Boston's Zander scandal: the full truth, at last (updated)

Boston's Zander scandal: the full truth, at last (updated)


norman lebrecht

January 26, 2012

I have received an independent account of Benjamin Zander’s dismissal which does not accord with the official version. This report has been confirmed by two people close to the case and reflects nothing but discredit on the New England Conservatory and its president, Tony Woodcock.

Here’s what happened:

Zander was on tour in Europe with the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra last summer. Three 16 year- olds went out and got a bit drunk on beer in Austria, where the drinking age is 16. NEC policy is to send kids home if caught drinking.
Zander fought to keep them because putting substitutes in for principal players in Mahler 9 would have been disastrous for the orchestra and its morale. He said they could be disciplined once back in the USA. This was contrary to NEC rules.
Zander got his way on the tour but was ordered to resign when he got home.  A deal was worked out by which he could stay on two years and then retire with honour.
That, however, was not enough for Woodcock. The affronted president went looking for an excuse to sack and disgrace Zander and came up with the long-serving videographer with a sex crime in his distant past.
UPDATE: Further information has come my way which suggests that a decision to remove Benjamin Zander was taken before the Mahler tour of Europe. If that were so, then the drink-play incident is yet another excuse in this unhappy saga. There is also some speculation as to whether Woodcock was acting on his own volition, or under orders from his board. Since the NEC is hiding behind a crisis-management PR and refusing to speak for itself, full discovery may take a little longer to emerge.


  • Luciano says:

    If Benjamin Zander has been wronged he should sue NEC. Then we will really know the truth.

  • Hank Drake says:

    It sounds as if Zander’s sacking had more to do with personal vendetta than the proper running of the NEC – because that’s exactly the case. What a tool the appropriately named Woodcock is. There’s hardly a kid in America who hasn’t gotten a “bit drunk” or more at 16, despite the higher drinking age. So Zander was fired because kids were kids. Appalling.

  • Andrew says:

    Once again, the story hinges on Zander sticking up for other people and seeing their valuable contribution over their mistakes.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    To me this all sounds like hearsay. How could your sources know such details as Woodcock’s intentions, what exactly transpired between Woodcock and Zander, or the full details about how drunk the 16 year olds really were and how they behaved?
    How can you judge what the NEC board should do, Norman, as an outsider?

  • First:

    If someone is able to prove that Mr. Woodcock and/or NEC administration had knowledge of the long-term videographers past some years ago, the fire Mr. Woodcock started will turn against him quite fast.


    I wonder if the alleged violation of NEC’s non-drinking policy, which was taken as first attack against Mr. Zander, would stand against an able lawyer.

    If it had happened nside the US, sure. It’s a country where you’re allowed to kill people as a soldier (must be 18) before you’re allowed a sip of beer (must be 21), so the youth would have acted illegally when drinking.

    In Austria, possibly no. The youth didn’t break any law. So forbidding 16-year olds to do what is legal would be a forceful encroachment [is that really the right term in English? CJS] of their individual rights. No professional orchestra would try to keep its adult players from drinking in their spare time, as long it doesn’t impair their professional abilities – but that’s a different regulation, and a different reason.

    NEC most likely wasn’t temporary guardian to those youths, either. You can’t take care for them if they are some thousand miles away. So it most likely was at Mr. Zander’s sole discretion to allow or disallow beer, and to set up consequences for violations of his rules.

    NEC forcing their employee to disallow the Austrian beers when having temporary guardianship would be an indirect version of the forceful encroachment mentioned above, possibly even adding that NEC coerced Mr. Zander to act illegally.


    Yesterday, I searched Google for a much-writing journalist on the internet. One of the first search results (in fact, the 5th) was a discussion from 2005 in which he behaved quite rude. I’m waiting for 2019 to search for NEC.

    People like Mr. Woodstock seemingly forget that the internet does not forget.

    And bosses like him forget that bullying behaviour which twenty years ago would just have hurt the victim, and some friends of his, nowadays is known worldwide, and is prone to significantly flaw the image of the whole organization they lead.

  • Roger Rey says:

    The world is composed basically of two distinct groups: Creators and Destroyers. This situation appears to illustrate this reality.

