fearless. It sounds as if they are taking crazy risks, but in fact they know what they’re doing; they trust each other, and theu believe not only in what the music says but in what it implies. When the process works, familiar landscapes are rearranged, as if illuminated by lightning. When it doesn’t – well, one thing no one has ever said about the Philharmonic is that it’s predictable or boring.

When it comes to engaging soloists, Zander enjoys seeking out legendary veterans the public would most likely not get to hear – violinists Oscar Shumsky, Sergiu Luca, Denes Zsigmondy, and Ivry Gitlis; mezzo soprano Mitsuko Shirai; baritone William Warfield. Recently Zander and the orchestra have been establishing a special relationship with the great Russian cellist Natalia Gutman whose appearances in this country have been rare.

At the same time Zander has regularly engaged young and promising locally-trained artists – pianists Christopher O’Riley, Andrew Rangell, Stephen Drury, and Max Levinson, as well as violinist Peter Zazofsky; more recently there has been violinist Stefan Jackiw, who is on his way to a major career, and George Li, age thirteen, the yonngest Philharmonic soloist to date.

Prominent local musicians like the pianists Russell Sherman and Robert Levin, have played with the Philharmonic, not to mention a cellist named Yo-Yo Ma. Mezzo Jane Struss, who excelled in Mahler, enjoyed a particularly long and fruitful relationship with the ensemble; Zander, once a cellist himself, repeatedly brought Colin Carr and Alexander Baillie to play; and he gave local audiences unusual opportunities to hear such prominent pianists as John O’Conor and Jon Kimura Parker. And outstanding members of the orchestra occasionally step forward as soloists. Everyone is welcome for what he or she can bring to the discourse.

For anyone who was present at those concerts these names summon vivid memories of charismatic personalities engaged in music-making at the deepest level. One of the major highlights of the Philharmonic’s history, for example, was the 1996 performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar; Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose once-daring poem about genocide had inspired Shostakovich to compose the symphony, was on hand to declaim his own texts, and the eminent Sergei Leiferkus rolled out the bass solos with sovereign authority.

Zander’s emergence as a major figure on the lecture circuit coincided with the development of his popular pre-concert lectures. Initially Zander gave these talks, illustrated by musical examples, to small audiences in classrooms at New England Conservatory; an audience of fifty people was considered a good crowd. But as the speaker grew more confident, the audience grew larger. When the Philharmonic performed Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 8 in a sold-out Symphony Hall in 2000, virtually the entire audience for the concert showed up for the lecture, and Zander held everyone enthralled. He doesn’t get involved in highly technical matters, but he doesn’t condescend to the public either-instead he shares his enthusiasms, what he and the orchestra care about. There is no question that Zander has brought new audiences to music, and that he has helped the public that was already interested to become better, more intent, listeners. It’s no wonder that his lectures on a bonus CD are a popular attraction of his recordings for Telarc. The symbiotic relationship between Zander and the orchestra has grown into a symbiotic relationship among Zander, the orchestra, and the public.


‘When they are at the top of their game, Zander and the orchestra operate at white heat, fearless.’


Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s five CDs documenting the work of Zander and the Philharmonic in live performance appeared, and the reputation of conductor and ensemble spread, although it proved impossible to continue making records because of the cost, and because of the bad fit between the hybrid professional/non-professional nature of the orchestra, and the necessary regulations and restrictions of the musicians’ union.

Although budgetary considerations also limit travel, Zander and the orchestra have also journeyed to perform in New York’s Carnegie Hall six times, most memorably in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Recording and touring, and copies of its many broadcasts eagerly shared among fans, have spread the reputation and influence of the Philharmonic far beyond Boston, but it also remains a local phenomenon, and that’s not a bad thing because it means the orchestra has remained rooted in community. This means the Philharmonic can be relatively independent, relatively free from compromises, from the stresses of the music industry, the whims of managers, and the winds of fashion; it can pursue its own course, and remain focused on the things it does best, and on the audience it serves.

In a world where nearly everything comes to us through the distorting lens of the electronic media, where everything is translated and transcribed by the media into a different set of terms, Zander and the Philharmonic have been able to concentrate on the primal contact of live performance, of direct human communication.

What draws and holds an audience is not just the renown of a performer, the interest of the repertory or the quality of execution. It’s a question of attitude, really, the sense that the message is more important than the medium. Zander and the Boston Philhamonic focus on why the music really matters, and at their best they communicate it with missionary zeal.

As Zander likes to say, “Everybody loves classical music. Some people just haven’t found out about it yet.”

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