Art of the possible

You might not have heard of Ben Zander. But he's a great conductor. And you have his money-back guarantee.
For David Whelton, managing director of the Philharmonia orchestra, Benjamin Zander is the conductor with whom he would most like to spend a week. "He's the only conductor I've ever worked with - probably the only conductor anywhere - for whom the words `I' and `Me' seem to have no place in his vocabulary. His only concern is the music, and that the act of making music for both orchestra and audience is the best of all possible experiences."

For many in the audience at Zander's last London concert earlier this month - a Mahler Resurrection Symphony with the Philharmonia that had sold out months in advance - the conductor's shattering yet exquisite interpretation and unobtrusive baton technique succeeded in transforming a "mere" concert into a life-changing experience.

For the orchestra, most of whom had flown back only the day before after a 48-hour round-trip to Miami to play a stadium date with the Three Tenors, Zander's passion for Mahler literally breathed life into 120 exhausted players - they were on radiant form. While, for Bernard Levin, devoting the whole of his weekly Times column to the performance, the superlatives all came down to one word: "Glory. That is the only word for what we heard... At the end I thought the roof would cave in."

So who, exactly, is Benjamin Zander and why is he not jet-setting from podium to podium like most of his colleagues?

Zander is British, 58, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, west of Boston, where there are more geniuses per capita than in any other town in America. He is the youngest of four exceptional children - and the only one to have been born in England. The others were born in Germany. Their father, Walter Zander, whose mother died in the Holocaust, was a lawyer, scholar and amateur musician who played under Nikisch. In 1988, on his 90th birthday, Sir Isaiah Berlin described his friend Walter Zander as the "purest-hearted man I have ever met during my long life". When he teaches, Benjamin Zander often quotes from this wise, honourable, gentle man, whose devotion to music was central to his life.

"I onced asked my father how he coped with the grief of what happened to his family during the war. He answered that it was `an open wound'. When I asked if there was any way I could help to close that wound, his reply was, `Well, you've always wanted a beautiful piano.' The beautiful piano in my music room was a present from my father in memory of the grandmother I never knew. In some way, I think it did help him to deal with the pain."

From the age of nine, Zander spent his summers in Aldeburgh, studying with Benjamin Britten and, later, with Imogen Holst. He remembers asking Britten how it was that such a busy man still had time for such a young boy. Britten replied: "I get up very early and work, so that later in the day I can play with my friends."

It's a lesson Zander took on board. A man who hardly sleeps, he is on his treadmill when most people are still under their duvets, and at his desk before 6.00 am. This is the time when he dreams up innovative ideas such as the recent sell-out concerts he gave in Boston for 2,000 people who had never been to a classical concert before. It is also the time when he writes to the heads of the various music conservatories on behalf of his students.

People know they can call him early in the morning. When a student phones, panicking about an audition to get on to the conducting course at this summer's Aspen Music Festival, Zander tells her to come on over. Still in sweat-pants and T-shirt, he sings her through a master-class in conducting that is astonishing to witness. "If this were an acting class, no one would be surprised," he explains. "Think about it. Music, like acting, is all about getting in touch with your deepest emotions. So it's really no different."

When Zander was 15, the Spanish cello virtuoso Gaspar Cassad invited him to study with him. Zander spent five years in Europe performing as a chamber musician, until problems with his fingers - they simply would not develop the callouses that a career cellist needs - put paid to that part of his career. He took a degree in English at UCL, where, in 1965, he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship and has lived in America ever since. In his letter of recommendation, Zander's professor described him as "a student, with almost unimaginable potential for making a contribution to our national life". Thirty-two years later, "contribution" is one of Zander's mantras. The other is "possibility".

"In rehearsal, when I start on a new work, I give the orchestra a blank sheet of white paper so that they can write down and say absolutely anything. The music is not about me. The question is, what difference can we make to it? A conductor has the possibility of telling the person who is just about to play what a pleasure he is about to experience. The blank sheet of white paper is about establishing an atmosphere of trust, about coaxing that person into the best possible playing he or she is capable of."

