Benjamin Zander Sees Beethoven's Ninth in a New Light

Photo courtesy of Hilary Scott.

Conductor Benjamin Zander is known for his energetic passion for sharing classical music with the world. WHRB spoke with him last week ahead of his two upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the first being this Friday, February 24th at Boston Symphony Hall, and the second on Sunday, February 26th at Carnegie Hall. Now, in his 50th year of conducting, Zander is reinterpreting the piece by having a flexible approach to Beethoven’s tempo markings while still using them as a guide, thus combining two opposite opinions in the heated debate concerning the composer’s tempo markings.

Tickets are sold out for the 2/24 performance in Boston, but you can purchase tickets for the 2/26 Carnegie Hall livestream performance here.

Also, be sure to check out the the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra's March 10 concert, in which Zander will be conducting the day after his 84th birthday! In-person and livestream tickets for this performance can be found here.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

WHRB: I think a lot of people are familiar with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because of “Ode to Joy.” How did you first get introduced to this symphony?

Benjamin Zander: Every musician knows the Ninth Symphony. It's the most important piece of music ever written. And so it's part of our culture. It's part of our life. It's part of our history. And so I've known it since I was a child, and it had a huge impact on me as a child, and it's a very, very powerful piece of music. I've been conducting it for 45 years, and doing it in many different circumstances, including in Carnegie Hall 40 years ago, and now I’m going back with the same orchestra and the same chorus to sing and perform the piece again. So then the question is, why would I go back with the same piece 40 years later? The answer is I’ve been wrestling with the piece for all that time, 45 years. And when I did it for the first time in Carnegie Hall, the New Yorker Magazine wrote an article, and they said, “If Mr. Zander is right, we've been listening to the music of the greatest composer only in misrepresentation.” So they were very struck by the way I did it because I followed Beethoven's tempo markings, which he felt very strongly about. He felt everybody should follow his tempo markings, and most people don’t. So I was actually the first person to perform it in Carnegie Hall with those tempo markings. Caused quite a sensation, here too, in Boston. Now I've come 40 years later with a new message which is, “Yes, we have to follow the metronome marks, but not rigorously.”

WHRB: As you said, you've spent many years with this piece. Whether you're conducting it or teaching it in a masterclass, do you find something new every single time you work with it?

Benjamin: Well, yes, I do. It's interesting. I keep working on it in all my spare moments, and when I wake up early in the morning, or I go to bed late at night, and funnily enough, the score of the Beethoven 9 seems to be beside me. I don’t know why it is that it keeps revealing its truth and its beauties. It does so reluctantly. It makes life difficult for the performer, because there are so many quandaries, so many questions. Yes, I think I find new things all the time, and not only that, but I constantly rethink how I'm going to do something. I just wrote a letter to the cello section and the viola section. I said, please don't hold back in this bar, because we need to move all the way through to the end of it so that we can maintain the tempo. So I’m constantly working with the music, keeping it alive, keeping interest. And it’s a very exciting performance. It’ll keep everybody at the edge of their chairs.

WHRB: I saw an interesting quote on your website that reads, "I realized my job is to awaken possibility in others." So how do you "awaken possibility" in experienced musicians playing a piece like Beethoven's Ninth, which is already so familiar to them? Is it challenging?

Benjamin: Now that’s a wonderful question. That is a description of leadership. The thing is that the old style of leadership is top down and hierarchical. The leader makes the people follow his will. What I realize is, since the conductor doesn't make a sound, he has power power but the power comes from making other people powerful. That's the job of the conductor, to make the players feel free and liberated, and I do it in lots of different ways. So I’m in the empowerment business. That's my life's work. And Beethoven is the greatest ally I could have because he's the most powerful empowerer the world has ever known. He teaches us so much about life, and about how to deal with difficult situations. He was a musician who was deaf, and he was ill, and he was old, and he was having all sorts of problems. Yet he wrote a piece which is the most optimistic, most affirmative, most glorious statement of hope that the world has ever been given, and it affects everybody around the world. The whole piece is about the glory of being human.

WHRB: Was there an exact turning point when you altered your perspective on the tempo, or is this something that happened gradually?

Benjamin: On my website is the recording of the Ninth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. On that recording, you’ll hear Beethoven’s Ninth played according to his metronome marks. But after that was finished, I asked, “If Beethoven was sitting at the piano playing, would he play this way?” And the answer is no. Because an individual musician playing on the piano would have much more freedom than we will bring into it. I'll give you one example. It's actually not from the Ninth Symphony; it's from the Eroica Symphony. It begins with two big chords with the whole orchestra. If you play the main theme at Beethoven's tempo, the chords will be too quick! So I imagine Beethoven sitting at the piano and playing the chords and main theme at two different tempos because when he played the piano, he played very freely. So at that moment I realized I had a new path to go. I could choose when the tempo could relax, and when the tempo could move back. But I still believe that he was right and correct to insist that he had the tempi right in his markings. So this is a very exciting moment. It’s rigor with maximum flexibility. And the best life is led that way, isn’t it?

WHRB: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Benjamin: Well, you know, it's very interesting. I'm turning 84 and you'd think I'd be tired of doing what I've been doing for the last 50 years, and I could not be more excited about it. I have never been more excited than I am right now, at my age, which is a good piece of news for young people like you.

Click here for our conversation with Liv Redpath '14, who will be performing as the soprano soloist in both performances.

// Hillary Jean-Gilles '25 is a producer and staff writer for the Classical Music Department.