Though, as Benjamin Zander says, trying to describe music is like trying to describe wine—you have to taste it to really understand it, and words will never suffice—when it comes to describing music there is no one better at it than Ben. In his inimitable style of unabashed and contagious effusion, he paints a picture of the upcoming season, and explains why each concert promises something that he is sure the audience will love.
“What is so special about the Boston Philharmonic is that we have four concerts a season, so each one of them has got to be an absolutely extraordinary, riveting, memorable event. The audience can be guaranteed that each one will be exciting, interesting, and rewarding.” Right from the start, Ben’s description is soaked in his excitement, expressed in rich phrases and told in his English accent that has become delightfully familiar to audiences. “The orchestra will be absolutely on top of its game, and they will be playing a great variety of repertoire—we’re going to be doing French music, American music, Czechoslovakian, Russian, English, and Polish music. I think of it as a journey.” Ben says that “the concerts are put together very thoughtfully”--the amount of thought that has gone into planning is very evident as he illuminates the symmetries, the contrasts, and the connections that weave the pieces together. Through his masterful story telling, the shape of the season reveals itself as he embarks on his description of the concerts ahead.
“The first concert is an entire program of French or French influenced music, and it’s very challenging. It’s challenging for the players, it’s challenging for me, it’s challenging for the audience, but it’s also very beautiful.” He adds that his pre-concert talk also poses a challenge, as he must find a way to describe music that is “elusive”—though anyone who has heard one of his talks knows that he will find the best way to describe it in the end. “The connections between the pieces are very interesting. Each half of the concert features two composers who are connected to each other in some way. In the first half we have Gershwin and Ravel, and Ravel’s piano concerto is full of jazz learned from Gershwin’sAmerican in Paris. It’s a perfect match, and it’s incredibly beautiful, and it’s stimulating and a titillation for the ears. And our soloist for Ravel is brilliant,” he adds. “Fifteen years ago we performed this piece with Stephen Drury and everyone who was there remembers that performance. He’s a dashing character even ten years later, and it’s a very happy thing to work with him. Then comes the second half,” he continues, “where Stravinsky, in order to show his deep admiration for Debussy, wrote his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. It’s a memorial to someone he revered and it’s an absolute masterpiece. And of course Debussy’s La Mer is a pinnacle work of the repertoire, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.” Reflecting upon the concert as a whole he says, “This music is all about the colors of the orchestra. It’s wonderful. This is a new chapter for us; we’ve never done anything like it. The orchestra members gasped with excitement to see all four pieces programmed for one concert. I know that everyone will be tingling with excitement. What a way to begin the season!”
Moving on to November, Ben says, “The second concert is like traveling to another world. It’s Bruckner. We’ve done a lot of Mahler and everybody knows we are great Mahler interpreters, but what about Bruckner?” Ben’s recording of Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony with London Philharmonia Orchestra was nominated for a Grammy in 2010; the BPO played the same piece in what Ben feels was an equally great performance, and he says, “It’s opened up a new world for me and for the orchestra. My friend the other day said ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mahler, Mahler, Mahler, but your performance of Bruckner is what I will remember.’ So it may be that as we perform more Bruckner we create more love of his music.” He says that November’s performance will be quite a different experience from the October concert. “The first concert is not so much spiritual as it is colorful, but Bruckner is about the journey of the soul. That’s a beautiful contrast for two concerts back to back. By coming to the November concert the audience will immerse themselves in North Austrian life and values, and the reverence of looking beyond normal life to something that is consuming and life-giving and that offers one a sense of peace and faith. It brings one in touch with the best of oneself.”
“So then we look to the February concert,” Ben continues. “I’ve never played any of the music of Szymanowski, and his Second Violin Concerto is a stunning work. I’ve found the perfect performer for it,” Ben says with absolute certainty, and explains how he heard a recording of Ilya Kaler playing the concerto and knew right away that this was the one he wanted for the concert. “He has never performed in Boston, and it’s going to be a great event to welcome him here. It’s as if he wrote the piece; he’s a complete master of it,” he says excitedly. “And so what do you do with the Szymanowski concerto?” Ben asks, and one can see him tracing over the thought process he went through when originally planning the season. “Well, there are many things you could do; I put him in an English sandwich. So on one side is the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasy, a string work. English string writing is unique; English composers for some reason have had the ability to write for strings that has not been matched by any other country. It’s just exquisitely beautiful. And on the other side of the violin concerto is Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the most popular piece of English music—a masterpiece. So people will hear one work that they have never heard, and two works that they love, and the orchestra will sound gorgeous in all of them. So what could be wrong with a concert that produces a world class musician who has never played in Boston, playing an absolute masterpiece that is never played, and two works that are loved and know by everybody? And again, it’s a totally different sound world from Bruckner and from France.”
There is one concert left to complete the season, and Ben treats it with no less anticipation than the first three. “Lastly we go to Russia. And that’s a completely different world. We have the world’s greatest living Russian cellist, who happens to be our beloved friend and who comes to play with us now for the third time,” he says, referring to Natalia Gutman, whose concerts have repeatedly sold out to spellbound audiences. “Only the Boston Philharmonic brings her to America these days. And Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is certainly the greatest story ballet ever written. It’s an overwhelming masterpiece. The way Prokofiev tells the story is riveting and moving and overwhelming. It’s one thing to reads or to see the battle of Tybalt or the great moments of love between Romeo and Juliet, but no actor can possible convey them the way that the music can.” Ben’s earnest belief of the ultimate power of music is so convincing that even the most brilliant Shakespearian actor would likely agree with him. “Music just gets to the heart in a way that nothing else can. This is going to be a pinnacle performance.”
“So there it is!” he finishes exultantly. “Four concerts, and I’m looking forward to every one of them, absolutely evenly. It’s extraordinary.” Ben often describes the season as a journey, and after hearing his description of the different landscapes, both geographical and emotional, where the concerts will take the listener, one feels as though they are signing up for a world tour, with Benjamin Zander as their guide. He seems overjoyed at the opportunity to share these pieces with the audience. “Each one of them has a huge amount to offer. Anyone who attends all of the concerts will come away with a deeper love and a deeper understanding of classical music. Worlds are going to open up for anybody coming to it.” With a laugh, Ben asks, “What’s not to love?”
Written by Pamela Feo