Boston's troubled NEC: who else was employing reformed sex offender?

Boston's troubled NEC: who else was employing reformed sex offender?


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2012

Angry music teachers have drawn our attention to a line in the statement by Peter Benjamin, the videographer with a sex crime in his past whose discovery prompted the dismissal of YPO conductor Benjamin Zander.

Issued through Peter Benjamin’s lawyer, it says that Zander was not the only member of staff to employ him:

‘Recently, he videotaped Tony Woodcock, the current president of NEC, teaching an adult master class. At no time has there ever been a complaint or cause for concern occasioned by his videotaping these live events. Contrary to the reporting occasioned thus far, the bulk of the videography he was commissioned to do, involved college or graduate level performances.’

Benjamin could not have videotaped the president without his permission – indeed, at his express commission. If Zander was fired for employing the videographer, the same penalty must apply to the college president.

This horrible saga will not go away without thorough, independent investigation. Meantime, NEC is said to be in total disarray.


  • Anonymous says:

    How many times does this need to be said? BEN ZANDER KNEW ABOUT PETER BENJAMIN’S PAST, THE REST OF NEC DID NOT.

    Now, to say that NEC should have done a CORI(background check) is completely true and valid, but this misinformation must stop.

    Also, last time I checked, NEC is running just fine and is not even close to being in disarray.

    • Misinformation? Only from NEC in its evasive accounts of Zander’s sacking. Identify yourself, Anonymous, and do not use capitals in future.

      • Tor Frømyhr says:

        From that anonymous post, one could reasonably assume it was written by Tony Woodcock or somebody very close. If NEC is not in disarray, they certainly need to be in order to resolve this damaging episode in it’s history and ensure it does not happen again.

      • Roy Lisker says:

        Well, Norman, you yourself use heavy black lettering combined with underlining.Those things aren’t available in the “reply” box.
        I agree that the tone of this “Anonymous” reply smacks of Woodcock himself. Let’s entertain the following possibility: the NEC is indeed DEEPLY compromised by failure to act on the presence of Peter Benjamin in the school. If they didn’t know about his past it’s because he never gave them any reason to find out. The notion that Woodcock didn’t know what was common knowledge through the Boston cultural community is either (1) rubbish, or (2) is another indication of his total incompetence as NEC’s president.
        All this being relevant, it’s clear that Woodcock wants to push ALL the responsibility for its own in dealing with Peter Benjamin onto Zander’s shoulders.
        But Tony Woodcock is a very clumsy dictator. I’m looking forward to Woodcock’s own sacking. When it happens I will offer to give him, free of charge, some lessons in how to survive as a street violinist, a profession I myself used while traveling around Europe in the 80’s. Roy Lisker

      • Still Anonymous says:

        Sorry, I don’t feel the need to reveal myself since I’m not insulting anyone or entering facts not in evidence. To apologize for using capital letters feels ridiculous, but I guess I will since it was a bit immature. I am simply frustrated because Norman repeatedly is putting forth an extremely biased one sided view of
        the story. Zander was the only one who knew of Benjamin’s past. Tony Woodcock was not the president of NEC when Benjamin was first hired. I concede that someone should have run a CORI on Benjamin, but to suggest that means the president should be removed is a stretch in my opinion.

        For the record, of course I’m not Tony Woodcock or someone close. I feel that Ben Zander is an incredible musician who has done so much for the furthering of classical music, and I still don’t understand why we was being pushed into a forced retirement. That is what people should be complaining about, not a president thinking about what is best for the future of the school.

        • Still Anonymous says:

          I wish there was an edit button so I don’t have to reply to myself to correct something, but here it is:

          I realize from rereading that the end of my reply is not clear. I think people should be complaining about Ben’s forced retirement during the summer, not the most recent action against Ben, which I feel WAS justified. Sorry for the confusing wording..

    • Doug says:

      Hi, Tony! Thanks for keeping us informed of your side of the story.

