How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? If You're a Kid, Call Ben Zander

05/17/2016 05:42 pm ET Updated May 18, 2017

You're a kid.

You've been playing violin, or oboe, or flute, or whatever, since third grade.

Somehow, you enter the orbit of a conductor named Ben Zander.

And everything changes.

I mean, everything.

Ben Zander, 77 years young, conducts the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, the latter of which is preparing for a two-night stand at Carnegie Hall and then a six-concert voyage to Spain.

If you're one of the 127 kids lucky enough, or crazy enough, to fall under Maestro Zander's spell, you are learning so much music right now that you probably don't have time to think straight.
When most orchestras travel, they typically perform crowd pleasers -- familiar works of Beethoven or Rimsky-Korsakov that the orchestra can play on autopilot, the conductor can conduct in his sleep, and the audience finds hummable, if not exactly breathtaking.

That's not how things work in Zander World.

First, the Carnegie Hall gig is two nights, not just one. The programs are different each night. And they are exceptionally demanding, even for adults.

On Monday, June 6th, the kids will stare from the stage of a packed Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall and prepare to play Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla (at breakneck speed), Stravinsky's violin concerto, Debussy's La Mer, and Tchaikovsky's fifth symphony.

The next night, as if that wasn't enough music, or hard enough music, the kids will return to play Debussy, Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Mahler's first symphony.

"When I tell people about the programs I have chosen for the young people," Zander laughs, "they accuse me of child abuse."

They are not far wrong. These are long, difficult, demanding pieces. So why does Zander ask so much from kids?

"Because I know they'll come through," he says happily.

Zander is a force of nature, practically single-handedly shouldering the responsibility to select, audition, and conduct a large orchestral force made up of kids who might otherwise be playing Madden Mobile or hanging out at the mall.

Did I mention that Zander needs to raise nearly a million dollars -- $400,000 for the two nights at Carnegie Hall and another half million for Spain?

Did I mention that the tickets to both Carnegie Hall concerts are free, so that 5,600 people who don't normally get to attend classical concerts at Carnegie Hall will be able to do so?

That's how Zander rolls.

Or more accurately, that's how he navigates, taking a few moments on his new boat, on an afternoon when he could have been recovering from a cross-continental red eye flight, to discuss the upcoming concerts.

"I do all this because I like seeing the light going on in the eyes of young people," Zander asserts, as he steers around the shells of Harvard and MIT rowing teams.

"I ask so much of them because I know they can do it. It's also a lot of music for me to master."

Zander is particularly proud of the fact that a recent Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performance was described as the best classical concert of the entire Boston season.

"I think this is the best year of my life," Zander said.

Of this new boat, which he employs as a stress-buster, he says, "According to the actuarial tables, I will only be buying one more boat in my lifetime. My old boat was getting run down. So I thought, why not now?"

Those words, "Why not now?" sum up Zander's approach to music as an educational tool. He's not looking only to bring out the best in terms of his young charges' playing. He also wants to open their minds to the greater possibilities life offers.

Zander gives his young orchestra members weekly assignments unrelated to music that put them in touch with the whole idea of being alive -- what it all means, what one can expect, who one can truly be.

The growth the young people in the BYPO experience comes as much from Zander's pushing them to explore their inner worlds as it does from the music they make.

Do the kids feel overwhelmed by Carnegie Hall?

Zander dismisses the thought.

"I think acoustically, Symphony Hall is just as good as Carnegie Hall," Zander says, a touch of Boston chauvinism in his otherwise mellifluous English tone.

"You do think of the history when you first sit on that stage, but once you start playing, you forget where you are."

The young members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra will never forget where they were on the night of June 6th and June 7th, when Maestro Zander will lift the baton and launch them into those two challenging and compelling programs. Nor will they forget their Spanish excursion to follow.

"I just received $10,000 from the Madrid telephone company this morning," Zander adds with delight.

Ben Zander is raising a lot more than money. He's raising 127 young people to find out what they are capable of, with an instrument in their hands and with the even more powerful instrument that is their minds.

And if that doesn't bring down the house, nothing will.