Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?
Conducting was a natural extension of my cello playing – like an airplane taking off from the runway. I applied for a job teaching cello and chamber music at a summer school in Lenox. After the Director offered me the job, we were having tea: “Do you know anyone who could conduct the orchestra this summer?” she enquired. “Oh, I’d love to do that!” I replied. “Are you very experienced?” she asked. “Oh very.” I assured her. That was before Google, so she couldn’t check! But was it a lie? No, not really. I was very experienced in playing the cello and coaching chamber music, so it was just a question of broadening the scope, painting on a larger canvas, as it were. Over the years I have learned more and more about what works in conducting (mostly from the players). I put a so-called “white sheet” on the stand of every musician in every orchestra I conduct and invite them to tell me what could make the experience better. The only condition is that they have to sign their name. They are very generous with their observations and coaching.
I think I first thought of being a musician when I was about 8. Watching my father, a very gifted amateur, playing the piano, I noticed that he put his whole heart and soul into it – his eyes transfixed, shoulders hunched, his body, swaying from side to side. I remember thinking, “I’ll have whatever he’s having”. (or words to that effect.)
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
The great Spanish cellist Gaspar Cassadó was probably the greatest influence on the way I hear music. Listen to him playing the Chopin Eb Nocturne – it’s a sound and freedom of timing that I seek when I conduct.
I studied with Cassadó for five years from the age of 15 to 21 in Florence and Cologne, travelling with him all over Europe, often carrying his cello and turning pages at his recitals. I was his apprentice. He never charged my parents for lessons – “If I charged what I thought my lessons were worth, you could never afford it” he told my father – and, of course, I never charge students for lessons. How could I? I could write a tome about the influence Cassadó had on every aspect of my life. Some day maybe I will.
Rudolf Kolisch and Leonard Shure were probably the two musicians who influenced me the most after I came to America. Kolisch, leader of the legendary Kolisch String Quartet passed on his profound understanding of tempo in many fruitful conversations while we were both teaching at the New England Conservatory.
Leonard Shure had a magisterial command of music and the piano. My first wife, Patricia Zander (Yo-Yo Ma’s pianist for 13 years) studied with Shure in New York for a year and I was part of the class. On the first page of my score of Mahler 6th, I have a single word written in large letters – Shure! – to remind me, before I begin, of the titanic power and weight Shure could get from a piano. It inspired me to get that kind of coiled force from the cellos and basses.
Benjamin Britten was an early influence – he embodied and encouraged ease and joy in music – as was his assistant Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav Holst) who was my theory teacher. She taught me that music is like dance. She would dance my harmony exercises, as I played them on the piano.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling?
The most challenging is to overcome the restrictions imposed by my ego – worry, pride (I have very little) and, in my old age, exhaustion and physical pain from over-use (I take a couple of Advil before each rehearsal). The most fulfilling part is the shining eyes of the players if I have helped them to give a fine performance.
As a conductor, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
Explain, tell stories, give images, sing. I do everything I can to get the players engaged.
My youth orchestra rehearsals are 4 hours long and the players are 12 to 21 – I cannot let the excitement level drop for a moment! They love to hear stories and insights about the music. With my professional orchestra I do the same, but more economically, because it is expensive to tell stories!
How exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players/singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?
The conductor doesn’t make a sound. Their power comes from their ability to make other people powerful. Once I got that, I knew that my job was to awaken possibility in other people.
My attitude to the great music we are privileged to play, is that of the vicar of a church. The vicar who thinks people come to church to see him, gets taken away in a white van.
Is there one work which you would love to conduct?
The greatest joy I know is conducting Beethoven’s 9th, the ultimate affirmation of the humanity that lies within us all. It is the music of the richest complexity that is still understandable by everyone, everywhere. I have wrestled with this work for over forty years, always asking the question What did Beethoven really intend? I recorded the Ninth with The Philharmonia in London in 2018, with the intention of representing as faithfully as possible what I understood Beethoven to be telling us, especially with his often extremely fast tempi. Now that I have absorbed these tempi into my DNA, I can be free to approach the music, as I am sure Beethoven would have done himself playing it on the piano, with unfettered abandon.
