Slings and arrows are the diva's daily diet, but this took the cake. Into the law office charged the first lady of the Erfurt Opera, demanding a libel action against the local critic. "This fool! This nincompoop!" she cried. "He writes that I can't sing the Queen of the Night! If he thought I could sing the Queen of the Night, I wouldn't be in Erfurt! I'd be in Vienna!"
Benjamin Zander, who tells this tale, got it from his father, who witnessed it as a young attorney in Germany. The British-born son, who at 60 keeps a schedule to exhaust three 20-year-olds, knows better than most the folly of applying irrelevant standards. As a founding conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra—not to be confused with Seiji Ozawa's spit-and-polish Boston Symphony Orchestra—he has for the past two decades played guiding spirit to an ensemble second to none in its dedication and ambition. Its composition is singular, too, embracing, in roughly equal thirds, professional musicians, students and amateurs. "The professionals set the standard," Maestro Zander explains. "The students make it a training orchestra. The amateurs are a reminder that music is an act of love."
The Boston Philharmonic's house gods are Beethoven and Mahler, whose monumental 90-minute Symphony No. 8 the musicians brought to Carnegie Hall on January 19. In addition to well over 100 instrumentalists, the assembled multitudes included eight soloists, two adult choirs, a boys' choir, and a girls' choir—for a grand total of about a third the number of musicians promised by the work's purely symbolic nickname, "The Symphony of a Thousand." Performances are rare. As usual, this one reportedly attracted a handful of the faithful from as far off as the West Coast and Hong Kong. Merrill Lynch, the corporate sponsor, filled another 150 seats.
Mr. Zander's stock with the Fortune 500 and government entities, including NASA and the Army, is high. In a sideline that has won him the attention of network television, he appears before corporate crowds and international leaders as a motivational speaker. His gospel—invariably illustrated through music, culminating in a sing-along of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"—has to do with the shift from a win-lose/right-wrong "downward-spiral" mentality to a mentality of "radiating possibilities." He reveals the all-important Rule No. 6: "Don't take yourself so goddamn seriously." Along the way, he also convinces his listeners that classical music is meant for everyone, even for people who are sure it's not for them. Take my neighbors at Carnegie Hall. Definitely out-of-towners, probably Merrill Lynch employees or invitees, they warmed up for the concert with excited chat about their coming evenings on the town at jazz clubs and "Kiss Me, Kate." Ninety minutes later, they were asking where to find the Mahler bin at the nearest Tower Records.
For listeners like these, are for the performers, the evening was clearly a peak experience—and, as such, a moving event to behold. Yes, suspicious critics feel duty-bound to interject, but how did the concert stack up against the best the world has to offer?
A win-lose, downward-spiral question if ever there was one, but why not answer in a spirit of radiating possibilities? Despite some whiplash accents, the grandiloquent setting of the Latin hymn "Veni, creator spiritus," which makes up the first movement, emerged as a far more dulcet, infinitely less strident affair than customarily. The second and final movement, which takes as its text the arcane, ecstatic concluding pages of Goethe's "Faust," progressed from whispers and shadows to a mystic blaze. Other Mahlerites like to illuminate the Master's pages phrase by phase, touch by touch. Instead, Mr. Zander carried the music forward on an arc less weighty than it can be but also steadier and more fleet.
Without the talent pool of Vienna to draw from, he fielded in Ellen Chickering a soprano with an unlimited arsenal of bull's-eye high C's (with a shimmering, quiet one in reserve for last). And Adam Klein, a former boy soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, stopped one's breath with his lyric prayer to the Virgin, spun out in a sweet, quiet falsetto, yet cresting in a high A-flat sung ringingly from the chest.
"The Energizer Bunny of classical music," Morley Safer called Mr. Zander recently on "60 Minutes," and later, "the Martha Stewart of the boardroom." True enough, he has evolved into something like an industry. This month, perhaps somewhat to his own surprise, he delivered the keynote address to the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. The book "The Art of Possibility," in which he shares authorship with his wife, Rosamund Stone Zander, is due shortly from the Harvard Business School Press. (Though the Zanders' intellectual partnership remains close, husband and wife have been living under separate roofs for years.) The Zander discography—featuring the Boston Philharmonic (on the Carlton label) and the professional Philharmonia Orchestra, of London (on Telarc)—continues to grow. His Mahler Ninth, three Telarc CDs for the price of one, includes not only a full-length introduction but also a full-color facsimile of two pages of the conductor's heavily marked score, with beat patterns for fledgling conductors. The package has been nominated for a Grammy.
Mr. Zander sums up his activities in a phrase simpler than either of Mr. Safer's: "I am a teacher." No one in his "classes" needs to worry about looking ridiculous. Mr. Zander gives all his students an A in advance. "Only when you give somebody an A," he reasons, "can you tell the truth." Truths like this one: "You're a genius viola player and a child in relationships." He also applauds his audiences. "Why am I applauding?" he once asked a children's group. "Because," a wise child answered, "we are listening."
A teacher, in short, who—whether in the classroom of in the concert hall—inspires devotion a notch or two above the norm. "The whole performance," a Boston critic declared on one memorable occasion, "left you feeling as though you had been struck by lightning—dazzled, with all your molecules rearranged." What, I had to ask, does it feel like to read such a tribute?
"Out of context, it sounds ridiculous," Mr. Zander rejoined with amiable composure, hastening to explain. The concert in question had built to a symphonic rendition of Stravinsky's ballet "Petrouchka," played, in a historic first, with supertitles, so the audience could follow the story of the lovelorn carnival puppet with the human heart. Clowns were on hand in the hall to add to the festive atmosphere. Hardly your average evening at the symphony.