The Mahler conductor and the sex offender: two statements and a charge of lying

Benjamin Zander, who left his post at New England Conservatory last week over having employed a video cameraman with a sex-offence conviction, has posted two statements on his website. In the first, he informs his students, members of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, that he had been dismissed by the NEC well before the sex-conviction issue was raised:

One week after we returned from our triumphant tour last June, after the sold-out concert in the Musikverein, I was handed a letter from president (Tony) Woodcock announcing that my tenure as conductor of YPO and my role as the Artistic Director of Walnut Hill would be terminated on June 30th 2012. No reason was given except that they were engaged in succession planning. But I believe that was not the real reason. It is my opinion that the president had become upset with me during the complex discussions caused by disagreements between us about the tour. I believe that terminating my services as soon as possible had become a priority.

In the other, he launches a passionate defence of his friend, the videographer, Peter Benjamin, as a man who had offended more that 20 years ago and was now a fully rehabilitated member of society. Filming concerts was, in fact, a required part of his rehabilitation:

In 1991, Mr. Benjamin made a serious mistake. For this he was prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. Thereafter, of his own volition, Mr. Benjamin entered into and engaged in a very successful four-year intensive therapy program specifically designed to treat individuals who had sexually offended against minor-aged adolescents. The recidivism rate for individuals having completed this program is less than 5%. After Mr. Benjamin completed his sentence in 1998, he was released and placed on supervised probation for five years. As part of his probation Mr. Benjamin was required to work. Mr. Benjamin obtained permission from the probation department to return to his long-time profession of videotaping live music events. While on probation, he was asked to have another adult with him when he was filming at schools or churches to negate any possibility or appearance of impropriety. Probation specifically knew he filmed events at the New England Conservatory. Successfully completing probation, Mr. Benjamin nevertheless kept this precaution in place for years afterwards. Mr. Benjamin has never re-offended and deserves credit for this.

Zander makes a strong case here that the New England Conservatory and its president, Tony Woodcock, have not been telling the whole truth. I await, in the public interest, a clarification of their position.

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  • Just a note: the defense of Peter Benjamin posted on Ben Zander’s website is a press release from a Boston law firm. Those are not Ben’s words but one can assume that he agrees with the content because he posted the document.

  • Mr. Zander’s statement implies he made this decision UNILATERALLY. That really wasn’t his decision to make; he needed to inform the educational institution to make sure it cleared this with his employer, particularly since the videos involved minors. This isn’t the kind of decision you should make unilaterally.

  • Zander knowingly hired a convicted child rapist who was also convicted of videotaping naked children…to videotape other children. Was there not a non-child-rapist available who owned a video camera? It’s not exactly rocket science; a parent could do it.

    If he was so bent on helping this convict (why, let’s investigate why he and his elite pals who provided character witness at the pedophile’s trial) was so vehement about that), then why not use his Brahmin connections to find him a job taping society events that didn’t involve kids? Of course NEC had to fire him, he’s now a huge legal problem. Of COURSE they had to fire him!

    And Ben Zander is a genius and a Mahler expert? Where, except for those London recordings which may have been self-funded, has he ever conducted a professional orchestra? The Ben-harmonic is an amateur, though wonderful, band, BTW.

    This whole thing is a great example of the Stockholm Syndrome in classical music.

  • To Blair Tindall – and everyone else who wants to understand the truth behind what his students feel.

    “And Ben Zander is a genius and a Mahler expert? Where, except for those London recordings which may have been self-funded, has he ever conducted a professional orchestra? The Ben-harmonic is an amateur, though wonderful, band, BTW.”

    Don’t you dare throw punches at a man you obviously don’t know. I’ve worked closely with him for years now as a student of his and I can tell you that this man is the most incredible musician I’ve ever worked with. You should see my newsfeed on facebook COVERED with messages from ALL STUDENTS OF HIS PAST AND PRESENT and their disgust with NEC for doing this to him.