  • N8Ma says:

    Wow Norman—I’ve been following SlippedDisc since its inception, and I have to say it is proving so useful as a place to keep up with these kinds of developing stories, in addition to other useful news. (Brazil, and now this).

    Why does this always seem to happen? Something about human nature, whereby someone popular and with his or her own base of support is always seen as a threat by a new executive. You have conductors who strive to push out principal players after they become MD–not necessarily because of faulty playing, but so they can have their own base of power within the orchestra. In large organizations, there’s always this added element that supersedes competency: this consideration of where an individual in that organization derives his or her power/influence, to whom they owe a debt, etc.

    And, I guess I’d just like to add this as an aside, and it will probably seem absurd to people who haven’t grown up in a culture with an official drinking age of 21, but I hope these kids feel some remorse over the unintended consequences of their actions. A youth orchestra tour is neither the time nor place to indulge in risky behavior, behavior that you know will lead to problems, as explained well in advance in numerous manuals and meetings, etc. So while there are lessons to be learned here about the abuses of executive power in arts institutions, perhaps also there can be some thought given to risky behavior and its downstream consequences, as Zander was forced (for artistic as well as personal reasons, thinking of the kids and their futures) to have the back of the offenders.

  • Frank says:

    Umm… letting minors get away with violating the conservatory’s own rules is serious. Allowing kids to get drunk at that age would not sit very well with almost all of their parents (certainly in America). Parents could very well take legal action against the school and the courts would likely be sympathetic.

    • Phyllida Law says:

      Frank – get over yourself and have a drink. In Europe.
      Mr. Lebrecht – please act like any undergraduate student and cite your sources. However much we might want to believe you it would help your argument if you didn’t sound like a gossipmonger, whatever the side the gossip supports.

    • Mike says:

      If parents are so concerned about their children drinking, they never should have let their children get anywhere near an orchestral instrument. I’m not saying substance abuse in the orchestral world isn’t an issue, but it’s everywhere, especially on youth orchestra tours. Every such program I’ve been to has involved some underage drinking.

  • Baron Topor says:

    All I know is, for years I have been hearing that NEC is a complete mess, to the point of which it cannot be recommended as a conservatory. But then, what conservatory is not?

  • ariel says:

    As I wrote before – it is a battle between two brits with colossal egos – they have set a bad example and
    besmirched whatever reputation NEC has left . – get rid of both –

  • Someone says:

    As a member of the YPO, this is pretty much common knowledge to us.

  • Here’s what I don’t get in all of this:

    Is the videographer an employee of Mr. Zander, or of NEC? Who signs his checks?

    At the time of hiring, isn’t it NEC’s responsibility to run a background check on a prospective employee?

    Why is Mr. Zander blamed for what someone in the administration (dean of faculty, whoever) failed to do?

    Was the previous administration aware of the background, and agreeable to the employment of the videographer? Is there proof of that?

    In the end, isn’t an offer of employment an institutional prerogative and responsibility? Mr. Zander can recommend someone, or request someone. But, he’s not actually hiring, is he?

  • Anonymous says:

    Anonymous sources? Obviously biased reporting? A clear agenda? Where do I start in how this post lacks in credibility. “Two people close to the case?” Who? Did you talk to anyone who supported the firing? Did you read Ben’s apology letter, which you haven’t bothered to post? It is unbelievably damaging to Ben, NEC, and Tony Woodcock to post with such a lack of sources.

    This is actually kind of fun: According to MY anonymous sources, Tony Woodcock is going to fire every teacher over 70 in a bid to rid the school of terrible influences like renowned teacher Paul Katz. Tony has a big problem with anyone over 70 and hates them all. He likes to push them into the street. See how easy that is? Your “story” has as much credibility as mine.

    Anonymous sources should be used for national security, not for an internal matter at a conservatory. Your “two people close to the case” could very well be unwilling to go on the record, and you must ask the question, why?

    • Tommy says:

      I don’t like ‘anonymous’ sources either. So who are you, ‘Anonymous’?

