'Energizer bunny' has a serious side
Benjamin Zander didn't really mind when Morley Safer of CBS's "60 Minutes" called him "the Energizer Bunny of classical music." He fully admits that he lives his life at full throttle, enjoying every minute.
But what worries the conductor, teacher, and leadership guru is that the TV program's vast audience will think he is less than fully committed to musicmaking.
That's a serious mistake.
"If I were the way I was portrayed on that [recent] program, I never could do what I do - I could never be a serious interpreter of great music because [it depicted me as] a kind of a wild man racing around in a total frenzy," says the British-born Zander, who has made the Boston area his home for 35 years. "It doesn't show what I think to be my scholarly, inquiring side - my thoughtful, quiet side, which every musician or teacher has to have."
The Boston Symphony's Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Pops' Keith Lockhart have given their city oodles of international visibility as a classical-music mecca. Maestro Zander, whose Boston Philharmonic is made up mostly of students and amateurs, has labored in relative obscurity, though with a legion of faithful fans.
No longer. His recording with the London Philharmonia of Mahler's 9th Symphony (Telarc) - including a bonus CD and annotated sheet music that tells how to conduct the first two pages yourself - was nominated for a Grammy. With his former wife, Rosamund, he's become a highly sought motivational speaker on personal growth and leadership skills, using music as a metaphor. For the past two years he's spoken to world leaders, including President Clinton, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, leading them in song and preaching "possibilities."
Yet he also makes sure he's back from his frenetic travels in time to teach students in a music class at Walnut Hill School in suburban Natick, Mass., and at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
His growing fame - he was taken aback recently when two cleaning ladies at a Los Angeles airport recognized him - doesn't interest him except as a way of spreading his message. He surprises callers by answering his own phone. "I hope I never change that," he says. "Having no pride is really important to the kind of work I'm doing. It's pride that gets in your way."
But it's easier now to get "people to pay attention" to his message, he concedes in an interview in the living room of his Cambridge, Mass., home "which is the power of classical music as a means of getting people to experience their life more fully.
"I believe that every human being - every human being - has the capacity to be touched, and moved, and enlivened, and grow into their full expression.... There are lots and lots and lots of ways of getting enlivened and being touched, and classical music seems to be one of the most powerful of those."
Together with "Ros," as he calls his ex-wife, who remains a close friend, he has written "The Art of Possibility," to be published in the fall by Harvard Business School Press.
It opens with a passage from the Danish philosopher and theologian Sren Kierkegaard: "If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye, which ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never."
At the same time, he finds his interest in unlocking "possibilities" is taking him "more into the center of music. I become more fascinated by music, more intrigued by it.
"I'm just about to start a three-day process of writing, and then recording, why [Beethoven's] 'Eroica' Symphony is such a phenomenal breakthrough in human history."
After 30 years of conducting it, he knows every note. But it's "still a surprise to me; it's just incredible," he says, laughing at the thought. "I find myself more drawn to [this piece of music] because I want to be clearer and clearer about its message."
As well as being a controversial advocate of the "original," quicker tempos for Beethoven's symphonies, Zander is known in the music world as an interpreter of Gustav Mahler, the Austrian composer of a century ago. When Zander returned from a recent trip, he had nearly three-dozen e-mails awaiting him from Mahler enthusiasts seeking his thoughts.
Orchestra players, he says, love Mahler's symphonies because "they're called on to give everything they have." The range of emotions in Mahler, he says, is second only to Mozart.
"The [Mahler] 8th starts in ecstasy and goes up from there!
"When you get to the end of a piece like the 8th, it's beyond music. It's at some other level. People's response is absolutely unbelievable ... transported beyond control. You can't describe it! And there are few things in life that are like that."
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