  • dlcello59 says:

    Another excellent post. TW, oddly enough, has still refused to respond to Norman’s now infamous seven questions relating to the firing. Will people every get a response from the prez? Or maybe what is being suggested here is the only course of action at this point..

  • Anonymous says:

    Coast guard to Captain Tony W. Schettino: your ship is listing badly. Time to fall into a lifeboat.

  • anonymous says:

    With many people saying that most of the major news outlets being heavily biased against Zander. Your heavy biased arguments towards Zander is just as evident. The fact is you choose to dismiss a very important problem. Zander was never in the position to say this man was fit to be around children. Just because nothing happened doesn’t mean he didnt endanger the welfare or allow the possible sexualization of the kids he worked with. Woodcock did not know of his past history. Does that reflect that the organization needed to change their hiring procedure. Absolutely. Maybe they shouldn’t havent taken the word of the respect conductor when it came to the hiring of the outside vendor. This man was arrested and plead guilty to taping and raping a child. Zander chose to still hire him. The fact that Woodcock hired him means nothing. He also hired him to video tape adult masterclass. The key word is adult. Peter Benjamin should be allowed to work with adults. However, it is questionable and dangerous, considering his past and the fact the state thought he could re offend, to allow him to video tape children.

    This level of journalism is obscuring the principal problem with what happened. The institution allowed a sex offender to video tape children. the institution decided to fire both the offender and person who hired (who didnt know let the administration know about the past of the sex offender.) This is significant. Not this lower hearsay level of journalism where you go off “sources close” to the subject. You even question someone else anonymity. Well, Should we have a right to question your sources as well. Who are the sources close to the matter that know the “real” reason why Ben Zander is being fired?

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Norman, can you please define in what way “NEC is said to be in total disarray” ?

    • Anonymous says:

      I can. The atmosphere of fear and retribution among NEC faculty, staff, students and parents was palpable from the first months of the Woodcock administration, long before the Zander firing. The Zander firing is just the most high profile (and because of the sexual element the most notorious and confused) case of what has been going on since President Woodcock took office. NEC does not have rules of due process in place, such as are mandatory at most other institutions of higher learning. The President has authoritarian powers. Presidents like Schuller, Lesser and Steiner have used those powers with moderation and reason. Woodcock has not. For example, the wise, visionary, successful and highly respected Dean Mark Churchill (who built the school into what it is today) was let go after decades of meritorious service, just as he was on the verge of making NEC’s connection to El Sistema the coveted jewel of the institution — the envy of music schools around the country. Why? Can you imagine what a feeder system of nearly a half-million enthusiastic young people from Venezuela would have done for NEC? Or what outreach into US Communities by NEC/El Sistema USA might have done for music (and society) in our country? Churchill was let go without due process, simply because Woodcock said so. Inexplicable. John Page? A brilliant young conductor of orchestras and choirs, beloved by his students, and highly respected by the greatest of his colleagues. An imaginative, collaborative, and good-natured person. Page would be the pride of any conservatory or any great orchestra — let go. Why? Was it because of his connection to Zander? Boston University jumped on the opportunity, and hired him to take over David Hoose’s conducting as a sabbatical replacement, collaborating with Gunther Schuller. These are high-profile cases, but there are many others. Many staff members who work behind the scenes have also been let go after decades of service, and no negative reports. For most, this involves considerable personal hardship. Even in Mark Churchill’s case, it occurred just after the death of his wife Marylou and his mother, when he was left with the sole care of his two teenaged girls. And it’s not just that these people were fired. In many cases, their dismissals were trumped up to look like retirements (as in Ben Zander’s “first” firing), complete with hypocritical “celebratory” events. There was a dinner held to celebrate Churchill, and a few days later, it became known that he had been let go. Shades of what happened when Woodcock terminated the Bournemouth Sinfonietta (without warning, at rehearsal intermission).