      • Anonymous says:

        I choose to remain anonymous because I’m not quoting any sources or am a “reporter” for a blog. This isn’t a fifth grade game about anonymity. I’m criticizing Norman for using unattributed sources in an attempt to further his point, which he has made clear on this website over and over again. I have no sources; I’m a bystander who was incensed at bad reporting.

        People read your blog, and quote it, Norman. If you claim to know a fact about a situation, you must back it up, or else it is not valid. This is an extremely important issue for an entire community, and if the people who read this blog will form their opinions based on your writing, it’s essential that you follow basic journalistic guidelines.

        I can understand the feeling of not wanting my name to be revealed. That is why I remain anonymous on this forum. But I don’t think anonymous quotes are valid sources on a story like this, which has many layers, and is extremely complicated on both sides. I urge to you to go Ben’s website, and read all of his letters and statements. Ben has no reason to lie, and is extremely forthright about his side of the story. Unfortunately, it seems that NEC has not provided their side, and I hope that they will do this soon. In the meantime, let’s keep in mind that this is a complicated story and not jump to immediate conclusions based on anonymous and uncorroborated reporting.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          I agree with Anonymous and have to add that Norman was quite quick in siding with Zander before even backing up his opinion, not to mention that his sources are hearsay of dubious credibility, jumping into big conclusions and judging everything and everybody without evidence.

          We’ve seen much better reporting from Norman. I look forward to more unbiased postings.

        • BE says:

          He’s protecting sources as any good reporter does. This situation is surely going to wind up in court and some people do not want to be involved in these things. Norman has done an excellent job bringing this situation to light, as the Boston papers have not done their due dilligence on this story.

        • A Concerned Parent says:

          Excuse me–“Ben has no reason to lie?” He brought a known sex offender to rehearsals with children! We entrusted him with the safety of our children, and he used dangerously bad judgement. Just because no one has come forward with a complaint against Benjamin does not mean he didn’t commit an offense. Look how long it too for us to find out about Scott Brown’s summer camp. Look at all of the beloved priests whom no one wanted to believe committed sex offenses. It’s common knowledge that sex offenders seek out jobs that put them in close proximity to children: clergy, school teachers, coaches, mental health workers among others have all been in the news for these crimes! How long do victims wait to come forward? Generally into adulthood.

    • Doug says:

      Don’t underestimate NL, whether it’s instinct or fact.

      And next time, sign your name “Tony Woodcock.” It would really clarify things.

  • From your report, Ben Zander was correct in his assessment of how to handle the drinking incident. Allowing the 3 kids to remain on tour and contributing to the Mahler performance would have created MUCH more good than harm. NEC and the entire orchestra would have benefitted from a concert well played, not to mention the audience attending it. By sending them home, there would have been only loss to all concerned. Disciplining them AFTER the tour was a brilliant idea. Then everyone would have won.

  • Anonymous says:

    People wish to remain anonymous because they’re afraid. At NEC there is no due process as at most other institutions. Faculty and staff can be fired at the whim of the president, and Tony Woodcock has shown that he is willing to fire even the most successful and high profile members of the community.

  • Ceceilia says:

    As a Boston resident, NEC grad and musician in the community, it appalls me that this sort of hearsay has any credence. Not only is it laughable that such “journalism” would appear on a respected ArtsJournal blog, but it greatly discredits the arts as a back-stabbing, irrational field where corroboration and substantive statements are not valued. If what you say is true, it looks like you and Tony Woodcock are cut from the same cloth, and that is ALL that can be logically deduced from this post.

    • Daniel Valentine says:

      “Not only is it laughable that such “journalism” would appear on a respected ArtsJournal blog, but it greatly discredits the arts as a back-stabbing, irrational field where corroboration and substantive statements are not valued.”

      Right, because the arts, unlike any other industry, isn’t saturated with liars, crooks, and people generally more concerned with advancing their own agenda at the expense of others.

      I agree that it’s not sound to take a rumor and publish it on a widely-read arts blog as “the full truth”. But decrying this posting as wrongfully painting the arts industry to be “a back-stabbing, irrational field where corroboration and substantive statements” is ironic and ignores a fairly important aspect of this entire scandal.