    Obviously you haven’t done your homework because you clearly have no idea of the resume this man has built up over the years, get your facts straight. The “Ben-harmonic”? Have you actually ever even been to one of their performances? Did you happen to know that over the past 3 years they HAVE BEEN turning into a professional orchestra? Have you ever sat at a Youth Philharmonic concert? Being conducted by him in YPO were the 2 best years of my life. They were life changing. That man knows Mahler like the back of his hand. You have NO IDEA how devastating this is to all of his students at NEC and Walnut Hill.

    Every year at the end of the last Youth Philharmonic concert of the year, we play Nimrod from the Elgar Variations. You should see how every student in the orchestra doesn’t have a dry eye as we say goodbye to our senior friends, the seniors say goodbye to the orchestra that made them the musician they are today, and goodbye to some of the best music making a youth orchestra could ever give a student – and its all because of this man.

    You need to understand the deep emotion attachment involved.

  • @Anonymous, methinks you might move up to some professional orchestras to see what I mean. And as for “emotion attachment” (sic) involved, why don’t you talk to some parents sickened that a man convicted of videotaping naked children, and of having sex with the same, has been videotaping their kids for the last 20 years.

    I’ve done my homework and I’ve lived it. If you got out of your bubble you would have heard of Mozart in the Jungle, which I wrote.

    There are many fine conductors waiting for the opportunity — who won’t throw your kids under the bus to give a pedophile a second chance.

  • @Anonymous, I’ve played under Leonard Bernstein. James Levine, Erich Leinsdorf, Rafael Kubelik, Klaus Tennstedt, Simon Rattle, MTT, David Robertson, and scores of others, with six major ICSOM orchestras. You? The Boston Philharmonic is a good start, but expand your horizons.

    • Blair: You played under those conductors as a sub because of your self-admitted relationship with Joe Robinson. So, get off your high-horse. Tony Woodcock is a known idiot in the field of orchestra mgt. (just ask MN Orch. committee members) and an advocate of funding American Orchestras on the “European Model” without a clue about their government funding v. our paltry philanthropy.

      • @Michael, I don’t recall any relationship other than as a student with JR. And I don’t recall him playing in the NJ Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, or on Broadway in five hit shows. I don’t recall him being in the audience when I won a top award in the Lucarelli International Competition or at my debut recital at Carnegie Hall, for which I received a rave in the Times. He wasn’t on any of the Spike Lee film soundtracks. Not on my Grammy-nominated jazz album. Not in the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. Not on the faculty of Stanford, Berkeley, and Mills College, where I taught. In none of these places was there a colleague with whom I was even remotely personally involved.

        And you’ve played exactly where, outside of the BP?

        What you say about Woodcock may be true, but Zander’s action is unforgivable on its own.

      • @Michael, just looked up your name online and out of the 5,000 hits, they’re mostly for a truck driver in Florida. So if you can pry yourself off your low horse, again, where exactly have you played?

        And BTW, I wouldn’t have lasted 10 years in the Phil if I wasn’t playing well.

        • Blair: Your vaunted research skills are lacking. As an AFM member for over 60 years, I’ve played in 5 ICSOM orchestras before there was an ICSOM, have been concertmaster of 4 B’way shows, and am a founder of 802’s MEMBERS Party and the International RMA (Recording Musicians Ass’n). It’s neither my nor your musical qualifications in question here, but your sidetracking and obfuscation of the main issue: Woodcock’s firing Zander.

          BTW, 10 years as an occasional sub doesn’t make you Gomberg.

          • 10 years as playing one week per month doesn’t make me Gomberg, but I sure admired the guy. And if I am such a terrible musician, it’s curious they kept me around for 10 years. And then Orpheus, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Grammy nomination, jazz at the Blue Note, etc. In the pre-ICSOM years, using my vaunted research skills gained during my full-scholarship degree at Stanford, no orchestra was full time in the US. I was SO involved with the union since 1979 (I joined elsewhere in 1974), and so I guess no good deed goes unpunished.