I first presented my idea of the Ninth in Carnegie Hall with the Boston Philharmonic and the Chorus Pro Musica in 1983. The chief critic of The New Yorker Magazine, Andrew Porter, wrote: “If Mr. Zander is right, we have been listening to the music of the greatest composer only in misrepresentation”. I am bringing the same forces, plus four fabulous soloists, to Carnegie Hall, 40 years later, on Sunday February 26th to share a new way of experiencing the Ninth. I will talk about the music and the ideas behind our performance at 1.30pm with the performance at 3pm. The whole event will be live-streamed, but if you are anywhere near New York come and see it in the hall. Like sex, it’s better in person.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Carnegie Hall for its mystique, tradition, history, sound and sheer visual beauty.
Symphony Hall in Boston, for its unparalleled acoustics, especially for Bruckner.
Rudolfinum (Dvorak Hall) in Prague for the warm, detailed intimacy of the sound.
Dvorak suddenly makes new sense when heard in that idyllic environment
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I have decided that my life is about Possibility. The Art of Possibility, co-authored with my former wife and life-long-partner-in-possibility, Rosamund Zander, is the hand-book of practices for bringing possibility into our lives all the time. I give talks to corporations and organizations, schools, even high-ranked officers in the U.S. armed forces. It inspires me to be a more effective leader, so that I can focus on bringing out the best in the players – the shining eyes. I do the same with the audience. Spending 45 minutes with the audience before each concert, sharing my enthusiasm and insights into the music and the interpretation (what goes on “in the kitchen”) inspires me, because I know then that the audience behind me during the performance is fully engaged as they listen. More shining eyes!
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences?
“Everybody loves classical music, they just haven’t found out about it yet.” – Benjamin Zander
Most people today haven’t been given a good grounding in classical music. They are lost, bewildered and turned off. Make it fun, by keeping a light tone, but tell the audience what the music is about. The opening of the 3rd Leonora Overture is a terrible bore if you don’t know what is going on, but if someone points out that Beethoven is depicting the descent, step by horrific step, down into Florestan’s dungeon, it instantly becomes riveting.
The opening of Daphnis and Chloe describes the serene calm of dawn, with the rustling sounds of nature – “No sound but the murmur of rivulets of dew flowing over the rocks”, bird calls, a shepherd plays a pipe in the distance, and then a gradual slow crescendo over pages, as it moves to the brilliant, iridescent sunlight of mid-day – nature expressing the release of affirmation. Every 12 year-old could warm to that.
Listen to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra playing that very section in the Rudolfinum in Prague!
How to get the audience into the hall to hear the pre-concert talk? That is the trick. Once they are there, they’ll be hooked. Be a bit outrageous and irresistible.
The TED talk I did in 2008 – The Transformational Power of Classical Music – has been viewed over 21 million times, making it the most watched TED lecture. So that proves that everyone loves classical music. Now I am busy unabashedly dragging people to my website where I take people on a guided tour through classical music – it’s like going down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, into a wondrous magic world. Leon Fleischer said it best: “Classical music is an act of anti-gravity”.
The Interpretation Classes seem to be the best way to draw people in, because they see the drama of a performance and then the mysterious transformation when young players suddenly see a piece of music in a new way or break through a barrier of resistance. It opens everyone’s emotional pores and makes them feel more fully alive.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Most people measure success by the amount of Wealth, Fame or Power they have accumulated. I measure success by how many shining eyes I have around me. If the eyes in the orchestra are not shining, I get to ask this question: “Who am I being that the eyes around me aren’t shining?” We can do that with our children too.
What advice would you give to young or aspiring conductors/musicians?
I don’t give advice. Once a young man asked me whether I thought he should become an organist or a comedian. Of course, I advised him to be an organist. His name was Dudley Moore. I learned my lesson.
Advice? OK! Read The Art of Possibility (a professor at the university of Akron told me that he reads it every September before he starts teaching). Then practice possibility every day.
The most important practice for a conductor is probably Rule #6!
If you have read AofP, read Roz Zander’s other book Pathways to Possibility. It’s a deep dive into the possibility of Adulthood.
What’s the one thing we’re not talking about in the music industry which you feel we should be?
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
Standing up (I’m 84)
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being fully engaged and fully expressed. Happiness is overrated.
What is your most treasured possession?
My gorgeous garden – front and back. Actually, the back is even more beautiful than the front, so I have sign out front: MORE BEAUTY IN THE BACK, PLEASE PEEK
As a result, I get a lot of new friends wandering into my back garden. They usually end up coming to the concerts as well.
What is your present state of mind?
Very, very grateful
Benjamin Zander conducts the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, New York, on Sunday 26th February. The concert will also be livestreamed. Full details here