NEC Cuts Zander Loose

An associated Press article from 1/12/2012 reports that the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) announced that it had removed Benjamin Zander from all positions associated with the school. What brought additional attention to the issue was the information provided by NEC that it “had disciplined a faculty member who retained a videographer he knew was a registered sex offender to record rehearsals and performances of preparatory school students over the past decade.”

The following day, Norman Lebrecht jumped on the story and has since published three articles that suggest there’s much more going on than some sort of Penn State football sexual abuse clone. According to public comments from Zander, he believes the real reason he was dismissed was due to disagreements with NEC president Tony Woodcock; excerpts from Zander’s statement are available in Lecrecht’s 1/15/2012 blog post.

Lebrecht’s most recent article on this from 1/16/2012 poses seven questions directly to NEC’s Woodcock. According to Lebrecht, it appears that NEC may be attempting to keep Zander under wraps by associating him with lapsed responsibility regarding a sex offender. Two of the seven questions focus directly on those points:

3 Why, after privately ending his contract, did you then link him in public to the presence of a former  – indeed, reformed – sex offender who was employed at rehearsals?

4 Were you aware that the offence took place 21 years ago, that the offender is fully rehabilitated, and that raising the issue now is both morally dubious and legally contestable under statutes of limitations?

I asked NEC’s public relations department if the conservatory and/or Woodcock have responded to Lebrecht’s questions but have yet to receive a reply, however, if one comes in at any point after the article is published, it will be posted in an update.

Update, 11:00am, 1/17/2012: I received a reply to my inqury from Karen Schwartzman, a crisis and reputation management public relations specialist. She provided the following statement:

I’m serving as spokesperson for the New England Conservatory on the matter involving the sex offender who was engaged to videograph the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and certain other programs at the Conservatory.

You asked whether we had put out a statement commenting on the posting on Ben Zander’s website. We have not.

Non-profit organizations don’t typically retain the services of a crisis management consultant lightly; consequently, the heightened defensive posture is a potential indication that the story is far from over. And for the sake of clarity, my original inquiry to NEC asked if the conservatory and/or Tony Woodcock has released a statement or replied to the questions from Norman Lebrecht’s “Seven Questions” article, not the posting on Ben Zander’s website. 

Lastly, on 1/16/2012 the Boston Globe published a letter written by Zander to the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, which presents his perspective on events.

For those who may be unaware, Zander is a well known conductor with ties to the Knight Foundation and a popular TED talk from 2008. He was also involved in helping bring about attention to the El Sistema program that subsequently launched it into an international spotlight.

Full Disclosure

In 2005, Zander invited me to take part as an observer during the New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra’s tour to Caracas, Venezuela where they were integrated into the then, relatively unknown El Sistema program. My travel and lodging were provided and I published a quartet of articles at Neo Classical about my observations shortly after returning from the trip.

Following that experience, I’ve maintained a casual but very amicable relationship with Zander and think highly of him and his work.

In the end, it will be worth keeping an eye on this situation from the standpoint of determining whether or not there is any validity to Zander’s initial claims that he was dismissed due to disagreements with NEC’s Woodcock. This could very well turn out to be a tremendous case study in process and authority.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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0 thoughts on “NEC Cuts Zander Loose”

    • Good question; undoubtedly, the stigma of the conviction is something not likely to be lived down but what’s particularly fascinating here are the additional details that continue to emerge and the fact that Zander was the only person to contract his services at the university. I guess we’re all going to have to stay tuned…

  1. @ Lisa, the BP is an amateur orchestra. Why is he lauded as a genius and a Mahler expert? The situation with Woodcock is one factor, that he hired a known sex offender convicted of child rape AND of videotaping naked children and such in acts with himself another. The latter is grounds on NEC’s legal responsibility for dismissal. I’m still wondering why someone with no professional credits is trumpeted as a genius who should be allowed to put children’s safety at risk. Given his past for pedophilic videotaping, I’d be creeped out as a parent of a child he taped. He has really made the most of his “career,” and makes $40,000 every time he gives a one-hour speech. I witnessed one when I was in graduate school, scraping by with a $120 performance that night. What did he say? Not much, but the one-percenters were sure blown away by his ivory-tickling.

