Students tell NEC's Woodcock: you screwed up

Students tell NEC's Woodcock: you screwed up


norman lebrecht

January 20, 2012

The first response has come in from those directly affected by the sacking of Benjamin Zander from the New England Conservatory and its Youth Philharmonic Orchestra – supposedly over his engagement of a videographer with a sex crime in his distant past.

The students have weighed the evidence and found it wanting. None of them was exposed to risk of sex abuse. They admired Zander and want him back. The NEC’s president Tony Woodcock refuses to come out from behind the skirts of a crisis management PR firm to answer legitimate questions. The next step may be for his board to step in. This injustice will not go away.

Here‘s the student article.

And here’s Ben worrying aloud about his students.

photo: Ben Rabin with conductor Benjamin Zander, Rabin’s mother and father. Zander was suddenly dismissed from his post at NEC on Thursday after over forty years of service. (Courtesy: Gwen Krosnick)


  • Luciano says:

    “None of them was exposed to risk of sex abuse.” – That’s a difficult statement to justify. A serious sex offender was hired to film under-age students. It seems nothing untoward happened, but was there a risk? I think you’d have to say yes, there was a risk and that’s the crux of the issue. The risk may have been an incredibly small one, but it’s not up to someone in Ben Zander’s position to assess that risk. Any music school in the world would have refused employment of any kind to someone such as Benjamin had they known of his history.

    The article linked to above is hardly a balanced informed viewpoint. It reads more like the opinion of a Zander groupie. Hugh Wolf is an able conductor? Funny, I thought he was world famous, and on merit too.

    Of course whether NEC management have handled this correctly remains to be seen. I suspect the truth is that Ben Zander’s personality grew to be to big for the walls of NEC.

  • Andrew Patrick says:

    Watching that video makes me realise what a complete bullshitter Zander is, and a manipulative one too. His comment at the end about the Arab-Israeli conflict is puerile nonsense – middlebrow management psychobabble speak at its very worst. If the Israeli government writes to Palestine giving them a backdated grade ‘A’ – and vice versa – that’ll sort out the conflict. Yes of course it will. I’m amazed no one thought of it before.

    How can you possibly take this guy seriously, Norman?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      A youtube search for Benjamin Zander yields lots of talking and little conducting. I can’t help thinking that this is no coincidence. When I once heard him conduct his Boston Philharmonic I found lots of enthusiasm and little refinement (Brahms Tragic Ouverture, Schumann 3rd plus some contemporary work I couldn’t understand). I think I find the same qualities in his talks. Maybe he succeeds in motivating people. But he is not my guy when it comes to substance.

  • Garth Winter says:

    Andrew Patrick, that you find Ben Zander’s style not to your taste has no bearing on this case. Ben Zander, quite apart from being right up there with the best conductors, is an inspirational speaker and motivator of generations of young musicians. They may be less sophisticated than you, of course, and too naive to recognise that a new, fresh and hate-free approach to the problems of the Middle East is impossible, but he is certainly a man to be taken very seriously. Luciano appears not to know that the ex-offender was actually *ordered* by the authorities to go back his previous job, with reasonable safeguards. Saying that “Ben Zander’s personality grew to be to [sic] big for the walls of NEC”, intended presumably as some sort of insult, does at least recognise his stature: I too have often wondered why he’s there in what is a comparative backwater. Getting on in years, and loves what he does, I suppose. His students seem perfectly happy with him, and so they should.

    • ariel says:

      It is in reality a battle between two Brits , both having discovered that their American cousins are deeply
      impressed with the English accent (gives em a feeling of being cultured -PBS will serve as another example .)
      and what better place to practise this discovery than in this”backwater town music conservatory”

      He along with his boss is in this “backwater” because it gives him a good salary and base to earn more money.
      One wonders if they both use music as a stalking horse to further their barely notable careers in this
      sordid field ., how come they couldn’t build “careers” back home . That they both have besmirched
      the NEC reputation (whatever is left of it ) should result in both being sent packing .
      Doesn’t speak well for the board .

      • Garth Winter says:

        I fear you’re judging others by your own standards. Whatever Ben Zander is motivated by, you can bet it isn’t money. Could it be that he simply loves enthusing and motivating talented kids? Could it be that he doesn’t fancy schlepping round the world from one concert hall to another? (There are many people who wish he would.) Could it be that (inexplicably) he likes living in the US?!

        • ariel says:

          Of course he likes living in the US …a cushy job ,,not to be had in merry old England and add to
          that a motivational speaker for hire to half wits who can’t fire themselves up to do a good job . Kids are
          the easiest to motivate and I suppose he would schlepp to any top orchestra that would have him except
          that I have not read that Warsaw Vienna , Berlin ,London ,Paris etc. are all bemoaning the fact that
          he is unavailable being busy motivating kids and business men in the US and rumor has it that
          he doesn’t do this for the money and of course his compatriot is also in the game just for the love
          of enthusing kids to a future in the world of classical music which is practically dead on its feet . I
          repeat they both should be tossed out for setting this awful example in front of the “kids ” they are
          supposedly trying to motivate .

