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Conductor on cloud Nine with Beethoven recording

BENJAMIN Zander is known as one of the foremost interpreters of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

But he has long harboured the dream of a fully-realised interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.

And the London-born conductor’s recording of the German composer’s Ninth, with the Philharmonia Orchestra and The Philharmonia Chorus, will be released on Monday (Brattle Media).

Ben, as he likes to be called, said: “My whole life has revolved around creating new ventures and breaking through barriers and not being stopped by circumstances that seem to be insurmountable.

“I don’t feel bound by tradition.”

The 79-year-old has spent nearly 50 years obsessed with studying and giving the world the version that, by all written indications, Beethoven appears to have heard in his mind.

“I am glad it took as long as it did,” Ben explained. “Right now is the perfect time for me personally and professionally, and not only for me, but also for the message of this music.

“Beethoven is expressing such profound gratitude for life and I want to bring that to the world, where it is desperately needed.”

And he doesn’t expect people to throw out their old Ninth Symphony CDs or for orchestras to adopt his way of playing it.

“This is about one glorious piece that represents the highest form that art can achieve,” Ben added.

“I have devoted a long time to bring it to the fullest fruition that I can.

“My hope is that, as we go forward, the conversation will always be grounded in an appreciation for the seriousness with which Beethoven notated his scores.

“Our challenge as performers is to work as hard as we possibly can to realise the composer’s intent.”

Ben, who has lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for more than 50 years, has been passionate about music from a young age.

The musical director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, he was born in Buckinghamshire to German Jewish immigrants Gretl and Walter Zander.

His father was a well-known lawyer, who served for many years as secretary of the British Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also wrote several books about Israel and its international relations.

Many of the Zander family who stayed in Germany were murdered in the Holocaust.

“It had a huge impact on my father,” Ben recalled. “He told me that it was an open wound, but my father did a lot of restitution work for refugees after the war.”

Like many German Jews, the Zanders were extremely assimilated and Ben was not barmitzvah.

He said: “We did the Friday nights and my father was deeply involved in Jewish life.

“He was also one of the few Jewish leaders on terms with Arab leaders.

“My father wrote a pamphlet, which said, in essence, that in order to set up our homeland in Palestine, we have to remember that, in doing so, we are asking the Arabs to give up their land.

“He also wrote if we remember that in every conversation, we will find them the most courteous but, if we forget it, we will be doomed to an eternal struggle.

“It was a prescient idea and I wish it had been paid attention to.”

Ben began studying the cello when he was 10 and, two years later, became the youngest member of the National Youth Orchestra.

He moved to America on a Harkness Fellowship in 1967 and became conductor of the Boston Philharmonic on its inception in 1978.

Ben also spent 45 years on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music and has conducted orchestras across the world, including the Israeli Philharmonic — “probably my favourite orchestra in the world”.

He said: “I have conducted them five times, as well as the Israeli Youth Orchestra.”

Ben, however, is not just known for his musical endeavours.

For he also enjoys an international career as a speaker on leadership, with several keynote speeches at the Davos World Economic Forum, where he was presented with the Crystal Award for Outstanding Contributions in the Arts and International Relations.

His TED talk has been watched by more than 10 million people online.

“I can’t go through an airport without people coming up to talk to me about the TED talk, which I love,” said Ben, who is married to Rosamund.

“My job is to get the word out — I am a preacher, as in I preach about music.

“Everybody has a desire to be elevated in their spirit, soul and mind, but people are usually reaching for a quick fix.

“What music does is lift the soul in a transformational way. Conducting is all about teaching and leadership.

“Whether I am talking to a group of businesspeople from IBM or working with a youth orchestra, I am teaching.”

As with any great dedicated to their craft, he does not separate his working life from his home one.

“I don’t think of myself as having a career — I think of myself as having a life,” said Ben, who describes himself as culturally Jewish.

“I am teaching, speaking, conducting and taking masterclasses, and I intend to keep them all going as long as I damn well can!

“The only thing which will stop me is if I keel over or some part of me fails to function.

“I don’t really take holidays, but if I do, I will take a score along for the week and study it.”

As a tribute, the Boston Philharmonic recently launched the Benjamin Zander Centre, a new website that offers comprehensive access to his life’s work.

* Watch him in action at tinyurl.com/ZanderJT and visit benjaminzander.org


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