When Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) Conductor Benjamin Zander was just a boy, he would watch his father come home from a hard day’s work and sit at the piano and create a language that dazzled the young man – the language of music that went beyond words and still delights the accomplished conductor at the age of 80.
Zander, the founder and conductor of the BPO, which is based in the Back Bay, celebrated his birthday in March, along with the 40th anniversary of the BPO. This week, he sat down with the Sun to talk about the uplifting world of Classical music and the progress that has been made by the BPO and the seven-year-old Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (BYPO) over their successful decades-long run.
“I got it young,” he said of his love of music. “Back in England growing up, I watched my father playing. He would come back home from work and sit at the piano and play. His whole body would transform and he was ecstatic. I said, ‘Whatever he’s having, I want to have it too.’”
It’s that communication with music that goes beyond words – a philosophy of sorts – that Zander said moves people to the point of tears. Music, he said, is one of the only mediums that can take people to such an emotional state, and communicate an idea through harmony.
“Mendelssohn said music is more precise than words,” said Zander. “The thing is that it is true, and not just with Classical music. You listen to a Billie Holiday song and you get to places in the song where the tears come to the eyes…Those harmonies and sounds take you to a place of nostalgia and feeling and it’s so precise that our tear ducts start working. People don’t stand in front of a painting and cry. The only place people really cry is in front of music. It’s because it doesn’t go to the brain, but rather straight to the heart. No one can decipher how it works that way. It’s a great mystery.”
Soon after Zander was hit with the music bug listening to his dad play piano, he began studying music at the age of 12 – taking composition under Benjamin Britton and Imogen Holst. From there, at the age of 15, he left his home in England to study in Florence and Cologne with cellist Gaspar Cassado. He completed a degree at the University of London and won a fellowship that brought him to the United States.
He came to Boston in 1965 and never turned back – founding the BPO in 1978 and appearing all over the world as a guest conductor, frequently collecting awards for his interpretation of music.
The BPO started with three concerts per year, and now they’ve grown to having 24 concerts and many outreach efforts – with Zander also doing an interpretation class at the Boston Public Library as well.
“I’ve spent 55 years here and 80 years old is a big one because you really aren’t in good enough shape to celebrate your 90th,” he said with a laugh. “My love for music started very, very young and it’s really grown over time. You get four quarters: 20, 40, 60 and 80. From 80 on is overtime…I think I’m more effective now than ever before…Things are really coming to fulfillment. I don’t have any bosses, so I do what I want. If it’s too much, I only have myself to blame.”
One of the highlights in his late career has been a recent TED talk he gave on the ‘Transformative Power of Classical Music.’ That talk has exploded worldwide and is the most popular TED talk in China right now.
As well, the BPO and the BYPO are operating at full capacity right now, he said, and with great popularity. He said they have grown beyond the limits of what anyone expected, and he said he sees a hunger for music and knowledge of music at every performance these days.
“I’ve never seen so many young children at a concert and it’s because parents feel comfortable bringing their children,” he said.
The next chance for a great concert from the BPO comes on April 26 at Symphony Hall, where they will play Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and Ives’s Symphony No. 3.
Zander was particularly excited about this concert and the pairing of two very different composers.
Mahler’s 5th is one that Zander and the BPO have performed before – with Mahler being their house composer for years. However, Zander said it never gets old and is a piece of music that describes the full potential of humanity.
“You enter into a world that isn’t accessible in any other way,” he said. “There’s nothing that can bring you to that sense of being fully in touch with what human beings can do.”
The second piece is by Charles Ives, an American composer that is relatively unknown. His third symphony has only been performed here one other time, in 1983. Ives was moved by the religious “camp meetings” of the 1800s and the aspiration to the highest values, everyone believing together.
“Nobody in the audience will have heard the piece,” he said. “There is no way…It will be completely new, which is exciting.”
The BYPO will also have a wide ranging concert on April 14 at Symphony Hall at 3 p.m. The BYPO concert will feature Wagner, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Mahler.
It is, in fact, the BYPO that has truly energized Zander in the last several years, and he said that is because of the unlimited potential of youth.
He works closely with the students, giving them assignments and helping them with their outlook on life. He said he is constantly inspired by the young performers and their resilience and energy.
“That’s another part of the secret of getting old is to surround yourself with young people,” he said. “Their development and growth is so critical and so vulnerable and so easily destroyed.”
In the end, Zander said there is so much to be taken from life, but it’s only the symphony and the idea behind it that has no downside.
“Sports are great, but they are limited because it’s really about winning or losing,” he said. “That’s why there is a downside with sports. Whereas with music there is no downside. It’s all about the journey of human beings to reach for the stars…The symphony world is a world in which everybody is uplifted.”