      • BE says:

        Boston is far from a backwater. The statement used to be made by arrogant and obnoxious New Yorkers who did not know better. Boston has always been a far more liveable city than NYC and the BSO is a far finer orchestra than the NY Phil.

    • Luciano says:

      Umm…. Ben Zander is right up there with the best conductors? So I assume the Boston Symphony must chasing him for a signature, trying to lure him away from the Philharmonic, right? Which orchestras has Ben Zander held positions with again?

      • Garth Winter says:

        You just seem determined to belittle someone about whom you seem to know nothing and for whom no one who has ever worked with him, or come into contact with his work, has a bad word to say. If “holding a position” with a portfolio of big orchestras were the criterion, we should presumably regard a Carlos Kleiber as a useless musician and conductor? Just listen to Zander’s recordings, or better still attend a concert occasionally. All will become clear, Grasshopper.

        • Luciano says:

          I’ve seen Zander conduct on several occasions, I’ve met him and I’ve seen him work, I’ve listened to his recordings. I’m an opened minded guy and he seemed to have something interesting so I took the time to check it out. But I’m afraid when you take away the Zander bravura there’s not much left underneath. I’m not saying he doesn’t have something to offer but his name does not belong in the same sentence as Carlos Kleiber. I have also read ‘The Art of Possibility’ which I find interesting and have suggested to some people, but even that was largely written by his wife!

        • Ameletus says:

          Well, I’ve worked with Zander and come into close contact with him much more than I would have liked as a former young musician that he “motivated” and I have PLENTY of bad things to say about him. To the students he worked with, Zander was much like vegemite: either loved or reviled. To make it out like all his students worship him is to ignore the substantial portion that just silently put up with his bullshit.

      • Someone says:

        If you were at the performance of Mahler’s 9th in Vienna at the Musikverein by the NEC Youth Philharmonic, there would be no doubt in your mind as to Zander’s musical genius. Any conductor that brings out such passion in teenagers as to make 1500 Viennese absolutely silent after a performance is top notch.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,
    As an older Bostonian, a retired musician now in my eighties, I can perhaps shed some light on this deplorable situation. Almost 50 years ago I came to know NEC Preparatory School’s first director, Frances Lanier, and through her came to take an interest in the community outreach program that she had founded. How proud Frances would be of her school today! Over the years, NEC Preparatory School has evolved into an extraordinary educational institution, surely one of the finest in the world. In the last 30 years, two people in particular, Benjamin Zander and Mark Churchill, have shaped and guided the energies and efforts of its talented and dedicated faculty with uncommon vision, idealism and skill. Early on, I heard Zander, a brilliant young English ‘cellist fired by his experiences at the Yehudi Menuhin school, taking his first steps as a conductor. Decades later, I have not forgotten the uncommonly elegant and flexible performance of a Boyce symphony that he led with his newly founded Youth Chamber Orchestra. I thought of it again recently when I heard him lead that orchestra’s successor, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, in an astonishing performance of Mahler’s 9th symphony, an achievement that would not have been imaginable in earlier years. In the intervening decades, I have witnessed the gradual development of the orchestra in size and skill. One thing has never changed, however: the consistently committed and inspired nature of the music making, and the evident love of every member for what they were doing, and for each other. This, I attribute to Benjamin Zander, who may never do an uncontroversial thing in his life, but who, at age 72, has for more than half a century dedicated himself utterly to the care, the education, and the ultimate success of the children in his charge. 2011 was a Mahler year, and Mr. Zander led his orchestra on a Mahler pilgrimage to Austria and the Czech Republic, apparently and incomprehensibly much to the displeasure of NEC’s president, to teach them to love and understand that great composer’s life and work.
    I understand that the usually reserved Viennese audiences were ecstatic after Zander led their performance in the sold-out Musikverein. Shortly after that tour, President Woodcock forced Zander to resign the directorship of the orchestra that he had founded and guided for nearly 40 years. Why? I believe an explanation is called for. None has been given.
    When Mark Churchill took over as director around 1980, the Preparatory School had fallen on hard times. The various community branches from Frances Lanier’s time had fallen away, and the preparatory school was in danger of being done away with altogether. Over three decades, Churchill, aided by his wife MaryLou, the former principal second violin of the Boston Symphony, succeeded not only in building the Preparatory school into a world-class institution, but his vision led to the founding of other important institutions and programs such as Project STEP (for minorities), the NEC association with the Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts (on the Menuhin School model), the Conservatory Lab Charter School (an arts school for children), and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. Churchill was one of the first to recognize the potential of Venezuela’s El Sistema, and he forged a bond between El Sistema and NEC.
    Many of us believe that El Sistema is the greatest music program in the world, and that its founder, Mr. Abreu, should receive a Nobel prize for his work.
    Benjamin Zander has been intimately involved with these programs from their inception.
    For his thirty years of visionary and successful leadership, Churchill, whose beloved wife had recently died leaving him with the care of two young daughters, was celebrated at NEC with a testimonial dinner. A week or so later President Woodcock forced him to resign his position as Dean of the Preparatory School. Why? I believe an explanation is called for. None has been given. One consequence: NEC’s bond with El Sistema, which held enormous promise for the future, was substantially broken, and other institutions, such as Bard College, the Longy School of Music and the Los Angeles Philharmonic moved in to compete with Churchill’s (formerly NEC’s) El Sistema USA.
    This is just a small part of a complex story. But apparently the president of NEC has the power to force distinguished senior faculty and administration to resign, and to cut or alter programs without offering an alternative vision for the school that he has been entrusted with. It can be argued that no one is irreplaceable. The new administrators at the Preparatory School are enormously gifted and capable (It remains to be seen who will “replace” Zander as conductor of the YPO). Nevertheless, the fact that the two eminently successful, and (I keep coming back to the word) visionary, creative leaders who substantially and successfully built the school were forced out at the height of their powers, and just as the Preparatory School was poised to rise to a new and perhaps unprecedented heights (with the El Sistema/El Sistema USA connection), has many people shaking their heads in disbelief. The fact that it happened at the whim of the NEC president, who has yet to offer an explanation for his actions, and who made his firings look like resignations, has created a poisonous atmosphere within the institution (if the president can force Zander (45 years’ service) and Churchill (30 years) out, whose job is safe?). All this occurred before the discovery of Mr. Benjamin’s activities and the unfortunate, clumsy way in which that situation has been handled.
    People will have their own opinions about the Benjamin affair. It seems, however, that Zander’s actions handed president Woodcock the excuse that he was looking for and couldn’t find elsewhere. No matter how the public comes down on this issue, however, I hope people will consider this: a school such as New England Conservatory Preparatory School is the work of many people over many years. No one can begin to appreciate the countless hours of dedicated effort, the idealism, the wisdom, the creativity, the scrounging for money, the complicated human relationships, the misunderstandings, the arguments, the foolishness, the egos, the long tiring days and late nights, all of it, that go into creating an institution whose only reason for being is to nourish the hopes and dreams of the young (read their wonderful letters):
    It might feel good for people to vent, but they should realize that there are important things at stake here. A match can burn down a city, but who among us can build one up? A great deal has already been destroyed by people who have yet to account for their actions. New, talented people have been brought in to lead the school. Time will tell what they may achieve. Anyone who has seen the Preparatory School at work, who has interacted with its remarkable faculty and students, who has, as I have, witnessed its development from Frances Lanier’s dream to its recent pinnacle of achievement, anyone who not only believes in, but has witnessed, over and over again, the power of music to transform lives, must understand the importance of wisdom, and no little courage, at this moment. It is time for everyone to step back and realize what is at stake here. Realize what has been lost, and what might still be lost. Insist on answers and accountability, and think hard, work hard, to articulate a compelling vision for the future. Please let it be a vision that makes room for idealists.
    Finally, from the perspective of age I would urge that any path forward must include the understanding that even good people make mistakes, which they may deeply regret. The best people learn from them, and they grow.

