Passing the baton to a new generation;Music
Sue Fox, London Sunday Times, Sunday January 18, 2004
Posted: 2004-01-28 10:16:29
Benjamin Zander's talent for bringing out the best in classical music
needs to be heard to be believed, writes SUE FOX
A prodigiously talented young pianist sits at the keyboard, blindfolded
a man's tie. "Don't think about yourself," says her now tie-less teacher. "You know where the notes are. Now play them with your heart." It's another day, another student in Walnut Hill, a boarding school near Boston, Massachusetts, for gifted young performers. The teacher is the artistic director of the school's music programme. He also happens to be one of the most charismatic conductors working today in classical music, and one of the hottest.
Charismatic and uncompromising in equal measure, Benjamin Zander is one of
music's evangelists. "Nobody sits on the fence about Ben," says one of his
students. "They either love him or hate him. The very few who don't like
him are frightened of being challenged."
Arguably the most accessible communicator about classical music since Leonard Bernstein, Zander moves audiences with his unbridled passion and
enthusiasm. The ultimate risk taker, he will stop at nothing to instil in
audiences the notion that music is the expression of the soul. "Every
gesture, every note is about communicating to an audience," he says. "It's
nothing to do with the person who is playing or with how hard a piece is."
Two years ago, Zander came to Dublin to conduct Mahler's Fifth in his
first concert with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, a performance received rapturously even by usually reserved critics. His memories of working with the orchestra are such that he is excited about his return to perform with them this week.
"This orchestra has such passion. Everyone plays with their heart and
soul. The cymbal playing was about the most exciting I've ever heard. They're
not one of the most famous orchestras in the world, but they play as if they
are with enormous pride and intensity."
A more enthusiastic guide to classical music would be difficult to
imagine. Zander promises that someone coming to one of his concerts will have a wonderful time. He enjoys a certain notoriety for the money-back guarantee he offers to audiences should they dislike what they hear. In more than 30 years of conducting, he has yet to be taken up on his offer.
"I have never doubted for a moment that classical music is the birthright
of all people - no less than nature, sports, food and sex," he says. "That
doesn't mean everyone loves being in nature or enjoys sport, but it is
hard to resist the pleasure if you can find an enthusiastic guide to explain
the rules and enrol you in the mysteries."
Some years ago, after conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in New
York's Carnegie Hall, an angry-looking woman walked up to Zander, who
couldn't imagine what he might have done to upset her. She had beensitting
in the audience. "Thank you for making me remember why I became a
musician," she said to him. "In the last 25 years, I'd forgotten." "The woman was angry because of all those wasted years," says Zander. "I see part of my job as having to constantly remind everyone that we musicians have something that other people can't get access to for all the money in the world. "But it's not about that. It's about creativity and sharing, it's about shining eyes and being alive to possibility. That's what music is about."
Widely regarded as one of today's great Mahler conductors, he is midway through an ambitious - and so far acclaimed - project with Telarc, the
record company, and the Philharmonia to record all the Mahler symphonies.
"Mahler speaks to me without an accent," he says. "It's like reading
Tolstoy all of life is right there in the scores. As a human being I can
identify with his self doubt, wildly quixotic emotions, impatience, intellectual curiosity and the capacity to drive himself beyond that place where most of us stop."
In 1999, Zander's recording of the Ninth Symphony was nominated for a
Grammy. In 2002, Paul Driver of The Sunday Times nominated Zander's Sixth
Symphony as one of the year's top ten CDs. Each CD comes with a bonus
discussion disc where Zander leads the listener through the music. "There seems to be a real need for these discs," he says, "if only to take away
the anxiety some people feel about approaching a symphony they've never heard before. They tell me that after listening to the explanation disc, their whole relationship with the music changed."
Zander's latest CD - Mahler's Third Symphony - is not officially released
until Monday, January 26, but, as it happens, the first place it will be
outis Dublin. Zander will be signing copies after the concert.
One of the most inspirational, life-affirming human beings whom one could
encounter, Zander, 64, is at heart a teacher, thinking of himself as a vehicle for moving something of value into the world. Some years ago he made what has turned out to be one of the most important observations of his life. "The conductor doesn't make a sound," he says. "His power is derived
from making other people powerful. Immediately my attention shifted to the players and how effective I was in making them the most expressive, joyous musicians possible.
"Most situations in life are competitive - we have a sense of there not being enough to go round. But in a symphony that breaks down, every voice has to be heard in a harmonious whole. How you get each voice to speak
full and be heard is the essence of the symphonic idea."
The youngest of four exceptional children, Zander's Jewish parents, who
moved to England as refugees from Berlin, valued education above
His father, Walter, was a lawyer, scholar and amateur musician who played
under the great Hungarian maestro Arthur Nikisch. Music was central to his life. Because of his son's early gift for it they developed an intenselyclose relationship.
"The best review I ever got was not from a music critic, but from my father," says Zander. "He was 94 years old and blind. He attended a master
class I gave in London and sat there in his wheelchair for about three
hours. When it was over, I went to speak with him. He lifted up his finger
in his characteristic way and said: 'I see that you are actually a member
of the healing profession.' It seemed to me the highest accolade." At the age of nine, Zander came under the influence of Benjamin Britten
and, later, Imogen Holst. "For three summers the family decamped to a caravan site between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness in Suffolk. I took my cello. Ben Britten and Peter Pears would often turn up with a viola and bass recorder to join our little chamber group with my brother and sister.
"It was a magical time. I once asked him (Britten) how it was he had time
to spend with us. He said: 'I get up early to compose from 6am until 10am and
then I have time to play with my friends.'"
It is a lesson Zander took to heart. He is at his desk at 6am and thinks nothing of conducting a concert in, London, Israel, St Petersburg or, for that matter, Dublin, and flying back to Boston in time for a class or a rehearsal.
In the relatively relaxed air travel environment before 9/11, Zander would
frequently leave his case on the baggage carousel, go off to rehearsal and
collect it later. Not any more. Nor could he so easily travel with a 4ft piece of lead piping in his luggage, which he did the last time he conducted Mahler's Sixth in London. By way of explanation, he presented the airline staff with a CD player and his powerful headphones, so they could experience for themselves a few moments of Mahler's massive Sixth Symphony. The lead piping was to create the dull thud of the famous hammer blows. But to think of him as a frantic, jet-hopping personality is to do him an injustice. Alone, in his music room, is where the real work is done -hours of studying scores and playing the piano. "I have very little private life," he says. "Only the music."
On the most basic level, Zander believes in the humanising nature of
music, in its power to transform our lives and let us see things afresh. It is a
message that continues to give young people the most positive hope that it is worthwhile to become a musician.
Is Zander simply too good to be true? Surely there has to be a downside to his conviction that classical music can change your life?
It's a question Ken Howard, the television producer, and I were often
asked five years ago, when we made a documentary about Zander's life for the BBC called Living on One Buttock (the title refers to Zander's "one buttock playing", which he demonstrates in his talks and master classes). Somehow, a purely positive message feels like a glitch in the machinery.
The media wants controversy. We spent months following Zander in the UK,
Ireland and the US.
In an attempt to make a balanced film, we searched for people who had
doubts about him. Most memorably, when we were filming some master classes, Ben's message was summed up by a hard-bitten cameraman. He came up to Zander in tears and said: "I never knew this music s*** was about my life.
Benjamin Zander, with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra, is at the
National Concert Hall on Friday