  • Bernice says:

    “The affronted president went looking for an excuse to sack and disgrace Zander and came up with the long-serving videographer with a sex crime in his distant past.”

    I could go on at length about each word in this disturbing sentence. Calling a court-verified sex crime an “excuse” is an insult to the thousands of children who have ever been abused and to all members of a civilized society. The man lured, drugged, and raped a 13 year old boy, and had thousands of images of child pornography on his computer. That being said, I think there is certainly a place for a discussion about what a second chance means and what rehabilitation should be. My opinion is that people do deserve a second chance, but that is just my opinion on the subject.
    The fact that Tony Woodcock fired Ben because of Ben’s decision to hire this man and not tell anyone about his past is extremely problematic. I don’t want to get into internal NEC politics because I’m not involved and I don’t care, but treating a child’s life that was severely damaged or possibly destroyed as a move in classical music politics is very offensive and insensitive, and it seems like Norman forgot what he was talking about, and turned it into a personal agenda. Maybe Tony disliked Ben in the first place(that seems clear) but hiring a child rapist without informing the school that you work at IS a legitimate grounds for dismissal, regardless of whether you think he should have been fired or not. You cannot treat this as a President picking on a teacher because of a minor, insignificant, decision to hire a petty criminal. That is absurd.

    • Bernice says:

      To clarify, what I meant in the first sentence of the second paragraph was that Ben’s decision was extremely problematic, not Tony’s firing of Ben. Oops. Sorry.

  • Ameletus says:

    This wasn’t an issue of Ben Zander being punished for “kids being kids”. The issue was that he allegedly flat out refused to follow official school disciplinary measures. I had personal experience with Ben back in my youth and this doesn’t surprise me at all; he would regularly refuse to discipline his favorite students. I’m glad it stopped being overlooked.

    • A Concerned Parent says:

      Ameletus, thank you for your perspective. May I add that not only was one of the kids who drank a “favorite” of Zander’s, but also had a concerto selected just for him this year. That takes it from “no consequences” into rewarded for bad behavior territory.

  • Anita says:

    Am I the only one who thinks Zander was wrong to not send the 16-years olds home as soon as they were found drinking? Quoting from Norman’s article: “NEC policy is to send kids home if caught drinking.
    Zander fought to keep them because putting substitutes in for principal players in Mahler 9 would have been disastrous for the orchestra and its morale. He said they could be disciplined once back in the USA. This was contrary to NEC rules.”
    Not sending them home immediately and letting them play the rest of the tour- what kind of lesson does that teach the kids who broke the rules, and the rest of the kids who didn’t (or didn’t get caught). Rules are rules and consequences are consequences. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be teaching our children?
    Yes, Mahler 9 wouldn’t have been as good without those key players. But that’s just the point…you have to live with the consequences of your actions- the few who drank (against school policy) ruin it for the whole ‘team’.

    • dlcello59 says:

      Anita, your post is over-board, closed-minded, and driven by a serious dose of Puritanism. There is so much to be learned from disciplining the kids who drank (God forbid, right after a Musikverein sold-out concert having a beer in Vienna– they are lucky they didn’t get themselves killed!) in a way that doesn’t include sending them home. Contrary to your ignorance, this isn’t an eighth grade trip to NY city for a night. This is an orchestra of musicians, many of whom will have real careers, and a well-known conductor doing a real concert tour and representing NEC at a very high level. What the kids learn is that they are there for a Mahler symphony and to serve a wonderful purpose– the seriousness of it is conveyed to all, and the orchestra’s morale is higher for it, as is the musical level. Are you a musician, by the way?

      • Anita says:

        Not only am I a musician, but I’ve toured Europe with a youth orchestra, and we had very strick rules about not drinking. We also had to sign agreements with our parents so we were clear about the consequences of our actions. Sure, there were some musicians who drank and got away with it. Was it right? Probably not. But we knew that if we got caught, we’d be sent home immediately. I am far from being “over-board, closed-minded and driven by a serious dose of Puritanism”. I just think people need to be responsible for their actions, which involves following the agreements, especially when one is part of a larger group.. Do you think that police who bust underage drinkers at a party shouldn’t provide conseqences?
        I love Mahler, I love playing music which “serves a wonderful purpose” but I also think it’s critical that children- especially those under the legal age…play by the rules,.whatever the consequences.

