TEDxBoston 2009

Benjamin Zander

Creating Hemispheric Unity through the Arts

How bringing together young, energetic musicians in the pursuit of excellence and the celebration of cultural diversity can serve as a powerful model for creating unity and catalyzing social change.



Zander started his early musical training in his native England with cello and composition lessons under the guidance of his father. When he was nine, Benjamin Britten took an interest in his development and invited the family to spend three summers in Aldeburgh with him. This led to a long association with Britten and lessons in music theory and composition from Britten’s close associate Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav Holst.

Zander left school when he was fifteen, moving to Florence at the invitation of the Spanish cello virtuoso Gaspar Cassadó, who became his teacher and mentor for the next five years. He completed his cello training at the State Academy in Cologne, traveling extensively with Cassadó and performing recitals and chamber music.

In 1964, Zander completed a degree at University College London (part of the University of London), winning the University College Essay Prize and a Harkness Commonwealth Fellowship for postgraduate work at Harvard. Boston has been his home ever since.

In 1967, Zander joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he teaches an Interpretation Class and conducts the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and the conservatory orchestras. During his 32-year tenure as conductor of the Youth Philharmonic, he has led the orchestra on 12 international tours and released five commercial recordings as well as several PBS documentaries. In addition to his work at NEC, Zander is the artistic director of the New England Conservatory at Walnut Hill program at the renowned Walnut Hill School, where he teaches a weekly master class.

In 1979, he became the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he still holds. Their extensive repertoire includes an emphasis on late Romantic and early 20th-century composers, especially the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, of whose work he has become a notable interpreter. With the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, Zander has released five critically acclaimed recordings of works by Stravinsky, Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich and Ravel. Among the many accolades and high praise, Classic CD magazine awarded the Boston Philharmonic’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring the highest rank of all available recordings of the work, and of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, (produced by Dominic Reeves), American Record Guide wrote: “This joins the Rattle and the two Bernstein recordings as the finest on record…All the glory to Zander and his semi-professional orchestra, for the sixth is probably Mahler’s most difficult and complex symphony…All things considered, when I reach for a recording of the sixth to play for my own pleasure, it will most likely be this one.” To celebrate the orchestra’s 25th Anniversary in 2003-4, the BPO completed a nearly all-Mahler season, including a concert of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Carnegie Hall.

Zander is currently (as of 2006) recording a series of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London for the Telarc label. Each of his recordings includes a full-length discussion disc in which he explains the music. High Fidelity magazine named his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 as the best classical crossover recording of 2002. His recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 was awarded the 2004 Critic’s Choice by the German Record Critic’s Award Association, his recording of Mahler’s 9th Symphony was nominated for a Grammy Award, and his most recent release, Bruckner’s 5th Symphony (with the London Philharmonia) has been nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award.

On 19 July 2006 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Leeds Metropolitan University. On 17 May 2009 he received another from New England Conservatory as he conducted the Boston Philharmonic and New England Conservatory/Tufts University choirs at Symphony Hall in Boston.