BOSTON — Boston has a brand new youth orchestra. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) marks the return of world-renowned music educator and maestro Benjamin Zander after a controversial break with the New England Conservatory in January. Now Zander and many others are hoping to move forward with this new effort to give talented young musicians another outlet for performing.
At the BPYO’s first rehearsal in September, a small army of eager musicians filtered into a concert hall at the Franklin Institute in Boston’s South End. The little-known space is actually a replica of Symphony Hall, just one-third the size. They navigated their instruments through a forest of music stands, searching for their names printed large on sheets of white paper.
They are serious musicians. Twelve-year-old Ilana Zaks — the youngest musician in the hall — started playing when she was 3. She’s won a number of competitions, but this is her first position with a full orchestra.
“It’s great to be in an atmosphere with people who are so talented,” Zaks said.
The oldest musicians in the BPYO are 21. Some traveled from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine and even New Jersey to be here. To earn their spots they went through a rigorous audition and interview process. Over 150 tried out and 108 were accepted.
More than two dozen musicians used to play with Zander in the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and made the choice to follow him here.
“I would’ve followed him wherever he had gone,” said 16-year-old harpist Anna DeLois. She’s studied with Zander since she was 7.
“The thing about working with Mr. Zander is that it’s not just about music all of the time. I’ve learned so much about life from him. You learn how to be a better a musician, but I feel like you learn how to be a better person,” DeLois said. “Because it just inspires you wherever you go, and makes you think about things differently and think about art differently. It’s amazing. I’ve learned more from him than I’ve learned from any mentor in my life.”
DeLois is not alone in her thinking. Zander’s unique way of connecting has inspired a lot of loyal followers inside the music world, but also in the corporate world as a speaker on leadership. In his best-selling book, “The Art of Possibility,” Zander espouses what he calls “intelligent optimism,” which he’s shared with CEOs all over the world.
At rehearsal, the 73-year-old conductor bounced around the hall, greeting every young person he encountered. He wore sneakers, a white button-down shirt with black jeans and a big smile. Zander settled the room with a gentle “shhhh” and made note of the moment.
“Welcome to the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra,” he said warmly while peering out into the sea of focused faces. “Which didn’t exist before this minute, before you came here.”
Zander is starting this new youth orchestra because he lost his old one. The NEC fired him last January for negligence because he used a videographer who was also a registered sex offender. The lifelong conductor’s termination — after 45 years of teaching at the school — caused an emotional upheaval in the orchestra’s community and beyond. The way it was handled by both parties divided administrators, parents, alumni and students. And the effects still linger. At the podium Zander addressed the conflict with the young members of his new orchestra.
“In January, all of us thought there was nothing but bad news. But today I look at what I see in front of me and I say this is some of the best news I’ve ever seen,” Zander said. “So I want to ask you all to start thinking in a different way, from day one, from today, as members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.”
Zander went on to talk about the power of transformation, then shared something he feels very strongly about. “And fortunately we don’t have to look back,” Zander said. “Nobody wants to look back. We’re only looking forward.”
After going over some rules Zander took up his baton and led the orchestra through their first piece together: “Ein Heldenleben,” also known as “A Hero’s Life,” by Richard Strauss.
During a break in rehearsal Zander did something he really preferred not to do — look back.
“Well the tragedy for me was the thought that I wouldn’t be able to work with young people. I mean this is my joy, this is my life. But now here we are, we’ve got another orchestra,” Zander said. “And incidentally, this is not at the expense of anybody, because the NEC goes on and everybody goes on, and there’s room for all these things — the amazing pool of talent that there is — there’s no city in America like Boston.”
For its part, the NEC wants to move on, too. President Tony Woodcock was both praised and criticized for the firing. He declined an interview, but NEC public relations manager Ellen Pfeifer responded.
“We feel that we’ve come to the point having designated Mr. Zander a faculty emeritus, having received his letter of apology, that we’ve come to the final moment,” Pfeifer said. “This episode is done. Now we’re all moving on to the next thing which is in both cases to give the student musicians the best possible experience they can have.”
The NEC’s main youth orchestra, the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, has three conductors this season, along with a slate of concerts and a trip to Argentina planned. And while a significant number of musicians left to join the new BPYO, others stayed.
“I was there for the whole Ben Zander fiasco, the change in conductorship,” said 16-year-old violinist and composer Murray Skolnick. Taking a breath and shuffling a bit, he admitted that it was very unsettling. Like a lot of student musicians he felt conflicted. Skolnick said he learned a tremendous amount from Zander last year.
“I ended up choosing to stay with the NEC because I’ve been there so long and because I’ve learned so much and they’ve been really great to me for the past 10 years now. And I really wanted to remain loyal to them,” Skolnick said.
Skolnick misses his friends who did leave, but stays in touch via Facebook. It’s a sensitive topic and people are still wrestling with their feelings about what happened — Skolnick included. But this young musician is trying to see it from all sides.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really want to know exactly what was going on, but I think things have been handled to some extent and I think people moved past this and now we have… three great youth orchestras in Boston right now,” Skolnick said “It’s tremendous.”
The three youth orchestras include the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra; Zander’s new venture, which operates under the aegis of his “grown-up” orchestra, the Boston Philharmonic; and the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, which is affiliated with Boston University and will be working alongside the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the future.
But creating a third youth orchestra raises the question: Can Boston support them all — financially and artistically?
“Time will tell,” BSO managing director Mark Volpe said, calling the question fair. He acknowledged that he has some skin in the game, then followed up with a few questions of his own.
“How many great young players are there? Are there enough to fill out three orchestras?” Volpe asked.
Even with those concerns, Volpe believes the odds are good, especially in a musically fertile town like Boston.
“It should be about the kids,” Volpe added.
Because the children represent the future of classical music. That’s something everyone I interviewed for this story can agree on. And the kids get it too. Back at the first BPYO rehearsal, 17-year-old violinists Hikaru Yonezaki and Njeri Gervious could hardly contain themselves.
“From that first note, with the cellos coming in, the basses, you’ve got to admit, I mean, that would inspire anyone!” Gervious exclaimed. “Everyone just came alive, and we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re here!’ ”
“I feel like we’re making actual music again, that makes the audience feel like they’re with us too,” Yonezaki said. “That’s important. You need to convince the audience, and I think we’re going to make it.”
Gervious laughed and nodded optimistically, “Yea, I think so too.”
They’ll find out soon enough. The Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s first performance is Nov. 25 at Symphony Hall.