The smile is familiar, as is the thick white hair swaying to the rhythm of the orchestra.
Benjamin Zander, one of Boston’s most prominent classical music figures, is back leading a youth orchestra. Watching him now, one could find it hard to imagine that less than a year ago, his four-plus decades at New England Conservatory came to an ugly end.
No rehearsal begins without a speech: “We all love NEC,” he tells the more than 100 musicians, ranging from 12 to 22 years old, members of the newly formed Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, on a recent Saturday afternoon. “The tension is over.”
By tension, Zander means the fallout from his hiring a registered sex offender to film concerts and rehearsals with NEC’s top youth orchestra in recent years without telling school administrators. The videographer was not accused of any wrongdoing at NEC, but Zander’s failure to tell the administration about the man’s history led to Zander’s firing last January.
“I call it a bump, a serious bump in the road,” Zander said. “Now, I’ve got a chance to really think through, at every level, what it is I want . . . Shaping future leaders through music. That’s my life work.”
For most anybody else, building a 117-member youth orchestra from scratch would seem impossible. But the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra will debut Nov. 25, in Symphony Hall, with star cellist Alisa Weilerstein as soloist. This is a long way from last winter, when Zander’s dismissal sparked student protests and an online petition on his behalf signed by more than 1,200 people, including Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison, Boston Musicians’ Association president Pat Hollenbeck, and Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff.
Almost immediately, friends, former players, and students in his NEC orchestra urged Zander to start his own youth ensemble. He resisted, unsure of his next step, though he continued as music director and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Eventually, the Philharmonic’s leaders and friends convinced him.
“It wasn’t just getting Ben through a personal crisis,” says Mark Churchill, the former NEC dean who has been a key Philharmonic Youth Orchestra organizer. “It was about giving young people the opportunity to work and to study music and have this experience with Ben that was so significant. There were the immediate kids who sort of felt cut off at the knees when he left. They wanted to continue.”
Even at the new orchestra’s first auditions, in May, Zander wasn’t sure he really wanted to go forward.
“I felt pretty beaten up, and I’m 73, and the idea of starting a new institution was a little daunting,” Zander said. “When the students started coming in, then it became really exciting.”
For some of the young musicians, the decision to join the new orchestra wasn’t easy. There are a number of long-established youth orchestras in Boston, including the highly competitive NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, which Zander had led, and the Boston Youth Symphony, which is in residence at Boston University.
Those top orchestras perform in Jordan Hall and Symphony Hall and have firmly established infrastructures. Posts appeared on Facebook earlier this year as young players debated which ensemble to audition for.
“It was scary,” said Joe Blumberg, 15, a trumpet player who had been in NEC’s top orchestra. “The first time I saw the [new orchestra’s] website it said they were playing ‘Ein Heldenleben,’ and I was scared that he could get that many people to make it happen. But I knew that Mr. Zander’s passion, and our passion would get it done.”
Zander, who urged his young players to stay on and finish up last season at NEC even if they were frustrated, says he didn’t do any recruiting for the new orchestra.
“It’s not an attempt to reconstruct the past,” Zander said. “We were about setting up a new organization and seeing if people wanted to come.”
Thomas Cooper, 18, a violist who had been in Zander’s NEC orchestra, not only wanted to come, he urged his friends to take the leap. In all, between 25 to 30 players jumped from NEC’s top youth orchestra to the Boston Philharmonic’s.
“All three orchestras in Boston are great youth orchestras,” Cooper says now. “But there’s something special we saw in working with Zander, and we knew we wanted to come.”
Churchill, whose own teenage daughters decided to go with Zander instead of Boston’s other competitive orchestras, helped set up the debut concert at Symphony Hall and recruited Weilerstein, the young cellist who received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” last year, to play. Organizers also suggested bringing older players, drawn from local colleges, into the group to give younger players natural mentors.
“In order to be compelling, to encourage kids to take that risk, to jump off that cliff into the unknown, they had to have something to grasp,” Churchill said.
As the new youth orchestra got rolling last summer, Zander and NEC began talking. The break had been painful, with harsh words issued by both sides. But as attention to the controversy died down, Zander approached NEC.
In June, he sent a letter to the school acknowledging he would never be hired back and stating that “while I thought that giving Mr. [Peter] Benjamin a chance was the right thing to do, I realize now that making that decision on my own without officially clearing it with the NEC administration was a significant oversight.”
In July, NEC responded by praising Zander’s history at the school and granting him the title of faculty emeritus. But NEC did not welcome him back into the classroom, and the school declined an interview request for this story.
“It’s OK,” Zander said. “You don’t give somebody emeritus status unless you value their work and respect them.”
Financing for the new youth orchestra is coming from the Boston Philharmonic. The budget is $300,000 this first year. Some of that is going to the instructors he’s bringing in to work with the students.
In sectional rehearsals, small groups of players have been led by Boston Symphony Orchestra principal oboist John Ferrillo and BSO bassist James Orleans.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, music floated throughout the hallways of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, as small groups of players studied with the pros. Zander worked with some musicians in the main hall — a miniature version of Symphony Hall.
In one classroom, Churchill worked with the cellists. In another, Orleans led a group of bassists through parts of “Ein Heldenleben.”
As for the NEC controversy, Orleans feels it’s resolved. “When at first it may have seemed that he was above it all, but in the end, he understood,” Orleans said.
In the hall, he watched as Zander began the rehearsal by offering an assignment to his young musicians. It had nothing to do with bow technique or time signature but everything to do with Zander’s philosophy.
“This week,” he said, “the assignment is to walk with a spirit of love. Everywhere you go. Even if you’re sitting down you can walk with spirit and love.”
With that, he raised his baton and the orchestra began to play.