            In 25 years of playing with the city’s top groups, it’s curious I never encountered you. I was also in the RMALA for several years, never encountered you in its newsletters or in person either. I suppose that’s the age difference, but I was on the scene some 35 years ago, and do not appreciate your insinuations when I was a very active musician, appreciative of the union, and involved in union activities on a daily basis.

            I was very much opposed the the MEMBERS party at the time, I could have been wrong, but I certainly wasn’t ignorant of the issues. I was even on the MEMBERS email list until a couple of years ago. I wish you the best and hope you look out for members’ best interests.

            I am not arguing with the Woodcock thing, and you may well be right. But as someone who endured childhood sexual abuse from an elderly relative, I am horrified that Zander thought it was OK to place a convicted pedophile among kids. It’s a separate issue from Woodcock (kind of a hilarious name), and I think NEC took the only action they could — and they are ALSO at fault for not screening vendors like Benjamin. So we are in agreement on some of this.

            I’m glad we talked last night, and hope you came to see me as a real person, not just the anonymous online punching bag I’ve become. Best to you Michael, and I hope you will discontinue any ad hominem attacks. I wish you the best, I really do, and that extends to the current 802 administration. I know you are out there for members’ best interests.

      • @Doug, It’s because he put children in harm’s way, knowingly. I personally have nothing against Zander, but the defense that he should not be fired because he is a “genius” is subjective, and won’t stand up in court if anyone sues NEC. They are trying to reduce the legal ramifications, that’s all.

        I think it’s important to realize that the Woodcock and Benjamin issues are each stories on their own. Without Woodcock, I would hasten to guess that NEC would have cut their losses with Zander when the news came out.

        Imagine being the parent of a child videotaped by a convicted child rapist — who was also convicted of videotaping naked kids. Zander, and other Boston elite, testified on the defendant’s behalf. I think the big question here is not his hiring or Woodcock’s whatever…but why the wealthiest people in Boston would stick up for this loser. What’s in it for them? There’s an untold story here.

  • No one is saying that what Zander did was right. In fact, even Zander himself admits to some degree that he made a mistake and should have been more prudent in hiring people with questionable backgrounds. Furthermore, I think Peter Benjamin, no matter what kind of person he is now, was truly a detestable human being for having done those things to young boys.

    In spite of this, you – with all your expertise and wisdom – must understand that it is wrong to abruptly deal with Mr. Zander. I am not advocating for either the termination of Mr. Woodcock or that of Mr. Zander, but I believe that certainly the public deserves to know both sides of the truth. Mr. Woodcock made a mistake in firing Zander for a personal vendetta, just as Zander was wrong in hiring a sex offender. This is not a matter we can just blow off as a clean justice – Mr. Zander’s termination was the victory of politics and social convention over human compassion.

    Allowing any administration to overpower the will of the students it “protects” defeats the very purpose of the administration. In reality, Zander’s termination from conducting what you call an “amateur” orchestra sets a precedence against true musicianship, and to do this to a YOUTH orchestra is the greatest evil.

    Ma’am, if you wish to emphasize your rather pretentious and supercilious attitude towards a man, who for his entire life only gave the gift of music to students who loved him, in his greatest moment of need, then please go ahead and do so. Just do not insult the sincere feelings of his orchestra on the internet. It is shameful that a musician such as yourself, one who should be protecting the hopes and dreams of these young musicians, believe in the punishment of Zander and his students under the guise of your own overblown musical track record.

    Moreover, I am neither a member of Zander’s orchestra nor one of his friends. I have also read of Peter Benjamin’s truly horrific crimes. However – this is not about Peter Benjamin. It’s about Mr. Zander.

