Powerful Music in a Place of Possibility: A Conversation with Benjamin Zander on BPYO's 2023 South Africa Tour

// Photo courtesy of Liz Linder.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO), to learn more about BPYO’s upcoming tour to South Africa. The tour, which lasts from June 15 to June 24, features South African musicians such as the Gauteng Choristers, soprano Andiswa Makana, and mezzo soprano Bongiwe Nakani Mcetywa in addition to the BPYO’s very own musicians. Click here for more information about the tour.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

WHRB: Why was South Africa chosen as a tour destination for BPYO?

Benjamin Zander: It was a very interesting thing. We played the second symphony of Gustav Mahler, which is called the Resurrection Symphony, and it's the most powerful, most heaven storming piece of music in the entire orchestral repertoire. And one day Elizabeth Christensen, who is the managing director of the orchestra, said, "What would you think about taking the Mahler Second to South Africa?" And I suddenly realized that that was the perfect choice. I love South Africa—I've been many times. I wanted to take the orchestra there when Mandela was still alive because I knew him, and I wanted them to meet him. And there's something about South Africa which is unlike any other country. They faced an impossible situation, which was a small number of very powerful white people, living together with an enormous number of generally poorer black people. And when I was young, the assumption was that there would be a bloodbath in South Africa, and instead, because of Mandela and others, they found a new solution to be together in possibility, and it's a fantastic experiment that has been generally successful. There have been problems of all kinds, but I think it's the most successful, the joining together of two completely contrary cultures. And I wanted to share that with the young musicians and the piece that I wanted to bring them. It’s this incredible, marvelous symphony, the resurrection of sympathy which speaks of power, possibility, hope, joy, the brotherhood of man; everything is entailed in that work. There are 120 musicians on stage, plus the chorus of 230, plus the South African chorus and two black soloists. We're playing in Johannesburg, which hasn't heard this piece for 40 years. And we're playing it in Cape Town, and it's going to be an overwhelming experience for the audience, but also for the orchestra. I think this South African tour has the makings of a unique and great event. I mean it's the right place to be going right now.

WHRB: Can you tell us about the other pieces BPYO will be performing?

Benjamin: We're doing the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, which, of course, is the single most popular piece of music in the world. But it's not well-known in the form in which Beethoven conceived it. It's usually played in a much more grand and comfortable way than I do it. The reason I do it the way I do it is because I follow his tempo indications, which are generally very much faster than it's usually played. It has a driven, frantic quality to it which takes the world by the scruff of the neck and shakes it, and protests the inequities of life. It's a very dark first movement and very elegant second movement, a very thrilling third movement, and the last movement is the most triumphant music ever written by anybody for any situation. There's nobody who can resist the triumph of the last movement of the Fifth Symphony. So that's the first piece on the program, and the second piece is Ein Heldenleben of Strauss, “The Life of the Hero,” which is a piece not intended for youth orchestras at all. It's extremely difficult. One of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. And it's also about heroism. So these two pieces, the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven and the Strauss, are explorations of heroic nature. They're very different and very complementary, and I think it makes a wonderful program. We did it in November and Symphony Hall, and we're resuscitating it now.

WHRB: What is the preparation process like for a BPYO tour in general?

Benjamin: Well, the music first. We played the first program in November, and we played the second program in May. But not everybody is going on the tour who played the original performances. There are quite a number of new players coming in, so we have to rehearse, and we're rehearsing in this period very intensively every Saturday afternoon, just as we do during the year: four hours on Saturday afternoons from 2:30 until 6:30. And then, of course we have to find places to live for all the people who don't have homes here and can't go home, and people are generously opening their homes and letting the students live there, which is great. Then we have to prepare the main arrangements for the tour, which are done by Elizabeth Christensen, making all the arrangements of the connections, the hotels, the planes, the various venues. We're playing in Soweto in the afternoon and rehearsing in Johannesburg in the evening, and then we go back to Soweto. This is incredibly complicated with 130 people. And then, of course, there's the money—we have to raise the money, and I do very little else these days. So if anybody listening has an idea that they'd love to support this in some way, sending a check to the Boston Philharmonic at 236 Huntington Avenue in Boston would be the way to do it, or online.

WHRB: What are some ways that BPYO musicians are going to be able to interact with South African culture?

Benjamin: There are lots of examples. We're doing a side by side with 60 musicians from the University of Pretoria. Then we're doing an exchange side by side with 150 musicians from Soweto, and then we're doing an exchange side by side with musicians from the Cape Philharmonic Youth orchestra. We're doing a children's concert at the National Arts Festival. It's just amazing. This is in addition to the seven formal concerts. We're going do a lot with South African culture. I'm very excited about this. Not just the safari, but we're going to learn how to play South African music. There's quite a lot of new music by South African composers that we're going to play. And they're going to teach us the different South African drumming instruments, and it's going to be an eye-opener for many of them.

WHRB: And lastly, what part of this tour are you looking forward to the most?

Benjamin: I don't make distinctions like that—I'm looking forward to all of it. Because if you start saying “the most,” you're already in that downward spiral of expectations and disappointments, so I just embrace the whole thing, like life. So I don't measure anything. I live in possibility. In possibility, there are no measurements, so all experiences are great as they come at you, and you make what you can out of each one.

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