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‘This is a nightmare for all of us’

Conductor Zander reflects on his errors and his future after NEC

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 5, 2012
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The conductor, author, and inspirational speaker sits in the living room of his Brattle Street home, listening to what is being said about him:

That he, Benjamin Zander, showed no remorse. That he put children at risk. That New England Conservatory, his professional home for 45 years, had no choice other than to fire him.

Zander, usually overflowing with laughter and enthusiasm, wearily runs his hands through his frizzy white hair. He’s unhappy with himself and he’s unhappy with NEC’s leaders, who he feels rushed to judgment. He notes that when NEC president Tony Woodcock fired him last month, Woodcock hadn’t yet discovered that it was the school’s opera department - not Zander - who first hired videographer Peter Benjamin, a registered sex offender, to record performances by NEC students.

“It’s about as bad a situation as things can be,’’ Zander says.

These days, he’s left to contemplate the fallout of hiring Benjamin. Three upcoming paid speaking engagements have already been canceled.

Zander is also pained by the damage done to NEC, an institution dear to him.

“This is a nightmare for all of us,’’ he says. “I want us to all wake up and say, ‘What went wrong?’ ’’

Zander, 72, began teaching at NEC in 1966. He helped found the Boston Philharmonic in 1979, and, over the last two decades, has developed a profitable and high-profile gig giving leadership talks. Zander’s dynamic approach has been featured on “60 Minutes’’ and Charlie Rose, has scored him the opening speech at a World Economic Forum and, just last October, drew Sting to a rehearsal of NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in Brown Hall.

And he refuses to see only the dark side of his current situation. The mess has, he says, humbled and transformed him. Indignant at first, Zander has now publicly apologized for his lack of judgment.

The crisis, he says, allowed him to hear both the appreciative words from scores of parents, teachers, and musicians who feel NEC made a mistake in dismissing him, and the criticism from friends and family members who have helped him realize just how irresponsible it was to support Benjamin without knowing enough about the crimes.

His wife, Rosamund Zander, winces at his defensiveness in the immediate wake of the firing.

“It’s very difficult for the ego and psyche to transform when you’ve been beaten to a pulp,’’ she said. “He’s coming to a sense of responsibility or awareness that he hadn’t had before. But in order to get there, somebody came up with a two-by-four and smashed him.’’

It was about 20 years ago when the conductor, who led the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and taught NEC’s interpretation class, wrote a letter of support for Benjamin on the eve of the videographer’s sentencing for raping and sexually abusing teenagers. Benjamin had worked for Zander prior to his arrest.

He says he didn’t know the particulars of Benjamin’s crimes at the time and still didn’t 10 years later when he hired him to film concerts and rehearsals with the YPO or a class he taught at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, a preparatory school affiliated with NEC. He also did not tell his superiors what he did know about Benjamin, which is that the videographer had been jailed for sex crimes involving minors.

Benjamin underwent a rigorous rehabilitation program, according to his attorney, and has faced no new charges of a sexual nature since his release from prison in the late 1990s. He has not been accused of any misconduct at NEC, but Zander now concedes that it was irresponsible for him to put a Level II sex offender in the same room with the teens the conductor worked with at NEC and Walnut Hill.

NEC learned of Benjamin’s past just before Christmas, tipped off by a parent.

On Jan. 12, after weeks of investigation and consultation with the school’s board and attorneys, Woodcock called Zander into his office and told him he would need to resign or be fired. In the short meeting, Zander did not resign - or apologize.

“I was staggered,’’ said Woodcock. “It didn’t show any culpability. It reinforced the notion of no judgment whatsoever. If somebody is demonstrating no judgment, how can they be responsible for children?

Zander’s firing also has raised questions about NEC’s approach. Why wasn’t he suspended so the school could take more time investigating his role? Did the climate surrounding the Pennsylvania State University scandal, in which legendary football coach Joe Paterno was dismissed after revelations of child sex abuse by a former assistant, drive NEC’s actions?

