The Conductor
The Teacher
The Speaker
The Art Of Possibility
Ben's Biography Latest News Recordings Join The Conversation Where's Ben Contact Us Search Home Page

To tour or not to tour?

4/20/2003 8:20 PM

An open letter to members of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and their parents,


Yesterday I shared with YPO some thoughts about my recent visit to Israel and also about the upcoming tour to Panama and Guatemala. I thought I would expand on these thoughts for the whole YPO community, both for those who are signed up to go on tour and also for those who are still harboring doubts about their participation.

I want to preface my remarks by saying that no one has a right to be critical of a parent who feels anxious or concerned about the safety of their children. It is the quintessential role of parents to ensure the wellbeing and safety of their offspring and they are expected, indeed required to take all reasonable precautions.

The world is now a very different place from even a short time ago. None of the places to which we have traveled on previous tours could be considered completely safe now. The Far East has SARS; Russia is in turmoil, tourism to the Middle East has ground to a complete halt and even Europe is considered by many to be a risk. Certainly several of the Latin American countries we have visited in the past several years are perceived to be less safe than they used to be. Indeed, except for trips to places like Kansas and Alaska, any travel at this time poses more risks than before and, for some, those risks outweigh the benefits and so people have decided to basically stay at home.

All of you know that I travel all over without the slightest compunction. I am careful, but I weigh the odds in a sensible manner. I would not go to an active war zone or to an area where there was an epidemic of a communicable disease, but I know that one could be mugged on the streets of any major American city, so I have decided that I have a fairly good chance of returning home intact from most places in the world.

However, when I got the invitation to go to Israel it was rather a different matter. Israel is not strictly speaking a war-zone, but people living there experience more than a normal amount of danger on a daily basis. There is a statistical risk to getting on a bus and few who live in that country have been spared a first hand experience of loss and terror.

Of course I was enormously honored that the Israel Philharmonic, one of the greatest orchestras in the world, had sent me an invitation to conduct, and of all things Mahler's 3rd symphony, and it is true that my Jewish heritage and my father's life-long devotion to peace in the Middle East, would have made me disposed to accept the invitation.

But with Israel there was another element and that is what I want to talk about. People in Israel live in constant fear - not of poverty and disease as people in so many other places in the world - but of their safety. There are people who would like to see their destruction and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to cause them the greatest amount of harm - not on the battle field, but in their streets and café's and homes. That is an intolerable state of affairs and is one of the reasons that the American Government decided to go to war in Iraq.

This is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of the war, nor of the issues at stake in the Middle East, though it might be worth saying, in passing, that if President Bush, after September 11th had said that, in addition to being vigilant in looking out for our enemies, we should also be vigilant about the ways in which we are being, that cause so many people in other parts of the world to distrust and even hate us, he would probably have succeeded in transforming the world's conversation. But that is another discourse.

People living in Israel are put, on a daily basis, under an unusual amount of stress. Their reaction to it has been, for the most part, quite remarkable. They are unperturbed, brave and largely defiant. They go out, they walk the streets at night, and, above all, they go to concerts! The concerts are packed - I simply couldn't get a ticket for a performance (one of many) of Ballo in Maschera. I finally did get one, through the good offices of the manager of the orchestra, but it was far away from the stage. When I looked around, the 3000 seat auditorium, I was amazed that literally every seat was taken - not like in America where, though a concert is "sold out", there are seats dotted all around of subscribers who just couldn't drag themselves away from that episode of Survivor or the play-off game! In fact, when I came back after intermission, my seat was occupied. I didn't have the heart to ask the intruder to leave and spent the rest of the performance standing!

This is not an isolated incident. The Israel Philharmonic boasts 28,000 subscribers - a number vastly larger than any other orchestra in the world, even without taking in to account the relative size of the population. People in Israel care about music! Musicians in the orchestra are so passionate about music, it is as if they are possessed. They talk about music all the time. They come right up after a performance and say: "the tempo of the last movement felt a little slow". Most of the orchestra was still on the stage half an hour after the first rehearsal of the Mahler, as if they couldn't drag themselves away. Almost all of them came to hear my pre-concert talk and then spoke to me about it afterwards. One of the cellists insisted on driving me to the airport when I left, even though it meant picking me up at my hotel at 3.15 am!!

The audiences, many of whom are from Europe, are knowledgeable and passionate. There is an intensity, a love, an engagement in the whole enterprise that I have rarely found before. In fact, the closest thing to it in my experience is you lot on Saturday afternoons!