  • To Blair:

    Just to make myself clear…

    Being a graduate of the NEC prep program myself, I was probably recorded by this man, along with many of my friends. My parents, along with all of my friends parents, all believe they were wrong in firing Zander. In fact they are very angry with NEC for firing him especially since he was just 6 months away from his retirement. I understand the legalities, which puts NEC in a very horrible position but there were a lot of politics going on behind the scenes, you can get more information about that by reading Zanders letter on his website. Its all true – I’ve heard the stories first hand. YPO is arguably one of the best, if not the best youth orchestra in the US, and it wouldn’t be that without Zander. So there is a lot of heartache going on in the NEC student community right now. His students and his students parents despite this ordeal still love him very much. I really wish it didn’t have to be this way, I still feel like they could had let Zander stay his last 6 months. As for Benjamin, I trust Zander enough to know that he wouldn’t have hired this man if he didn’t truly believe he had changed his life around. Zander would never do anything to put his students in any form of danger. Zander writes about his friendship with Benjamin and about all the rehab he went through after the incident on his website if you’d be interested in reading about it to know Zanders side better.

    • @Anonymous, thank you for posting this, it is quite objective and I will do as you suggest and read further. Best to you and your musical cohorts.

  • Oh Blair- so thick headed ( or just one to love a little kick at the hornet’s   nest.) If it is just for the reaction then I will gladly oblige as you must have nothing more interesting going on.

    First off I’d love to know why you put so much effort into your comments only to make yourself look bad. We all know you’re the author of “Mozart in the Jungle” and I’m not sure anyone asked for your resume. Most of us (musicians) have at least equal qualifications, if that’s even important here. Just wanted to remind you of who you’re talking to in these comments and who can see them.  A sharp tongue may sell hardback but that’s pretty much it.

    Benjamin Zander has his faults just like any other human being. As someone who was in his orchestra and at the prep. school (back in the day) this videographer was never on my radar. Of course that’s not the overarching point – that his conviction is now public knowledge means that NEC must necessarily be outraged, given the litigious environment of the US today. But the fact is, he was never a problem in my experience there.

    What you’re saying- except for your ignorant attack on BZ’s personal conducting skill- has nothing to do with him as an artist or inspiration. I think most of us would agree that yes, in the paper and all over the internet, this looks very bad. However, you have incredible nerve to attack a man who is so widely loved and respected. No matter what kind of issues you have with him no one can deny that he gave us the kind of positive thinking that is never again addressed in our schooling and is never a part of our day to day professional lives.

    You have ruined your credibility by making such grand gestures of pig headedness.

    Lastly, I say to you as that horribly pointless voice in our heads “thank you for sharing but I’m busy..”

    • @Anonymous#2, suit yourself, and enjoy the ride. Kudos that you, as a musician, have heard of MITJ. Most musicians have not, and some are not big readers.

      A sharp tongue may sell hardback? What does that mean?

      I was sexually abused as a child. I gather from your comments that you would be OK with that for you or your kids, should you have any. I’m not OK with that. And as for BZ’s conducting skills, that’s aside from this discussion. He could be the world’s best conductor, and I’m behind him all the way if he is. But my complaint is that people are using his “genius” as a defense for putting kids in harms’ way, and he doesn’t have much in the way of a music resume. Even if he did, the Benjamin thing would be unacceptable.

      I don’t give a flying f*** about my credibility. I’m in another business now. I am, however, very interested in protecting other children from that which I endured. All the best to you.

    • OK, I figured out who “Sasha Hamilton” is. “Sasha,” I’m glad you learned some meager Internet skills. If you hadn’t done anything wrong, you wouldn’t have been called out in print. Think about that in the future.

  • Please, could anyone well informed about the subject give me simple answers to these simple questions:

    1. Did the videographer in question serve his time in prison for his sex crimes?
    2. If yes, is he considered to be rehabilitated?
    3. For how many years was he filming the orchestra rehearsals?
    4. Did he ever misuse his post by doing his job (filming) in a way that could be called inapropriate?
    5. Did anybody complain about his conduct or did he give any reason for a suspicion during all those years he was filming the orchestra?
    6. If answers to nr. 2 is YES, and NO to nr. 4 and 5, then what the hell is wrong with the US, with this so called Cristian civilisation and the world?

