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Benjamin Zander and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra are a lesson in dedication

The New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, led by renowned conductor Benjamin Zander, find that dedication and hard work make a world of difference. Starting June 14, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is going on tour to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death

By ElenaNeo Antennae / June 17, 2011

Conductor Benjamin Zander at the piano in his Cambridge home. He is currently conducting the Boston Philharmonic and the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

John Nordell

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We all know the feeling—something daunting stands in our path, and we just want to be past it or to shy away. Most of us know that feeling of giving up, too. We might feel momentary relief from avoiding whatever that task is, but that is only temporary. Most likely, we will look back on it in the future and wish we had accomplished it. But when we look at that frightening duty straight in the face and decide that we are going to make it, it’s a whole different story. Often success stories inspire us to take on future challenges with identical gusto. Like a domino effect, it’s almost impossible for an accomplished task not to inspire others. The New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (YPO) certainly knows this feeling of dedication. And their audiences, and I, know the feeling of inspiration.

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This coming week, starting June 14th , the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is going on tour to Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gustav Mahler’s death. Not only will the orchestra, which is comprised of musicians aged 12-18, perform at the Musikverein in Vienna, the Dvořák Hall in Prague, the Smetana Open Air Festival, and the Jihlava Mahler Festival, but they will play music that isn’t normally paired with youth orchestras—Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in D Major, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 (played by piano wunderkind George Li), Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra (played by Johan Ellsworth, the principal cellist of the YPO), Dvořák’s New World Symphony, and Ravel’s La Valse. Sounds difficult, right? But what might not be evident at first glance is that when musicians are dedicated, no matter their age, there isn’t much that can stand in their way.

Benjamin Zander has been the conductor of the Youth Philharmonic for 38 years and has led the orchestra on 15 international tours. Zander is thought of as a renowned Mahler interpreter, having recorded seven of the composer’s symphonies. He has focused on the composer with the Boston Philharmonic, the orchestra that he has also been conducting for 32 years. Among the many inspiring aspects of the YPO, Zander is certainly key among them. Because of his commitment, the musicians are motivated to dedicate themselves to the music, to their peers, and to themselves. In a recent video advertising the tour of the YPO and showing footage of rehearsals, musicians of the orchestra said of Zander, “he’s a great guy, we love him,” and “he makes the whole orchestra really excited about what we’re playing.” In recent “white sheets,” or reflections that the YPO musicians write after rehearsals, students said things like, “I barely noticed the time passing as we played, I was focused on only that single moment in time, of how my part fit into this incredible thing that is Mahler 9,” and “…this piece means not one thing to me, but everything. The whole world. Not just death, but life. Not just darkness, but also love.”

I had the privilege of talking with Zander about the upcoming tour, Mahler’s music, and his conducting and teaching values.

“The difference between Mahler and other symphonies is just the sheer complexity,” Zander said, “the subject matter is so overwhelmingly deep and challenging.” According to Zander, no other youth orchestra has ever played Mahler’s ninth symphony. However, he was confident that the YPO could pull it off. “One of the characteristics of a leader is not to doubt the people he is leading. My dream is to do the Mahler ninth, and I simply don’t allow myself to question [my students],” he said.

This faith has certainly paid off. Youth orchestras typically aren’t thought of as some of the best ensembles out there. “It’s very rare that a youth orchestra plays like this one… A youth orchestra of this age, there just aren’t any that play at this level. When you hear one that does, you quickly change your mind,” Zander said. The YPO has most definitely changed the mind of many listeners. In a recent Boston Globe review of the orchestra’s kickoff concert on June 3rd , Jeremy Eichler wrote, “Of course you could feel that sense of stretching — the piece challenges even professional ensembles — but what was notable was how much worked so well.” On the music blog and virtual journal the Boston Musical Intelligencer, critic Geoffrey Wieting wrote, “The YPO compellingly depicted strife large and small, from declarations of war down to malicious susurrations.”

I was not able to attend the concert, but I did get to listen to the recording. The YPO has recordings of many of their performances on InstantEncore, including La Valse, the New World Symphony, and the Variations on a Rococo Theme, the other piece played during the kickoff concert. Jonah Ellsworth’s mastery of this Tchaikovsky cello piece was clearly shown with his ease of movement; on the second variation, he seemed to be presenting the emotions of the piece as though he was relaying a story, and on the fourth variation, the almost voice-like inflections of the cello came out with the suspended, short glissandos and lightning-fast swells of tremolo. The fifth variation was one of the most impressive because of its infectious, lower register chords that are spread out like butter, while the seventh variation closed off the piece energetically and memorably. While all the recordings on the YPO’s page are more than worth listening to, it was the Mahler that got me excited.

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