  • tls says:

    Here, here, Andrew, Luciano, and Ariel. I’m relieved to know that there are others who recognize that the Emperor has no clothes. He may be a great motivational speaker (not having heard him, I really can’t comment) but as a conductor? Come on! And from those I know who’ve had financial dealings with him in the past, I take issue with Garth’s theory that he’s not motivated by money.
    Garth – the idea that you put Zander “right up there with the best conductors” absolutely terrifies me. Haitink, Abbado, Welser-Moest, ZANDER??? I think not. Nor in the 2nd or 3rd tier either. He’s seriously out-classed by Hugh Wolff who is a professional conductor with a real career.
    As for Mr Woodcock – well, he’s left a trail of destruction in his wake at more than one orchestra. Doesn’t the NEC board do due diligence before hiring?

  • AndrewPatrick says:

    @GarthWinter. You’re right. I’m not interested in this case, but I am interested in how Zander cynically freeloads off great music to parade his ego for naive souls who believe that Beethoven, Mahler et al can be reduced to a few corporate soundbites. That’s much much worse in my opinion.

  • Andrew says:

    Excuse me, but I would like to point out that being more famous than other musicians can not be equated with being better. The music business is far from being a meritocracy. Those who desire fame often get it, as in politics.
    Many people without the self-promotion gene go unnoticed.
    Ben Zander’s musicianship and musical output is loved by many great and respected musicians. That he chose a quieter route or simply the road less traveled speaks of the quality of his commitment to community and education.
    If you name a great conductor of the last 30 years I bet I have played under their baton and I can promise you there are unsung geniuses along with famous frauds chalking up every accolade known in the classical music business.

  • anonymous says:

    After everything Mr. Zander has given to NEC and its musicians, my feeling is that he deserves more than to have the rug pulled out from under him. My sense is that the new administration of NEC have been waiting for an opportunity to sack Ben for quite a while. Granted he is not the easiest person in the world to work with, and his judgement here was not the greatest, but look at the impact and inspiration he has on the young people around him. He is overwhelmingly an asset to NEC. This whole affair has brought all the wrong kind of attention to NEC. It is a wonderful place and people should be focused on all the great things that have come out of the institution.