Benjamin Zander has been conducting orchestras in Boston for 50 years. In a recent phone call from his home in Cambridge, Zander sounded almost giddy as he talked about an upcoming trip with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to South Africa. “There are 130 of us going, and that includes 105 musicians ages 13 to 21,” said Zander, now in his 11th year at the youth orchestra’s helm. “The experience of traveling with them is life-changing, and I use that term very precisely and clearly. We will be finding out about their history, their culture, and their music.” Last year, the group went to Greece, and next year, it’s Europe. “Like I said in my answer about `best travel tip’ — take a youth orchestra with you,” he said. In addition to his work as conductor of the BPYO (and fund-raising for the organization), Zander, 84, travels the world giving what he called “corporate leadership and transformational presentations.” He is the coauthor of the 2000 book “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life.” We caught up with Zander, a cellist, who is from Gerrards Cross (in South Buckinghamshire, England), to talk about all things travel.
If you could travel anywhere right now, and money was no object, where would you go?
Over the past 50 years, I have traveled all over the world, conducting and giving presentations on the “Art of Possibility.” I have 1 million miles on British Airways. I am 84, so right now, I want to stay home. I have a gorgeous English garden on Brattle Street in Cambridge. There is a sign in the front garden saying: “More Beauty in the Back. Please Peek” — and many do, so I am never lacking in new friends to talk to. I always give visitors a card with a QR code to my new website, benjaminzander.org, which is a playground for classical music, with hundreds of free videos, classes, and music lectures. I believe that everyone loves classical music; they just haven’t found out about it yet. So I tell them about it. Also, I have a great sound system in the garden, so why on earth would I want to leave home to travel somewhere else, if I don’t absolutely have to? If pressed, I probably would visit Florence again, where I spent my youth studying with the great Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó and absorbing Italian life.
Where was the first place you traveled to after COVID restrictions were lifted?
I flew to Greece for two weeks in June — warm weather, deep blue seas, spectacular food, breathtaking ancient monuments, and the friendliest, most warm-hearted people you could ever hope to meet. Is there a more idyllic place on earth? Oh yes, I forgot to mention, I had 120 young musicians with me — the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra on a Greek tour [in] Athens, Parthus, Delphi, Thessaloniki, Corfu. … Imagine performing Mahler’s 4th symphony in a 3,000-year-old amphitheater, with perfect acoustics, for an audience of 2,000 looking out over the orchestra into the Greek countryside.
Do you prefer booking trips through a travel agent or on your own?
My wonderful assistant always books my personal travel directly with the airlines. Elisabeth Christensen, managing director of the Boston Philharmonic, handles everything for our tours with her magic touch. She maneuvers around 130 people in the BPYO for a two-week tour every year.
Thoughts on an “unplugged” vacation?
I unplug when I sleep and when I am making music. Otherwise, I am open for the business of life in all its magnificence. I see the iPhone as a remarkable gateway to much of human knowledge and experience.
Do you use all of your vacation time or leave some on the table?
Everything I get to do is what I love. No golf, no fishing, no bridge, no TV sports, no hobbies. Just music and wonderful people. I wouldn’t know where the table is that I am supposed to leave things on. I’m fortunate enough to be able to do what I love, in beautiful places, and call it work. I rarely go on vacation.
What has been your worst vacation experience?
I can’t remember a single bad experience.
Do you vacation to relax, to learn, or for the adventure of it all?
In the last days of summer, I go to Martha’s Vineyard to relax, recharge my batteries and meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. It’s an essential time for me to study my scores for the coming season. During the summer, I often take my little party boat down the Charles River, with a couple of glasses of wine and a few friends.
What book do you plan on bringing with you to read on your next vacation?
My brother-in-law Neil Rudenstine, who used to be president of Harvard University, has written a yet-to-be-published book in which he analyzes and explicates 34 beautiful and difficult poems. I carry it about so that when I have time, I can read more of it. I love poetry, but I find the poems of people like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Frost, Auden, and William Carlos Williams difficult. When I read Neil’s explanations, suddenly they become crystal clear and the beauties of the language are revealed like great music. Wouldn’t everybody want to read a book that does that?
If you could travel with one famous person/celebrity, who would it be?
Since I only travel to get from one place to another, it takes all my attention. A celebrity would be a distraction. I myself am definitely more than enough to handle. When I am traveling with the youth orchestra, there are enough future stars in the orchestra to keep me inspired and entertained. Incidentally, talking of celebrities, I always travel in business or first class. You can’t do any fund-raising in economy.
What is the best gift to give a traveler?
A really good pair of headphones, like the Bose noise-canceling headphones. Then all of music is available in good sound wherever you go.
What is your go-to snack for a flight or a road trip?
I’ve just discovered a new, very tasty and nutritious bar, the RX bar. I am going to start taking them along when I travel — and also to my rehearsals. You can get a bit peckish during a four-hour rehearsal.
What is the coolest souvenir you’ve picked up on a vacation?
I don’t pick up souvenirs. They end up in the basement. At my age, I am reducing my possessions, not adding to them.
What has travel taught you?
In life, all relationships depend on how you treat people. My father wrote a pamphlet in 1947 addressed to the Jewish people, in which he wrote: “We are about to set up our homeland in Palestine, which given our history, makes perfect sense. But in order to do so we are asking of the Arab people the ultimate sacrifice: to give up their land. If we remember that in every conversation and in every interaction, we will find them the most courteous of people. And if we forget it, we will be doomed to eternal struggle.” That story has opened me to listen to what each culture and each community has to offer, and everywhere I go, I find courtesy and shining eyes.
What is your best travel tip?
Try to take a youth orchestra with you. There’s nothing better than sharing the experience of travel with young musicians — experiencing their camaraderie, curiosity, and enthusiasm.
Click here to view the BPYO South Africa Tour Collection.