  • tls says:

    Right on, Anita. The peer pressure that would have resulted by those kids who broke the rules being sent home and thereby jeopardizing the entire orchestra’s performance would have been the most severe element in the kid’s punishment, and a valuable – though costly – lesson learned. As it happened, the “lesson learned” was that one can flaunt the rules and get away with it even when caught. Would it have been “fair” to the rest of the kids in the orchestra, to have their performance thereby diminished? No – but since when is life fair? Especially in the arts – and that would have been another valuable lesson.

    Another lesson – things happen on tour (and in life) and sometimes a sub has to step in at the last moment: you learn to adjust, adapt and make the most of the situation.

    I can’t escape the suspicion that Mr Zander’s decision was mostly based on how the potentially dimished performance would reflect on HIM. It seems he has many fans on this forum, and maybe he’s a good speaker/motivator/self-promoter/ possibly even educator. But conductor (or even serious musician)???

    • Elaine Fine says:

      Don’t you think those kids feel horrible now? What a terrible burden it must be for them to believe that their drinking episode caused this much unhappiness in the musical community. This kind of thing, by the way, happens all the time. The kids that get caught are the ones that have to live with the consequences. In this case it’s all the kids in the YPO this year who lost their conductor because of the behavior of a few people.

      I know Ben. I played in his youth orchestra when I was a kid. He expects professional standards from his students, and his ego is deeply connected to how they play. The thing is that they do perform at a collective high level, and they care about one another and their intimate musical community. Ben was the conduit, and he always made kids feel powerful in their music making. That is who he is.

      I was there at the beginning of the Zander era, and feel very sad to see it come to this unfortunate end. Say what you will about the circumstances, but never belittle the importance of the impact that he has made on young people’s lives. The musical world can be a cold and cruel place. Ben gave us the illusion that it was a warm and expressive place where feelings and expression count for everything, and that good things come to those who practice and create their own possibilities. I can’t tell you how much, at the age of 52, it hurts me to consider that he might have been wrong.

      • tls says:

        @Elaine – I think those kids feel much worse than they should have to about this! Part of my point – if school policy hadn’t been ignored and the kids had been sent home, Zander wouldn’t have left himself vulnerable to his apparent nemesis, providing fodder for his own dismissal. It’s not the kids’ fault this all came to pass; kids are given boundaries and warned of the consequence; some of them will sometimes violate the boundaries, that’s part of being a kid. But it’s the adult’s role to consistently and without malice apply the consequences. It’s Zander’s own fault for overruling school policy and refusing to enforce the consequences dictated by school policy , but the kids are now at the vortex of something much bigger than simply leaving a tour in disgrace, and having to grapple with (one would hope) feelings of regret, if not guilt. They SHOULD feel a certain regret for behaviour they knew carried the risk of their sudden exit from the tour, but should NOT be burdened with guilt over Zander’s dismissal – it would seem that was inevitable with or without this episode. A real pity.

  • As much as I believe that “those youth” – as most likely all members of NEC YPO – feel horrible now, I hope that it’s more because of the loss of the YPO as it was, and not because of their oh-so-horrible breaking of the rules. Which sure is something they wish to have not done, or at least in a way that they wouldn’t have got caught, but – there are many traps laid out for friendly-thinking people like Mr. Zander, miss one and you’ll hit the next. If your boss is after you, and you don’t think in shrewd ways, he’ll get you fired.

    “You have to live with the consequences of your actions”, “Rules are rules and consequences are consequences”, “a valuable – though costly – lesson learned”, “another valuable lesson” – Gosh. What a bigotry. Rules typically valid for everyone except those who preach them.

    I can’t possibly know what exactly happened. But I recognize b.s. when I see it; it’s not necessary to discuss its stink en détail to come to the conclusion that it’s not roses.