It saddens Zander that many orchestral musicians look positively glum when they play. "They feel so competitive and anxious that they've forgotten why they went into music in the first place. Once someone's lost touch with their original passion, it's difficult to take the necessary risks with themselves to be great performers." The ultimate risk-taker himself, Zander is regarded by most, but not all, of Boston's music community as a national treasure. "No one sits on the fence about Zander," admits one student. "They either love him or hate him. The few who don't like him are frightened of being challenged."

Professor Benjamin Zander is currently celebrating his 30th year on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, where he teaches graduate courses in interpretation and chamber music. All his students start off with an "A" grade because, he believes, "There's an `A' grade in all of us.

"They have to write and tell me why they deserved that `A', and describe what kind of musician they've become. An Asian violinist once wrote that he had been told by his previous teachers, before coming to America, that he was No 69 out of a class of 74. He couldn't see the possibility of ever being anything else. Eventually he got it, and the transformation was amazing."

In addition to his teaching commitments, Zander is also founder-conductor of the Boston Philharmonic - a community orchestra made up of professional musicians, music students and amateurs. "The professionals set the level, the students keep the focus on training, and the amateurs remind us that music is an act of love."

His recordings with the BPO include a Mahler Sixth that was named by the American Record Guide as the best version of the work available. As one of the cellists comments, "Ben Zander is the complete opposite of a maestro. He has made me feel that music is as necessary to me as food. He's a great teacher: he doesn't let you get lazy, and he makes you think all the time about the music."

For Zander, the most important thing is that anyone coming to one of his concerts should have a wonderful time. "Money-back guarantee," he promises - and he's not joking. In Boston, he takes wads of dollars along with him to each concert, but in 18 years no one has ever yet asked for their money back.

His other orchestra is the breathtakingly talented Youth Philharmonic - 100 young players, between the ages of 12 and 18, with whom he rehearses each Saturday. For most, the rest of the week is just an inconvenience. Zander treats them not as children but as musicians. The rehearsal atmosphere is awesome. He literally sings them into their music-making. Unlike older, professional orchestral players, these spirited youngsters smile when they play for him.

As if all that were not enough, Zander is also artistic director of the New England Conservatory at Walnut Hill, a boarding-school for exceptional young performers. Prodigious talents all. But what really motivates Zander is getting them "to understand that music is the expression of the soul. Every gesture, every note is about communicating to your audience. It's not about you, or how difficult a piece is. Don't think about yourself, just play what the composer wrote. It's all there, in the music. And," he adds, laughing, "this is the most fun you can have with your clothes on."

Zander is also in huge demand as a speaker for some of the world's leading corporations, preaching "empowerment" to business executives, passing on lessons of leadership from his musical perspective. Harvard Business School has commissioned a book, Possibility by Design: Conducting a Spirited Life, in collaboration with his therapist wife, Rosamund. He is a transformational speaker. "A lot of what I do is about the image of `getting out of the box' - of getting out of what is comfortable, what is normal. Most situations in life are competitive - we have a sense of there not being enough to go round - but, in a symphony, that breaks down because every voice has to be heard in a harmonious whole. How you get each voice to to speak fully and be heard is the essence of the symphonic idea."

At heart, Zander is a teacher. He thinks of himself as a vehicle for moving something of value into the world. For him, there is a sense that teaching is always performance and all performance is teaching. "I have never wanted the life of an international conductor," he says, "constantly flying in and out of different cities."

As the Philharmonia's David Whelton says, Zander is probably the most inspirational, life-affirming human being you are ever likely to encounter, a man who believes that all of us must seize the day - "and go beyond the `Fuckit!', beyond the place where you usually stop." For him, making music is essentially about friendship, community and joy.

"We have one of the best jobs a person can have," says the lead cellist of the BPO. "And Ben constantly reminds us of that"

Benjamin Zander conducts Mahler's Resurrection Symphony to launch the Philharmonia's new Leicester residency, next Friday, 8pm De Montfort Hall (0116 233 3111)