Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Something Old, Something New

The musical world is kind of small. Seen through the lens of the internet it becomes big, and sometimes it becomes distorted.

I have refrained from making any sort of comment here on the situation at the New England Conservatory involving the firing of Ben Zander because Norman Lebrecht taken up that task, and he has done it rather well.

It is all very personal for me because I was a member of Ben Zander's Youth Orchestra (back when it was a Youth Chamber Orchestra). Back in 1974 it was in serious competition for string players with the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the kinds of kids who opted to play in Ben's orchestra were exceptional in a kind of unusual way. The NEC Youth Chamber Orchestra had less prestige than GBYSO (which was, perhaps, why I had a shot at getting in), but that was only because it was new and small.

I remember, for example, Phoebe Carrai, who played with the Youth Chamber Orchestra even though she was a New England Conservatory student, because she enjoyed working with Ben Zander. She went on to do great and, at the time, unconventional things with music. When I first heard the group in 1973, the principal oboist was a Harvard freshman named Kip Wilkins. When I started playing with the orchestra, the principal oboist was Beth Orson, who drove to Boston from Providence, Rhode Island every Saturday.

Ben Zander took a chance on me, and he gave me the position of first flute during my last year of high school. In retrospect I think he took a chance on me because he knew my father, who was an NEC faculty member at the time. My friend (since childhood), Susanna Newton (now Susanna Hilliard) was the principal oboist after Beth, and Clelia Goldings was the principal bassoonist (notice that these people are all still in music?). We played, among other things, Beethoven's Second Symphony.

Perhaps it was my second year at Juilliard when I took the train to Philadelphia to visit Susanna. We went to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert, and had tickets in the balcony. Beethoven's Second Symphony, a piece we knew intimately, was on the program. Sitting side by side, as flutists and oboists are wont to do, we kind of giggled, thinking about our past experience with the piece relative to our position. We turned around, and who was sitting in the "bassoon" seat behind Susanna but Clelia Goldings, who was visiting Philadelphia from her school in Connecticut (Yale)! I kid you not.

After the concert Susanna and I listened to a tape of our Beethoven performance with Ben Zander, and we decided (in the most inflated of young adult mindsets) that our interpretation of the piece was superior to what we heard the Philadelphia Orchestra play that evening.

I played piccolo in Ben's Boston Philharmonic when I lived in Boston during the early 1980s (where I worked as a typist by day), and have enjoyed following his career as a motivational speaker and as a motivational writer. The adolescent in me still responds to Ben's unconventional way of letting people feel (sometimes even duping them) that they can live up to their potential and exceed their own expectations. Part of his technique for getting young people who want to play like professionals involves allowing the trajectory of a musical phrase to do the "heavy lifting." He likes to give people a sense of collective purpose as musicians, and relies a great deal on intuition. He lets down his inhibitions, and in exchange he expects musicians to let down their inhibitions (which seems like a fair trade). His is a kind of "seat of the pants" approach at times, but it works with young people. It works with musicians, and it seems to work for non musicians as well. Sure, Ben is a bit of a nut. But we're all a bunch of nuts when it comes to living the musical life.

Luckily Ben Zander is armed with a brother who is a lawyer, a brother-in-law who is a former Harvard University president, and legions (and now generations) of students who shared the formative experience that I had. It is clear to everybody who follows the story that his firing was an injustice at best, and, more likely, it was a personal vendetta. The people who suffer from this, and with most acted-out personal vendettas between and among adults in educational situations, are children.



I don't know if I'd agree with this: "It is clear to everybody who follows the story that his firing was an injustice at best, and, more likely, it was a personal vendetta." It's not clear to me - either way.

Maybe I haven't followed this as closely as you, and I don't know Zander as well as you (although I've accompanied students under him several times and seen him in action in rehearsal and classes many times), but I suspect it's more complex than you suggest. Certainly Norman Lebrecht's loose cannon approach (to just about anything) is hardly the clearest lens through which to view this.

I don't know if you read this article (unfortunately only available to Globe subscribers and no longer available to me) in which Zander admits that he showed poor judgment and was wrong to have been so defensive initially. His lawyer brother was apparently among those counseling him to be more contrite.

Whether his mistakes should have led to termination is another matter, but it's certainly possible that the administration could have had other reasons beyond just "personal vendetta" to decide it was time to move on.

I respect Zander a great deal, and would affirm that he's had a remarkable career and been an inspiration to countless students, etc. At his best, he's a wonderful teacher (I love his Mahler lectures on his recordings of the symphonies), but there's a lot of showmanship (I've seen his famous TED talk and a videotape of one of his corporate motivational speeches) that can be tiresome; sometimes the musical output doesn't match all the fancy talk. Like just about anyone with his kind of success, he has also a big ego and his own way of doing things, and I can imagine reasons that this might not always make him a great team player (even if he markets himself as a teacher of team-playing).

I am sad that all this has happened, and I'm sad about some other recent personnel decisions at NEC - and I especially agree with you that the small internet world can easily create all manner of distortions. To me, accusations about a "personal vendetta" could easily lead to more distortions.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for weighing in on this issue, Michael. I did read the globe article when it first came out, and I do agree that Ben Zander did exercise poor judgement (easy to do in such an unusually-confusing situation).