    By the way, I’ve met and interviewed Maestro Zander and attended his public lecture here in Zagreb, Croatia, and was overwhelmed, also with his Beethoven and Mahler CDs with commentaries. Wish him all the best.

  • I am always getting Mozart in the Jungle confused with Hercules Goes Bananas. Which is which? You wrote the former and ah yes, Former governor Schwarzenegger kicked off his career with the latter. They are bot a joke but Arnold went on to become the highest paid actor in Hollywood, just another feather in his hat. So he is excused. What have you done, Blair. Would Ben even know who you are? Does anybody? Good luck with whatever you do.

  • Few people know (or care) how bad (how ineffective) the sex offender laws are.
    I am sure it makes some feel that children are safer but how can bloating the registry with people who are not dangerous really protect children better? Garrido is proof that this is not a good idea. 18 YEARS it took to get him and he was in compliance! Maybe if law enforcement was only watching out for the truly dangerous s.o.’s, it could work better? We need smarter sex-offender laws, not ones that put quantity over quality. But these laws are a big hit with all those who are making money from them. Unscrupulous politicians, who never would have gotten their butts elected if not for these laws, are happy about them. Media that is drama-driven, esp. FOX, rather than real news -driven, loves them. And overly-zealous prosecutors trying to make a name for themselves by increasing the notches in their legal gun belts like them. Not to mention the private prisons that have an unending need to keep their beds full and the always growing surveillance industry like them. So, they’ll probably be around for awhile. Parnoia sells. Sex sells. The two together with wanting to protect children in there is an extremely potent mix.

    MOST who are on the registry are NOT Dangerous,. Their lives sure are being ruined, ALONG with their family and their CHILDREN’S lives …job loss, family loss, having to move, becoming homeless, having to look over their shoulders for some nut- case vigilantes, some who have gotten the wrong people. Who cares that the big majority are Romeo-Juliets (19 yr. old boyfriend and 15 yr. old girlfriend), urinated in public while intoxicated, mooned somebody for fun after a game, visited an adolescent prostitute who lied about her age….he may be a pathetic scumbag, but dangerous?? Or he could be one of the burgeoning numbers who downloaded “child” porn, MOST of which is adolescent girls/guys and do most men check to ask the age on there??? Mothers, fathers, warn your sons! That’s one of the largest growing groups on the registry. This insanity is being used to trap men that would never harm a fly? It is getting more and more unreal. What has happened to our justice system?

    If you are someone who does care about justice, educate yourself and help us in this David-Goliath fight Catching and persecuting people who don’t deserve it doesn’t help protect our children from those who do. http://www.csom.org/pubs/mythsfacts.html
    http://ilvoices.com/media/23945d47d1a0fd37ffff810bffffe415.pdf
    http://www.thecrimereport.org/news/inside-criminal-justice/2011-05-are-we-being-smart-about-sex-offenders
    http://www.reformsexoffenderlaws.org/
    Read Jim and Nancy Petro’s book “False Justice” and Richard Wrights’ “Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions” See the movie “Conviction” and Sean Penn’s “Witch hunt” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0C2aQprdIMhttp://www.oncefallen.com/

    If you are someone who does care about justice, educate yourself and help us in this David-Goliath fight Catching and persecuting people who don’t deserve it doesn’t help protect our children from those who do. http://www.csom.org/pubs/mythsfacts.html
    http://ilvoices.com/media/23945d47d1a0fd37ffff810bffffe415.pdf
    http://www.thecrimereport.org/news/inside-criminal-justice/2011-05-are-we-being-smart-about-sex-offenders
    http://www.reformsexoffenderlaws.org/
    Read Jim and Nancy Petro’s book “False Justice” and Richard Wrights’ “Sex Offender Laws: Failed Policies, New Directions” See the movie “Conviction” and Sean Penn’s “Witch hunt” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0C2aQprdIMhttp://www.oncefallen.com/

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