“What Ben did was obviously a failure of judgment, but I would think in the interest of the school they would have tried hard to define his role and see if anything was salvageable,’’ said composer John Harbison, a friend of Zander’s who believes he should not have been fired. “They’ve not opened any channel to any possible reconciliation.’’

The conductor now says he was extremely naive. He had no idea that his job was at risk at any point, not when NEC first asked him about Benjamin in December, nor when the school phoned him in London during a recording session a few weeks later to ask more questions.

Benjamin’s NEC work, in fact, stretched far beyond Zander. In the school’s video library, there is a rack of almost two dozen DVDs commissioned by the school’s Opera Department. Two of the videos predate Zander’s hiring of Benjamin and one, a 2002 production of “Hansel and Gretel,’’ features two dozen middle-school students who performed as part of a children’s chorus.

At no time did NEC ever do a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) check on Benjamin, now standard practice for schools. It was a failure on NEC’s part, Woodcock said, and an important lesson.

“It’s like air travel before 9/11 and air travel after 9/11,’’ he said. “We are in a new world as an organization. I think I need to know absolutely who is under the roof of NEC at any given moment. So I accept responsibility for that.’’

Though NEC had a committee investigate Benjamin’s work, Woodcock was unaware, when asked last week, of the 2002 opera videos. A day later, he said a faculty member, whom he declined to name, hired Benjamin without knowledge of his sexual crimes. The charges against the videographer included his having secretly videotaped himself having sex with three male teens, one of whom he abused for two years starting when the boy was 13.

“If I come to learn otherwise, I will take appropriate action,’’ said Woodcock.

Zander finds it hard to believe that others didn’t know of Benjamin’s past. Whether filming for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, American Repertory Theater, or Boston Ballet, Benjamin was well known in Boston’s cultural community. He was particularly close with the late Sarah Caldwell, the legendary head of Opera Company of Boston.

In fact, Caldwell not only attended his 1994 sentencing hearing, she sobbed in court when he was led away, Benjamin confirmed through his attorney, John Swomley.

“If [Woodcock] had just stepped back, if he had acted judiciously and said, ‘Let’s look at this. Let’s see what’s going on here,’ ’’ Zander says. “Peter Benjamin, for better or worse, is part of the fabric of the Boston artistic scene. He’s worked everywhere, and he’s worked so much at the conservatory that when he walks in the door, people don’t even look up. Who knew? Who didn’t know? It didn’t seem to matter.’’

Woodcock says Zander left him little choice.

He called the conductor a “powerhouse’’ in an interview last week and said he was familiar with his work before coming to NEC having attended one of his leadership talks and read the book Zander wrote with his wife, Rosamund, “The Art of Possibility.’’

But relations between the two grew strained after Woodcock was hired in 2007. Neither Woodcock nor Zander would say why.

In fact, Zander had already been forced out of YPO. Last summer, NEC announced a “transition’’ plan for the youth orchestra that saw Zander stepping down in 2013, after two more seasons. Publicly, the two presented a unified front, with Zander’s exit to be punctuated by a yearlong celebration, tour and lifelong appointment as music director emeritus. Zander says now he didn’t want to leave but had no choice.

Woodcock, in an interview last week, said that the conductor’s prominence did not play into the decision to fire him for the Benjamin case and that Zander should not have received special treatment.

“I don’t know about one set of rules for individuals because they’re visiting deity and another code of conduct because they’re like you and I,’’ he said.

The loss of the post, for Zander, was crushing. He says that he has always taken special pride in his work with the youth in the YPO on Saturdays and at Walnut Hill on Mondays.

“It’s growth and development for the next generation,’’ he said. “That’s my life’s work.’’

Just last summer, Zander took the YPO on a tour of Eastern Europe. To help foot the bill, Zander says he paid $260,000 out of his own pocket - money raised through speaking fees. Players have been writing Zander since news broke.

