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

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John Nordell

(Read caption) 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.

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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.

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.

Almost every musician, whether it’s an eight year old pianist or an experienced, professional violinist, has been told to play beyond the black and white notes on the page. However, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 goes a bit further. The notes on the page only begin to suggest the emotion that can be pulled out of the piece, and each note is metaphorically significant to that time in Mahler’s life. The Ninth was Mahler’s last completed composition and serves as a farewell to the world as well as a reflection of the atmosphere of those last years. As a composer, Mahler was stuck in the middle of two periods in musical history—the dissipating world of expressive Romanticism, and the emerging methods of the Second Viennese school (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) that suggested the movement of music to more cerebral realms. This struggle is evident in the first movement, with the pushing and pulling of these two forces presented in opposing passages that represent these different worlds. The second movement can be seen as a whole metaphor in and of itself. The movement is written as a Viennese dance called a Ländler, but is shaky, unstable, and distorted into an almost unrecognizable version of the traditional dance. Occasional fragments of the original theme surface, but it’s often overtaken by an almost sinister guide. According to Zander, this movement is meant “to convey the feeling that the splendor and warmth of traditional Vienna have vanished, that only their shadow remains.” Zander said of the symphony, "If I only had to conduct one piece of music before I died, the Mahler 9 would be it."

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Not only does Mahler’s symphony demand the ability to play emotionally beyond the written notes, but it demands an understanding of all the musical metaphors present. The YPO understands. They played further than the score, but they played even further than the music itself. Their tone as an orchestra was full and rich, and their confidence was evident in their sound as well as their entrances and layering. The attacks of the separate parts were assured, such as in the third movement, which tips its hat to Baroque moods with ubiquitous counterpoint. Each line of the orchestra, from the trumpets to the determined strings, was confident in its duty; like a spider web, each strand is crucial to the construction of the symphony, and the YPO kept it gleaming and certain. Some of the most breathtaking parts of the Mahler Ninth are the translucent areas where the curtain of sound is thin. In the massive , heart-wrenching fourth movement, this happens multiple times—the bassoon solo, the French horn solo that soars over the hushed orchestra, and, especially, when the violins are hanging by a thread on a high-register melody while the cellos and basses lurk behind them. These are delicate areas, and they were played with care. The YPO was able to understand the layers of the symphony while staying true to its intricacy. “One of the problems with a modern interpretation of Mahler is that the great orchestras are so familiar with it, and they find it easier to play; they forget its complexity,” said Zander. The YPO didn’t only make me live inside Mahler’s music, but in Mahler’s concluding life.

When listening to the YPO’s recordings, I didn’t feel as though I was listening to a youth orchestra. However, it wasn’t that I pictured an adult orchestra playing the pieces—it was that the YPO sounded capable and determined, two adjectives that are often associated with older ensembles. Age often obscures success, and the YPO was able to transcend that and make me think only of the music that they performed. Though it sounds simple, for a youth orchestra it’s one of the most difficult tasks to make an audience forget that they are a youth orchestra and to just become source of music. "Music is really a mysterious force, and we don’t really know how it works, but it transforms people, and the audience was transformed on that night," said Zander of the concert on June 3rd.

Hitting the right notes, shaping phrases expressively, creating perfect moments of silence—these are certainly things that make music sound great. But something that isn’t as measurable, but is certainly evident, is dedication. Zander believes this dedication begins with teaching. He said, “One of the things I do is I give all my kids an A in the first month of the year. They’re all A students. I teach the person who they see as the person they want to be." Here’s one of the areas where dedication morphs into inspiration.

Then it got me thinking; dedication comes in threads. Mahler was loyal to his craft, and out of it came music that not only brings tears to the eyes of listeners a century later but serves as a mirror into his inner workings. Through composers’ commitment, conductors are inspired. Conductors of orchestras must be devoted to the music they choose to work on, such as Zander’s dedication to Mahler. “I’ve had a lifetime of thinking about this music and I come home to my youth orchestra and bring home all that I’ve learned and discovered about this piece,” he said. Conductors must also be committed to the process of leading—Zander said, “It takes 30 years to build an orchestra like this. We’ve been on 15 international tours. This is the culmination.”

Musicians’ dedication fuels their inspiration to perform. In turn, listeners are inspired by them, and so on. It may be easy to give up on things and to turn our backs on daunting tasks. But, if we’re lucky, we can get picked up on one of these threads. “Let’s not kids ourselves—it’s not magic,” says Zander of the music he conducts. And he’s right; it’s simply hard work. But if we just close our eyes, it can certainly feel like magic.

Elena blogs at Neo Antennae.

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