Famous conductor awakens possibility on and off stage

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With his brow creased in concentration, maestro Benjamin Zander wielded his conductor’s baton like a wand, and cast a spell over the riveted audience at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards on Sunday night.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Sep 12, 2019

Together, he and the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra didn’t just perform, they offered a lesson in leadership and possibility.

The English-born octogenarian is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, a master teacher, and an internationally renowned speaker on leadership. He was awarded the SAA Voyager Special and Extraordinary Award for his work as one of the world’s most celebrated conductors.

Although slated as the gala evening’s entertainment, Zander made it clear it was an “exploration”, not a concert. “I met the orchestra yesterday for an hour, and we prepared something,” he said. “Now, however, I want to investigate. I want to see an orchestra play without a conductor.”

After the young musicians performed the final movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony without his guidance, Zander explained what a conductor brings to an orchestra. “This is a lesson for chief executives who believe that their companies cannot function without them” he said.

Speaking of his role as being to “awaken possibility in other people and empower them”, he directed the playing of each section of the orchestra successively. Starting with the cellos, he afforded each instrumental section the chance to express its role in the piece of music, gradually adding to it the other six “voices” of the orchestra. In this way, he guided each musician in their role, maintaining an individual identity while being part of a collective.

“The energy and passion are theirs,” he said. “The power is theirs. It’s in them. My job is to bring it out. I do that by instilling in them confidence, love, and passion, and by letting them express what it is they want to express. It’s in all of us. The same is true in life.”

He explained that this concept of harmony in individuality was embodied by the late Nelson Mandela, whom Zander had the opportunity to meet on an earlier visit to South Africa. “I explained to him that symphonia is the sounding together of all the voices. I told him, ‘You did not lead one party against another, but listened for all the voices and led the whole orchestra.’ A broad smile broke out on his face, and he said, ‘I like that.’”

As the exercise progressed, a mistake was made by one of the musicians who entered too early. Instead of overlooking or lamenting it, Zander used the opportunity to explain another dimension of his philosophy. “We can always get upset at mistakes, but then it’s likely to happen again. If somebody makes a mistake, you need to go, ‘How fascinating!’ and make the most of it.

“A mistake can cause people to smile. This is a lovely thing, but usually mistakes cause people to be fearful, and when they’re fearful, they close down. When they do, they’re more likely to make a mistake. If you encourage them instead, they can do better.”

Zander said it all came down to making people’s eyes shine. “Most people measure success by their wealth, fame, or power,” he said. “I measure success by how many shining eyes I have around me. If I see shining eyes, I’ve succeeded. If that’s your aim, then life unfolds from one joyous encounter to another.”

Zander’s lesson in the technique of possibility culminated with the performance of the final section of the movement. Although an extremely challenging piece to play, eyes were shining on stage and off as the talented young musicians raised their voices together and delivered a moving rendition of the piece. Their extraordinary performance received a well-deserved standing ovation, and Zander joined the audience in applauding the remarkable talent on stage.

It was with shining eyes of his own that the acclaimed musician accepted his award later that evening. Zander expressed thanks for the recognition, and said his visit had served a dual purpose.

“I left my own orchestra unattended for the first time in 50 years to bring a message of possibility to South Africa,” he said. “Possibility means to be a leader wherever you are. It means to bring joy, energy, and love to all that you do. Every time you open your mouth, you have the choice to speak in possibility.”

He paid tribute to South Africa’s potential, recognising that there are terrific challenges ahead, but stressing that they weren’t insurmountable. “Don’t ever forget the extraordinary vision of South Africa, a country of different races living in harmony, “he said. “Beethoven and Schiller expressed it so well: all human beings will be as brothers.”

Zander concluded, “Much of life is about the accumulation of wealth, fame and power. For me, the only thing that matters is how many shining eyes are around me. This award isn’t for fame, but my achievement of shining eyes.”

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