“I look upon the invention of the metronome as a welcome means of assuring the performance of my compositions everywhere in the tempi conceived by me, which to my regret have so often been misunderstood.” - Ludwig van Beethoven
Imagine Beethoven sitting in the balcony as you play the Ninth Symphony, shaking his head and saying “no, no, no” every time you stray from how he wants his monumental piece performed. That’s the vision conductor Benjamin Zander conjured up to ensure he would remain true to the composer.
One of the foremost interpreters of Mahler, the Grammy-nominated conductor has long harbored the dream of a fully realized interpretation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Brattle Media will release Zander’s recording of the Ninth with London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and The Philharmonia Chorus on July16, 2018.
In tech terms, Zander would be considered a disruptor, uprooting and changing the conventional thinking about what is arguably the most influential piece of music ever written. It is a role Zander, now approaching 80, has heartily embraced his entire career, “My whole life has revolved around creating new ventures and breaking through barriers and not being stopped by circumstances that seem to be insurmountable,” says the conductor and co-founder of both the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. “I don’t feel bound by tradition.”
The performance is sure to be provocative. Not for its own sake, but out of an impassioned commitment to seeking understanding from the score itself. Zander explains, “I understand that where I have come to in my quest to grasp this piece will be seen as radical, and that some will be upset by it.”
So as the question arises—why does the world need another recording of Beethoven’s Ninth when a Google search turns up no fewer than 150—Zander’s response is clear. “The vast majority of performances of the Ninth diverge quite significantly from what is written in the score. I have sought to unearth exactly what is written. For me, this study has proved to be revelatory. I hope people will be moved anew by the beauty and power of Beethoven’s vision, not because a conductor has slavishly followed those instructions, but because it reveals new evidence of his ‘unfettered genius,’” he says.
In large part, what makes Zander’s interpretation so radical is his faithful adherence to Beethoven’s indicated tempi. Like Beethoven, Zander believes tempo is “absolutely the central part of a musical interpretation.” And, thanks to a bit of disruptive 19th century technology—the metronome—we know exactly the pace at which the composer wanted passages played. Beethoven welcomed this helpful time machine, becoming the first to include metronome markings on his scores. Long frustrated by the limits of language to designate the tempo, he finally had a way to assure that his compositions would be played in perpetuity as he conceived them in 1824.
Or so the composer thought and Zander has spent nearly a half-century obsessed with studying and giving the world the version that, by all written indications, Beethoven appears to have heard in his mind. Zander refused to abandon his convictions about the correctness of his Beethoven interpretation when a famous conductor approached him at a party in the 80s to tell him he was absolutely wrong. Or when another illustrious maestro, after hearing Zander’s views over tea, abruptly left the table explaining he “could not be friends with someone with such radical ideas.” The two did not speak for many years.
For the recording’s discussion disc, the conductor lays out his interpretive justifications. Zander’s journey with the Ninth has uncovered remarkable details, Largely obscured in most available performances. Zander goes through each section of the score, including all of the symphony’s 14 tempi markings, and provides his rationale for every musical decision.
“The great Philharmonia orchestra and chorus could likely have recorded a standard modern-day version of the piece in one sitting, but we took three rehearsals and five recording sessions in order to break the habits of traditional performance,” said Zander. “Even then, certain passages stretched the players to their limits.” Zander’s most magical talent is an infectious energy that inspires people to achieve more than they thought they could.
By the time the microphones turned on and recording began, it had been proved to the musicians that everything Beethoven demanded was possible. The players were challenged in the Presto Trio and the March in the Finale, but nowhere else. The chorus found, to their amazement, that a piece they had always thought to be strenuous to sing became more comfortable and natural at Beethoven’s original speeds.
Confidence in leading large groups of people to change comes naturally to Zander both on and off the podium. A famous quote from his celebrated TED talk on the transformative power of music says it best: “One of the characteristics of a leader is that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming.”
Today, the TED talk has garnered nearly ten million views and the video is now available in 45 languages. His best-selling book “The Art of Possibility,” co-written with his former wife Rosamund Zander, has been translated into 17 languages. And his message about leadership and creativity is one that CEOs and world leaders have taken seriously. Organizations as disparate as McKinsey, Accenture, Pfizer, Disney and the U.S. Army have brought him in to lecture on leadership. He has given three keynote and closing addresses at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. These endeavors have given Zander a platform that reaches beyond music and have made him a sought after speaker on these subjects.
In support of this dimension, the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra recently launched the Benjamin Zander Center, an immersive new website that delivers free comprehensive access to the life work of this multifaceted artist. The site offers a vast array of Zander’s rare recordings, videos, talks, interviews and essays, many offered publicly for the first time. Equally important, the Center will give front row seats to his ongoing work in a series of continuing multimedia projects that showcase the conductor’s current pursuits in performance, education, and coaching. As cellist Yo-Yo Ma says: “Going with Ben is like going on a journey. And you either get on the train, or you get off the train!”
Zander truly relishes the opportunity to teach, and his work as an educator is at the heart of the website’s focus. “Conducting is all about teaching and leadership,” Zander notes. “Whether I’m talking to a group of business people from IBM or working with a youth orchestra, I’m teaching. The overarching theme is about illumination, about encouraging people to see the world in a richer, more full-blown, more emotionally satisfying way. With the Beethoven Discussion Disc, my aim is not just to give a little background, but actually help people listen to music more intently. I hope they will come away more educated, more sensitive, more aware and that they will take that to listen to other music.”
If possible, with age Zander’s enthusiasm, delight and curiosity are even more powerful. “I’m glad this took as long as it did. Right now is the perfect time for me personally and professionally. And not only for me, but also for the message of this music,” he explains. “Beethoven is expressing such profound gratitude for life and I want to bring that to the world where it is desperately needed.”
Following the recording sessions, the orchestra and chorus gave a live performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Colin Clarke of the classical music blog Seen and Heard praised Zander’s approach as “refreshing and thought-provoking,” and concluded, “The result certainly caused my eyebrows to raise, but that is all part of hearing the work anew.”
Realistically, Zander doesn’t expect people to toss out their old Ninth Symphony CDs or for orchestras to adopt only his way to play it. “This is about one glorious piece that represents the highest form that art can achieve and I've devoted a long time to bring it to the fullest fruition that I can,” he says. “My hope is that, as we go forward, the conversation will always be grounded in an appreciation for the seriousness with which Beethoven notated his scores. Our challenge as performers is to work as hard as we possibly can to realize the composer’s intent.”