“You CANNOT leave us! You MUST come back!’’ e-mailed Njeri Grevious, 16, a violinist from Newton.

Kathleen Boyd, first flute in the Boston Philharmonic and a student of the conductor at NEC in the 1970s, said Zander’s firing has sparked considerable anger and fear among the many musicians who studied under him.

“Ben should be celebrated for the gifts he has given to all of us,’’ she said. “This is such a wrong ending for his time at NEC.’’

Carol Ehrlich, whose son Harry, 15, plays cello in the YPO, felt NEC should have reprimanded Zander, not fired him. She praised the conductor for the care he takes in mentoring young musicians.

“The kids don’t just play music. He encourages them to see music as making up a bigger statement in the world,’’ she said. “Now they feel abandoned and hurt. Through this process, the kids came in last.’’

Not everyone associated with the YPO supports Zander.

“You do realize that he was basically promoting a level II sex offender this whole time, right?’’ wrote one player on a Facebook thread after another suggested protesting NEC’s move.

And a parent of a player said she agreed with the firing.

“I think that was the exact correct response,’’ said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear her child would lose opportunities in the music community if she criticized Zander. “He was a huge celebrity, he could be extremely grandiose and he seems to me to be failing in judgment.’’

If there is a bright spot here, says Zander, it is how this crisis has changed him.

The first week was spent battling his feelings and avoiding reality.

He took refuge from the reporters camped outside by heading to his daughter’s house. He threw on a suit, a tie, and a smile and gave a paid talk at a leadership conference for Boston Scientific as if nothing had happened. He managed to get word of his crisis to Rosamund, who was in Africa climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

His older brother, Michael, a celebrated legal scholar from England, flew in to counsel him. He felt Zander wasn’t taking responsibility for his hiring of Benjamin and should apologize. So did former US Ambassador Swanee Hunt, a close friend and neighbor.

“I said, ‘Ben, for you, the first response has to be what my part is, not what they did to me,’ ’’ she told him.

A week after he was fired, Zander began to open up. That, he says, is when the transformation began.

First, Rosamund returned home from Africa. The two have been separated since 1984, but they talk every day, live around the block from each other, and collaborated on the book and inspirational philosophy that have made Zander a world-renowned public speaker.

She stressed how inappropriate it was to bring a convicted sex offender, whose crimes involved video no less, into a school to film children.

Then Michael came down for breakfast one morning with a typed letter explaining two approaches. The first would be to accept that his actions were “grossly negligent.’’ The second would be to continue justifying his behavior.

“The reason I think the first approach will serve you better is that it is cleaner and more honourable,’’ Michael wrote. “Taking the blame on yourself will release you from blaming others. It will release you also from endless agonizing over the question and from wondering and fearing what other people think. . . . You will have stood up and been counted.’’

At that moment, Zander says his perspective shifted. He finally understood what he had done. That is when he sat down to write his apology.

Last Thursday night, Zander returned to the Boston Philharmonic for the first time since the scandal. The orchestra, he says, is all he has left.

On this night, with the more than 80 some players gathered at the Somerville Armory for a rehearsal, Zander gave a short speech. He repeated his apology and spoke of how much he regretted bringing Benjamin into NEC. He then assured the players that the Boston Philharmonic was a separate entity.

“It’s been very tough, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life,’’ he said. “But I’ve grown enormously.’’

With that, the conductor raised his arms and signaled the start to Richard Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben.’’ It was a typically energetic performance. He shook his arms until his glasses slipped down his nose, stomped his right leg and sang along with the music as he offered instruction.

During the first break, Zander hugged principal horn player Whitacre Hill.

“A big relief that this is still here,’’ said Hill, a veteran of the recently defunct Opera Boston.

Zander talked of the Boston Philharmonic board’s support during the crisis. Then he wiped the sweat from his forehead and smiled.

“You can’t lie with your body, and you can’t lie with your eyes,’’ he said. “It’s great to be back.’’

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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