      Naturally, faculty and staff wonder whether they will be next. They talk amongst themselves about what can be done — but no one dares speak out, for fear of retribution. If Zander and Churchill can be fired, no one’s job is safe. NEC has even resorted to threatening the children. After rumors flew about a potential protest by the YPO, Leslie Wu Foley’s letter to the YPO members was remarkably blunt: “If … your personal views render you either unable or unwilling to participate in the auditions and rehearsals, we will offer the opportunity to other students. It is entirely your choice to make and we will respect this.” NEC made known that they would have substitutes in place, in case any students decided to protest. Should we not, as educators, encourage young people to stand up for their convictions? Should we not teach them to have loyalty toward their mentors, especially those who may be as loyal to them as Ben Zander is and was? What a lesson this was for them. What a chilling effect it has had on the community. Guards were posted at the door of the rehearsal hall last Saturday, and students were required to sign in. (NEC security in general has been tightened, with more visible uniformed guards posted throughout the school.) In this climate, no one feels free to speak. The administration has lost the moral basis for trust and confidence, and rules by fear. This is an atmosphere totally at odds with the creative, open and nurturing environment that NEC Prep was prior to the Woodcock administration.

      None of this needed to happen. The proper way to handle the Benjamin affair might have been to fire Mr. Benjamin, and then to inform the students, parents and public, letting Zander take the heat for his own actions. That certainly needed to be done. But firing Zander (whether out of panic or cynical opportunism), was at the very least, a fiasco of crisis management. There are now a few who think Zander got what he deserved, but many more who feel he was unjustly scapegoated and turn their anger against President Woodcock and NEC. As a consequence, confidence in Woodcock is slim to non-existent. It was just a ham-handed way to handle a delicate situation. NEC does indeed resemble that cruise ship, lying on its side with a captain unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. An interesting recent blog has rapidly been making the rounds at NEC, by the conductor Bill Eddins, in which he compares NEC’s handling of the Zander affair with the Komen Foundation’s handling of their own public relations disaster. I recommend it:

      At the very least, the NEC faculty needs to take control of the situation to see that rules and safeguards of due process are put in place to prevent abuse on the part of an all-powerful president. NEC needs to mature institutionally. No other college would tolerate this kind of situation. The board needs to meet and reconsider how this matter has been handled, and find some way to backtrack. The Komen Foundation should serve as a model. I agree with Eddins, that unless and until such action is taken, this issue will not go away. I am sad for NEC, a great and historic institution that, through the efforts of people like Schuller, Lesser, Steiner, Churchill and Zander had grown into a truly inspiring place. I would beg the board to consider their responsibilities: what has been lost in both accomplishment and opportunity, and what is still at risk.

      • NEC Student says:

        In response to this posting above, I’ll say a bit about who I am. I am a recently graduated NEC student and I am not a supporter of Tony Woodcock, though I do think Ben’s firing in this case was justified. I do feel the need to rebut some of the wildly false statements in the above post.

        OK, point by point:

        “The atmosphere of fear and retribution among NEC faculty, staff, students and parents was palpable from the first months of the Woodcock administration, long before the Zander firing.”

        I cannot possibly express how much this is not true in my experience. Not once in my 4 years at the conservatory did anyone ever express fear of Tony Woodcock. Sometimes he was criticized for being too removed from the students, but he was never feared.

        As has been stated numerous times, NEC chose not to continue it’s relationship with El Sistema because of financial issues and the fact that it wasn’t in the school’s mission to be a supporter of an outside program. I disagree with this reasoning and I think it would have been a great idea to be a part of El Sistema USA. I don’t know Mark Churchill personally, but I’ve heard of the great things he’s done, so I’m sorry that he was let go as well. If it was a bad decision, it was a bad decision, but I don’t know the details, and neither does anyone else who is posting here.

        John Page was an extremely unpopular conductor with the students. Not a day went by when I did not hear one of my fellow students complain about him. Concerts under his direction were not at a high level, and everyone could hear this. When Hugh Wolff arrived at NEC, the orchestral department was completely transformed, and David Loebel is a huge improvement.