When you ask a member of the Israel Philharmonic to play something a certain way, they astonish you by doing it more expressively than you had asked for. It's as if the music belongs to them and all they ask of the conductor is that he pull out of them everything that they have to offer - to do less would be to insult them!

This is an experience I would not have missed for the world! That kind of intensity is one of the reasons we are alive. It is in their conversations and in their food, in their arguments and in their loving. The warmth of that society envelops you and challenges you to participate full out, with all your heart. I have never seen or heard such expressiveness or such passion in a group of musicians and the rapturous gratitude of the audience with their stamping and rhythmic handclapping was no less remarkable or heart-warming. You see, music means everything for these people. For them it is a window on life. They don't play because they have a job or a profession; they play because they feel their life depends on it. It is the way they express themselves in the world. And for the audience, that orchestra is their lifeline to their own humanity. Whatever fear or tension they may experience in their daily lives, they will find solace and restoration, courage and hope in the music and in the playing of that orchestra.
To play for them is a sacred task.

That is why when the '67 war broke out, Jackie DuPre and Zubin Mehta (both non-jews) and Daniel Barenboim dropped everything and went to Israel to play concerts, to be with the people and to offer all they had. And why Rostropovitch rushed to Berlin and sat in the street at the Brandenburg Gate playing Bach when the Berlin Wall fell down and why Myra Hess played and organized all those concerts when the blitz was blazing in the skies over London during the war. And that is why Yehudi Menuhin took his violin and went to war-zone after war zone all over the world to bring the message of great art to people when they needed it most.

It's because when people are in greatest need and greatest fear that music speaks most powerfully to them and that's when its value, no, its absolute necessity becomes most clear.

Yesterday afternoon, after we had played not one, but two concerts in Symphony Hall and brought joy and laughter to so many tiny children with Hansel and Gretel and Peter and the Wolf, we went back to Brown Hall to work on the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra.
We played the third movement, the Elegy, the piece Bartok wrote for his own death - that outpouring of exquisite passion that speaks of such sorrow and such heart-break - and you played with all the emotional expression of which you were capable and it moved everyone in the room to their very core. When you played it through for John Heiss at the end and he said that thing about there being no place in the world where you could hear that music played with more emotional understanding - that is what it was like in Israel. I was so proud of you and so sure that, at that moment, everyone in the room was sure of their purpose as a musician - even the low brass players who sat for I hour and fifteen minutes without playing a single note!

And how does all this relate to the tour? Well, for the past several years, Jerry Slavet, our tour guru, has guided us in the direction of the Latin American countries. We have now visited Chile (twice), Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba (twice) Venezuela and now Panama and Guatemala (you'd think by now I would have learned Spanish!!). That is quite an amazing commitment to one part of the world. Let me tell you why we keep going back there. Most youth groups when they travel on tour, go to Europe or the Far East. It is culturally exciting and there are so many sights to see, so many artistic monuments. But Latin America is about something else - it's about emotions and relationships and passion and dancing and color. It's also about poverty, because that is the big fact of life there, but it's also about the courage those people have in the face of the deprivation of their lives. When we got to the end of the trip to Venezuela last time there were many of our kids who didn't want to come home - not because of the beauty of the countryside, but because of the beautiful relationships they had created with the Venezuelan people and because of what they had learned from being there.

"How come", one of the YPO'ers from a few years back wrote to me, "that they have so little and we have so much and yet they seem to understand so much more about life and they seem to live with greater vitality and passion than we do?" And that is partly why we go there: to get from them as much, and more than they give to us. Because they live at risk, they also play at risk and their lives are full of warmth and love.

They have very little in terms of worldly belongings - a fraction of what you all have - but their lives in some ways seem richer and their music sometimes speaks with more power and emotional truth. Because, however many hours we spend practicing the arpeggios and scales and studies that our teachers want us to practice, we cannot penetrate to the heart of music without being fully engaged with all of life!

I once got a little carried away, having dinner with a friend - I had had a couple of glasses of red wine- I started out on a monologue about the state of music and I said "Music is the ultimate language of the human soul and the music profession thinks it is about playing the fucking trumpet!" Well, what I didn't know is that he was collecting a book of quotations and it ended up in his book!!