    First it was said by NEC that Mr. Zander had to go for hiring a sexual offender. Then NEC hired a professional PR person who obviously didn’t find any approrpiate material to communicate. Then NEC said that Mr. Zander had been fired because of youths drinking in a country where they were of legal age to do so. Then again NEC “answered” questions from the orchestra with a stereotype “it’s for your health and safety”.

    “Lost their conductor because of the behavior of a few people”? Come on. You don’t really believe that yourself, do you?

    @YPO members (who sure follow the discussions on the net): first thing, I’d recommend being grateful for the time You had, and the music You played. No-one can take that away from You. Second, You seemingly experienced a great community in Your orchestra: try to build that athmosphere again in the orchestras You’ll be working with in future! It’s not easy, it takes time and courage and luck, too; but it’s possible. If You have one more person in the orchestra wanting the same, others will join You. Carry on the spirit of Mr. Zander.

    • tls says:

      Sorry, but your comments seem naive at best and hypocritical at worst. Assuming you’re an American (which I gather from the cadence of your writing), surely you are aware of the litigious society in which the school operates. They must formulate regulations to govern the MINORS while they are on tour, and I should think that these governing rules are conveyed – in writing – to the kids, along with consequences of violating those rules. This forms, in essence a contract where there’s not monetary compensation, but an agreement as to boundaries and deportment, with the reward being the thrill of touring with an orchestra and the musical and personal enrichment. I think at some point personal responsibility – which includes accepting the consequences of risk-taking when the risk doesn’t pay off – is something every one needs to learn. Do you suggest teaching future performers that the contracts they enter into are meaningless and need not be upheld?

      But that’s a side issue; the main point I’m making here is, had one of those kids been involved in an accident, or binge-drinking that resulted in serious illness or god forbid death, you had better believe their parents would have been suing the school, the tour operator, the travel agency, the concert venue, the chaperones,and probably Mr. Zander himself. The American Way! Small wonder institutions have to set in place mechanisms to try to protect themselves. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t insist that their guidelines be followed and the kids who got drunk be sent home; had other kids done the same (and I’m well aware that probably some did, but were clever enough not to get caught) and someone ended up hurt or ill, the school really would have been vulnerable to lawsuits.

      • “had one of those kids been involved in an accident, or binge-drinking that resulted in serious illness or god forbid death, you had better believe their parents would have been suing”, “[if] someone ended up hurt or ill, the school really would have been vulnerable to lawsuits” – I fully agree. But that’s theory. Obviously no one got hurt.

        “Do you suggest teaching future performers that the contracts they enter into are meaningless and need not be upheld?” – No. Although they are taught by society each and every day that if you have money for excellent lawyers, or you just have plain power, you are not restricted very much by contracts or even laws. I don’t think I have to list examples.

        But, the main point I’m making here is – this “there ought to be a lesson learned” thing is but a side issue of a side issue.

        Once more: First it was said by NEC that Mr. Zander had to go for hiring a sexual offender. Then NEC hired a professional PR person who obviously didn’t find any appropriate material to communicate. Then NEC said that Mr. Zander had been fired because of youths drinking in a country where they were of legal age to do so. Then again NEC “answered” questions from the orchestra with a stereotype “it’s for your health and safety”.

        It stinks. And not because Austrian beers.

        There still are seven questions at least to be answered by NEC (see ).
        A remarkable silence is all we get, after remarkably explicit initial accusations.

        (Full disclosure, so to say: I have no connection whatsoever to Mr. Zander, the videographer, Mr. Woodcock, or NEC. I’ve not even been in Boston yet in my whole life. I’m just disgusted by certain types of behaviour among music organization leaders, which I have seen too often.)

  • Andras Schiff says:

    To be honest, if I had to play Mahler 9 I’d need a good few drinks inside me beforehand…

  • Someone says:

    Zander made the right decision on tour. We were about to have our final concert of playing Mahler’s 9th Symphony in the Musikverein in Vienna. If three kids were sent home the night before concert, it would have been devastating to the morale of the orchestra. These three kids happened to be Principals some of them holding significant parts in addition to solos throughout the piece. To send these kids home would have ruined what turned out to be a fantastic concert for a sold out Viennese crowd. By the end, the audience was crying.