    The pressing question is, why did all these Boston Brahmin, including Zander, support the videographer as character witnesses at his child rape trial? Is he someone’s son or special friend? Does he have dirt on someone? There are plenty of places he could ply his trade that don’t involve kids. And there are videographers who don’t have a child rape conviction.

  2. The BP is described on its web site as including amateur, student, and professional musicians – my recollection of it from the 1970s was that it was an orchestra of freelance pros at the time, but my recollection could certainly be wrong.

    I also remember, and this I would stand by, that at the time he was considered an interesting conductor with a fresh take on many works in the standard rep. I never attended any of their concerts and can’t speak directly to this.

    Blair, I don’t see anything above about Zander’s musical skills (or alleged skills) being used to justify his hiring Peter Benjamin – is that in Lebrecht, or elsewhere? Of course the two are orthogonal.

    • Most stories include the words “world-renowned” or “genius.” I take this as a defense as to why he’s valuable to NEC. I would assume Zander set up the BP to further or start his conducting ambitions and took whatever showed up.

      Yet barring the blurry definition of the BP, his bio does not list him as having conducted any professional orchestra other than the London recording. It appears he’s made a big self-constructed image in Boston…but many fresh, exciting other conductors who would not put kids in jeopardy are lined up to take his place. His reputation as “genius” over-ruling the safety of kids is where I’ve got a problem, especially when he clearly has almost no professional credentials.

      And hey, thanks for adding “orthogonal” to my vocabulary, a new one for me!

    • I used to play in the Boston Philharmonic in the early 1980s. All the winds, brass, and percussion, and many of the string players were paid. The musicians’ union was not happy about the orchestra because it didn’t pay scale, but it was far above the level of an amateur orchestra player-wise. Much of the success of the group had to do with the quality of the players.

      I also played in Ben’s youth orchestra when I was in high school. His real strength, I believe, is his ability to give musical purpose to young people. He made a World of difference for me because he took me seriously as a musician, and he was able to identify and motivate people to make music at a really high level–one much greater than the sum of its parts.

  3. OK. Am I the only one to have been at Zander’s sometimes amazing performances? I recall one opening of Verdi Requiem which essentially created order out of silence. Also many Mahler performances when such exploits were “fresh”. First attempts at using Beethoven’s metronome marksin performance and a brilliant discussion of Romeo and Juliet using a youth ensemble.

    I am finding the discussion of whether he conducted a professional orchestra on a regular basis somewhat tiresome and besides the point. He has made significant and important music with every ensemble he has led.

    This is not the first time that Zander has been fired, by the way. Many years ago he was jettisoned by the board of the Boston Civic Symphony. The orchestra members elected to leave en mass in protest and form the Boston Philharmonic under his direction.

    How often does THAT happen?

  4. Ben Zander is simply an amazing musician who did not follow a typical career path of trying to get increasingly more famous and paid as much as he could stuff in to his pockets. In fact, he truly didn’t care about conducting professional groups as he found their music making sometimes too routine an the the players closed minded and he invented novel ways to trying to break that routine. Kurt Masur is one of his ardent admirers and told the Israel Philharmonic they ought to hire him. They indeed did so as they certainly didn’t subscribe to the industries tradition of doing only what managements in NY tell them to do.
    Not only was he met with great success but he was invited back regularly by the players who run the group. He loves making music with people who love making music and that they are kids or adult amatures doesn’t make a difference.
    Please don’t be naive in believing that someone couldn’t be fired for no good reason nowadays.
    I say this as someone who has worked with him both as a student and a pro.

    • Do you have any verifiable evidence of this Blair? If not, please know that these sorts of assertions violate Adaptistration’s comment policy and are subject to being removed.

      As a reminder to everyone, there’s a fine line between opinion and defamation; add to that the sensitive nature of this topic, and it is in everyone’s best interest to behave in exemplary fashion when expressing concerns and/or making points.

  5. I am a member of the NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (Zander’s youth orchestra). For me, Zander was nothing but inspirational. Playing concerts with him made one feel like a true professional playing sacred music. Playing the Mahler’s 9th in Vienna at the Musikverein was the greatest experience I have had in my life. You all know nothing about this man, and yet you talk as if you have seen all the work he does. Instead of being completely obtuse and ignorant, come to a YPO rehearsal and see how good we are, and how much we love Zander. Regardless of the polotics between Woodcock’s vendetta against Zander, all I see here are assholes jealous of Zander.

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