But now you know why I want you all to go on tour in June. If the tour was to the Middle East I would go like a flash, but I realize I'd probably be going alone. I tried to organize the tour to go to South Africa, but it was too complex and too expensive. Panama and Guatemala are not especially political hot-spots these days. There is a lot of poverty there, so naturally we have to be careful. People shouldn't wear necklaces, and expensive watches. This is the time for that swatch watch and those Indian beads to come out. Of course, you mustn't walk alone, or even in small groups at dusk in certain areas, because where there is poverty there is always a level of tension. But, we will be super-vigilant, we will have terrific protection at all times, we will make absolutely sure that everyone is safe from first thing in the morning till last thing at night.

But of course I want them to hear you play the Bartok with full-out passion the way you were playing yesterday afternoon. I don't want just 7 of the 17 fabulous cellists in YPO or eight of the great violas. And I want you to get to know each other deeply in those two weeks and travel to a part of the world that you are not likely to visit unless it is with this group on this tour. I want to spend time with you myself - not just those brief Saturday afternoons in Brown Hall, but two weeks being together, talking, traveling, learning more about the music, playing better and better and interacting with the people of those two countries.

We are the gift of the people of the United States to the people of Panama at the 100th anniversary celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal. It is a very great honor. We can be proud to have been chosen to do that. This is not a nice tour for a bunch of spoilt American High School kids to take in the sights. This is a goodwill tour by an important US cultural organization to two American neighbors. I don't know if it will figure big on your vitae, but it will count big on the curriculum of your soul. I want you there, because I want to be able to say when we come back from the trip that, like the trip to Israel, it made a difference and I will never forget it as long as I live.

Finally, I want you to become musicians who know how to play at risk, who are willing to put yourself on the edge. Artur Schnabel the great German Pianist said "Safety Last!" The greatest musicians, the ones we look up to and love, lived like that. Singers like Maria Callas, cellists like Rostropovitch and DuPre - I could go on and on, composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, Tchaikowsky and Beethoven - they have taught us what it means to live near the edge.

I would want your legacy from being a member of YPO to be that you learned to give your all and not hold back anything. Sure there is some risk in that, but what a treasure of growth and development is to be found there. I also want people to see the best of what America has to offer - young people with strong ideals and warm, outgoing natures, dedicated artists who have something to share with the world.

That is why Mark Churchill, and Jenny Lewis and Jerry Slavet and others work so hard to arrange the tours and raise the money and make all the complicated arrangements, so that you can have the time of your lives, so that we can make a difference in the lives of the people we meet and bring this extraordinary organization called YPO into one breathing, shaping, connecting organism and make great music.

If you haven't done so yet, go to the YPO recording page on my web site and download Ein Heldenleben or Mahler 5th or Shostakovitch 5th and think what it would be like if we could add Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra to that astonishing array of recordings that can hold their own with any commercial recordings by famous orchestras! Then go back one more time and ask, "can I ask my parents one more time for permission to go on this trip, so that I can be all that I can be?" And if it needs my help to persuade that school Dean or to raise that one last bit of money, or to speak that one last time to that anxious parent, then call me up and I will do that. But mainly it is about you and your relationship to fear. The struggle between the brave, adventuresome kid, like Peter in Peter and the Wolf - dum, dum ti dum dum dum - and the anxious grand father who said, "And if a wolf had come out of the forest...what then..." bo pom po booo (bassoon!).

It has been great being with you this Easter Sunday - this day of resurrection. I will see you in two weeks. An overwhelming number of you said you wanted to do La Valse. But for that we need the full orchestra! What do you think?


Ben Zander


I just got this letter from a complete stranger in Columbia. Maybe we should go there some that is a real war zone!

Hi Mr. Ben Zander
Last night, I was watching TV at home, and I found your life in a documental and this was great.
I liked your spirit and your power for to give hope.
This is a year special in my life, with many changes and sometimes I felt sad and worring about the future... but really when I was hearing all about you and your words.. I felt like a smille in my heart.
I'm not desesperated or something like that, just with doubt about me, about future and your words help me.
Believe me, never before I writed a note like this...but after to see the documental, I thinked I would like to say to him how I felt with his words..
And look at me..

Ok.. I wish you great life and always the best

Yenny Astrid

Pd. Sorry for my english... I don't have practice 2 years ago.


Return To Index

   Conductor  :  Teacher  :  Speaker  :  The Art of Possiblity  :  Biography  :  Latest News  :  Recordings  :  Join The Conversation  :  Where's Ben?  :  Contact  :  Home

Site Search     
   All Rights Reserved
   Benjamin Zander
   Tel: 617/491-8515
   Fax: 617/864-4576