        “Naturally, faculty and staff wonder whether they will be next. They talk amongst themselves about what can be done — but no one dares speak out, for fear of retribution.”

        This is really silly unless you are yourself a disgruntled faculty member. Many teachers of mine talked openly about their disagreements with the school administration and of how to improve things.

        “NEC security in general has been tightened, with more visible uniformed guards posted throughout the school”

        In response to multiple thefts and the fact that homeless people were found sleeping in our practice rooms, NEC, at student and faculty requests, added more security. Do you think this is a bad thing?

        I do not disagree that Tony Woodcock has made some bad decisions, but to accuse him of being some kind of megalomaniac is really silly. You are almost completely misrepresenting the situation at NEC.

        • Someone says:

          I have to say, I believe you are simply uninformed. All of the previous post is true in my experiences.

          • NEC Student says:

            Then we have had very different experiences. I can tell you that many of my fellow students feel the same way as I do, and I’m sure you will say the same thing. This just goes to show that NEC is neither in disarray or rising up against Tony Woodcock as a unified force. It’s a nuanced issue and a blogger commenting from thousands of miles away has no standing to say that the school is in disarray.

          • The blogger is conveying, at distance, views expressed to him by faculty members and students. He has known both Woodcock and Zander for many years.

        • Someone says:

          Don’t forget, you are an NEC student, not a prep school student. I don’t know any prep school student, or teacher, or member of YPO who likes Woodcock, or is happy with what was done. The only disagreement in the prep school is how one should protest, not whether one should protest at all. YPO rehearsals are completely changed, and no longer as amazing as they used to be.

          • NEC Student says:

            Norman, my issue is that you are only presenting one side of the story. Here I am, as a former student, detailing what I think are missing pieces of your reporting.

            To “someone” :
            That is true, I am not a prep student, and I’m sure you are incredibly upset, as I would be, to lose such an inspiring teacher. In fact I have worked with Zander, and he was incredibly inspiring and I really enjoyed working with him. I’m very sad he’s gone, but I don’t think the NEC administration had any other choice but to do what they did.

            Tony Woodcock is not only the president of the prep school, he leads the entire College as well, and the views I am conveying are very similar to many in the College. There are many disagreements and problems with the administration(as at many schools), but no one is afraid to voice them publicly.

          • I posed seven public questions to Tony Woodcock. He has not replied. In the absence of candour on his part, I present information that I receive from sources that I can verify trust. The case strikes many outsiders like myself as a flagrant injustice or, at the very least, maladministration.

  • NEC Student says:

    I’m really not trying to pick a fight with you Norman, but what gives you the authority to demand answers to 7 questions you posed on your blog? One of the questions had to do with age discrimination, which is laughable seeing as there are multiple faculty members the same age as Zander who are among the most sought after teachers in the world.

    I’m sure your sources are telling the truth as they see it, but I can’t imagine that they aren’t biased in some way against Tony Woodcock. My point is, that there are two sides to this story. Describing Peter Benjamin’s crimes as you do: “a sex crime in his distant past” sounds like he was caught dropping his pants in public. The man videotaped himself raping a boy. Your language seems misleading to me.
    For Ben Zander, who knew about Peter’s crimes, to hire Peter Benjamin to work with students, many of whom are near the same age as the young boy who was raped, is extremely irresponsible. This is not a black and white case of a president removing someone he didn’t like. That is the side of the story you are not presenting.

    • I have presented that side of the story, in full. The offence was committed 20 years ago. Peter Benjamin never worked unsupervised. And Zander, it appears, was not the only one to now of his past conviction.
      As for authority: the authority of any journalist to confront injustice. Had I not raised the alarm, the only version to be told would have been the highly-paid lies peddled to the Globe op-ed page by Woodcock’s crisis-management PR.

      • NEC Student says:

        Can you point me to where you have presented that side of the story?

