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Conductor exits after hiring sex offender

By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff / January 13, 2012
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The New England Conservatory and world-renowned conductor Benjamin Zander have parted ways following the discovery by school officials that Zander knowingly hired a registered sex offender to videotape performances by the school’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra during concerts, rehearsals, and classes over the past decade, and perhaps longer.

In letters e-mailed yesterday to 6,500 parents of current and former prep school students, conservatory officials said they have never received a complaint about the behavior of the videographer, Peter E. Benjamin, but have taken steps “to ensure that this individual would no longer have access to our premises, and would not be engaged by NEC . . . in the future.’’

During two brief interviews with the Globe, Zander said that school officials have fired him and he defended his decision to engage Benjamin as a private contractor, noting that the videographer was convicted for committing sex crimes nearly 20 years ago, and asserting that he has never re-offended.

“It’s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy that I’ve been fired for an absolute nothing,’’ Zander said. “He’s done nothing for 20 years,’’ he added. “He’s been blameless for 20 years.’’

Carol Goodman, a New York employment attorney retained by Zander, also criticized conservatory officials for cutting the school’s ties to Zander.

“Mr. Zander has not engaged in any conduct that would warrant termination,’’ she said.

Asked whether it was appropriate to retain the videographer to tape the performances of young people, Goodman said that Benjamin “never did anything wrong or inappropriate’’ while working with the youth orchestra and that, “to the best of our knowledge there have never been any more charges.’’

Goodman declined to say whether Zander is considering taking legal action. “We need to understand all of the facts and review all of our options and reserve all of our rights,’’ she said.

Benjamin, 68, did not return calls for comment. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to raping a boy and lesser sexual abuse charges involving two other teens. He was sentenced to 11 to 15 years at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, with all but five years suspended.

Zander, 72, has served as a marquee faculty member at the conservatory for more than 45 years and as the conductor of its Youth Philharmonic Orchestra for more than three decades.

Zander is also the music director at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, which is affiliated with the conservatory, and the conductor and founder of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

Frank Tempesta, the board chairman at the Boston Philharmonic, did not return a call to his home last night. Goodman said the Philharmonic has not contacted Zander.

In addition, Zander is also known as an inspirational speaker. He spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008.

In the letter to parents, school officials said they learned of Benjamin’s possible status as a Level 2 sex offender in mid-December, after being contacted by an individual who raised concerns.

“We believe it to be highly unlikely that students would ever have had occasion to have so much as a conversation with [the videographer],’’ the letter said. “Still, NEC believes that as a parent, you have a right to know of his presence on the campus and to discuss this matter with your child.’’

The letter also said that school officials “are taking all appropriate measures . . . to ensure that the maximum possible safeguards are in place’’ for students.

A similar letter that did not name the videographer was e-mailed to an additional 1,500 faculty and others affiliated with the school.

A Level 2 sex offender is a person convicted of one or more sex crimes who is deemed by state officials to pose a moderate risk of re-offending. The identities of Level 2 sex offenders are available through local police departments and the state Sex Offender Registry Board.

Karen Schwartzman, a consultant acting as spokeswoman for the conservatory, said the school retained the law firm Ropes & Gray to investigate the scope of services provided by the videographer and to determine whether faculty and staff knew of his status as a sex offender.

“It’s fair to say the organization as a whole was stunned to hear that this videographer had a criminal record, particularly involving crimes against young people,’’ she said.

Schwartzman said the school also informed the state Department of Children and Families and Boston police, who confirmed that Benjamin is a Level 2 sex offender.

Neither of the letters sent out yesterday included Zander’s name. The letter to parents included Benjamin’s name, while the letter to faculty and others did not. Schwartzman would not reveal the identity of either individual to the Globe.

The connection between Zander and the videographer is established in publicly available criminal records. A 1993 sentencing memorandum refers to testimonials given on Benjamin’s behalf by Zander and several other prominent Bostonians, including the late Sarah Caldwell, the former director of the Opera Company of Boston, noted author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as figures representing the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Red Sox.

Zander acknowledged providing the testimonial and said he was “thrilled’’ that the Globe had also learned of the others.

Schwartzman said most of Benjamin’s work centered on taping programs for the school’s prep school component, including the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and a class taught by Zander at the Walnut Hill School.

Zander is known as a devotee of Gustav Mahler and is currently recording the composer’s complete works with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, according to his website.

Zander is also known as an advocate for classical music’s popular appeal, an idea that has informed his leadership of the Boston Philharmonic.

The conservatory was founded in 1867 and serves 750 students on its Huntington Avenue campus, as well as 1,500 prep school students, including those enrolled through Walnut Hill.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RezGlobe.

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