        Yes, the offense took place 20 years ago. Does that make it OK for Peter Benjamin to now videotape students? If you think it is, that is fine, and it’s your opinion, but it seems clear that Tony Woodcock doesn’t feel that way. My understanding is that while the Opera department hired Peter to work, they had no knowledge of his past, and Zander did. Why didn’t Zander tell the NEC administration that he had hired Peter and of his past? When the Opera department hired Peter, why didn’t Zander speak up? It was a dereliction of duty to the school to not disclose Peter’s past.

        The YPO students who have publicized their petition for Zander’s reinstatement have done a very good job “raising the alarm.” It is clear that you virulently disagree with Tony Woodcock and the board’s decision. I of course respect that. My problem is that you have all but accused Tony Woodcock of being a megalomaniacal dictator which I don’t believe to be the case based on the evidence that I have seen. Woodcock saw a danger to the school, and he acted in a way that he felt assured the long-term health of the school.

        • Read what I have written. This conversation just ended.

        • dlcello59 says:

          @NEC Student– sorry to say, but Norman has provided FAR more information than any other news outlet. The silence from many has been shocking. He has been on the case since day one, and has not let up in the quest for some real answers to his questions, not to mention that he has uncovered many things we did not know at the beginning. Obviously one also gets to know his point of view and opinions on the matter because this actually happens to be his blog, not someone else’s. He is also not some blogger but an important, widely-read, and respected voice in the classical music world.

  • Long-time NEC Faculty Member says:

    It has been repeatedly stated here by “Anonymous,” “NEC Student” and others (including NEC’s scurrilous publicity arm) that Zander “knew” of Peter Benjamin’s crimes.

    What evidence do any of these people and organizations have to support these claims? They simply state it as a fact with no support of any kind.

    Ben Zander has stated nearly quite the opposite in his statement of January 20 on his website, where he says, “I supported him [Peter Benjamin] in the sentencing stage of his trial and after his release on the basis of what I saw as his earnest determination to turn his life around, but I did so without inquiring into the exact nature of the charges. This was a grave oversight.”

    In other words, according to Zander’s own public statement on his website, he did NOT know the exact nature of the charges against Benjamin. He acknowledges knowing only that “he was a convicted sex offender who had served a term of imprisonment.”

    Furthermore, in Zander’s letter to YPO of January 14 (also on his website), he states, “Benjamin was involved in a serious incident of a sexual nature and he served time in jail. I was not aware of any of the details surrounding the charges.”

    He has further acknowledged that it was an oversight on his part not to have inquired into the exact nature of the charges. But is it the primary responsibility of NEC employees to do background checks on other NEC employees and contractors? I think not.

    Anybody, claiming that Zander “knew” of Benjamin’s crimes, other than in the general sense that dozens of people in the NEC and Boston arts community “knew” (i.e. heard through the proverbial grapevine/rumor mill) that Benjamin had been convicted of some crime many years ago, is making an apparently baseless claim unsupported by any evidence of which I am aware.

    Of course, that is the unscrupulous way in which evil people and organizations promulgate untruths. A perfect example of the old advertising adage, “If you repeat it often enough, it becomes the truth.” That seems to be NEC’s strategy here, since they started the baseless claim in their initial PR releases to the Boston Globe.

    Clearly, however, it IS the fault of NEC for not following their own acknowledged policy of doing CORI checks on all vendors. Certainly, if anybody should be held responsible for the School not following its own CORI possibly, that would be school President Tony Woodcock, not part-time employee Zander.

    Indeed, as Norman has noted here, Peter Benjamin’s press release points out that even Tony Woodcock was using Peter Benjamin to tape his own masterclasses. Why didn’t Woodcock do a CORI check? That’s a violation of NEC policy! Hmmmm…..

  • EndaVanyra says:

    Peter Benjamin is a good person – He always has been. Decades ago he was the victim of a Salem witchhunt in a suburb of Boston and payed for what society determined to be his crime. All of that was well-known in Boston and should have been forgotten by now. This entire NEC business is very unfortunate.