Sunday, February 5, 2012

More classical controversy: sorry, Geoff, but I'm afraid NEC was right to fire Ben Zander

The Boston Globe's critics are generally useless (okay,  Sebastian Smee finally said something worthwhile about the MFA's Egyptian and Old Master galleries; finally), but the paper has generally been of value to the cultural scene nevertheless because of the art-scene reporting of Geoff Edgers, who has overturned all kinds of rocks to find all manner of unsavory conduct going on behind the scenes of our local cultural institutions.

But I'm afraid he stumbles rather badly today, and in an odd way that tells you something a little depressing about the classical scene in general (and the way the Globe views it).

On the front page, no less, Edgers wrings his hands over the case of Benjamin Zander, the distinguished conductor and leader of the Boston Philharmonic, who was recently ousted from his post conducting New England Conservatory's Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, for hiring convicted sex offender Peter Benjamin to videotape the orchestra's concerts.

Now, I like Ben Zander quite a bit, and I was as stunned, and deeply dismayed, as anyone over this particular story.  I have sympathy for Zander in his humiliation, and I note that it seems Benjamin's association with the youth orchestra led to no further sexual abuse under his watch.

But I still can't quite bring myself to believe that NEC President Tony Woodcock did anything wrong in firing him.  And here's why.

Benjamin was convicted some twenty years ago for videotaping himself having sex with teen-aged boys - and he had been abusing one of those boys for years, since the youth was thirteen.  But Benjamin was already ensconced in Boston's classical scene, and luminaries like Zander, and especially Sarah Caldwell, the wacky operatic entrepreneur who has cast a long shadow over our opera scene even after her death, came to his defense, writing letters of support at the time of his conviction.  (Edgers even reports that Caldwell openly wept as Benjamin was led away to jail.)

Now I'm not going to criticize Zander, or even Caldwell, for personal loyalty, even if it was perhaps misplaced.  Nor am I here to pillory Peter Benjamin; I'm actually sensitive to the way that we neurotically demonize sex offenders (even if no, I'm not "that way" at all myself, far from it), and feel that he has paid his debt to society, and has undergone rehabilitation, and so deserves a chance to make a new life for himself.

Still, he shouldn't be in a job where he's in constant contact with young people.  Sorry.  He has to make his new life someplace else.  I may admire Roman Polanski's late work, but I wouldn't put him in charge of a kiddie show.  That's just the way it works; you should forgive, but you shouldn't entirely forget.

And that's where Zander went terribly wrong; he forgot.  Or perhaps he's pretending he forgot - indeed, that he never knew.  In Edgers' article today he states that, despite the fact he wrote a letter of support for Benjamin at the time of his conviction, he "didn't know the particulars of his crime."  Hmmm.  I'm not sure I believe that; I mean, if a friend of mine told me he was going to the Big House, I would wonder, I think, what he had done.  And if the answer was "raping a teen-ager," I think I'd remember that.

But maybe that's just me!  And I don't orbit the fringes of the Davos crowd (writing this honestly I never will), and don't hob-nob with Sting, as Edgers lets us know in an amusing paragraph that's innocently revealing of the publicity-whore, celebrity-name-dropping mindset of the Globe.  I mean who the hell is the president of NEC to fire Ben Zander? He knows Sting!!!

Zander does seem to think he has a piece of exonerating evidence to report, however - and Edgers seems to half-agree with him.  (But I don't.)  The disgraced conductor points out the NEC's opera department had already hired Benjamin to do some videotaping after his release from prison - that Zander, in a way, simply carried on that tradition.

Only the opera department's productions aren't generally filled with teen-agers (although one video, of Hansel and Gretel, had middle-schoolers in its chorus).  And apparently the person who hired Benjamin didn't know his history - or at least that's the claim. (The department does automatic background checks today.)  And of course Zander's moral duty, when and if he heard that Benjamin had been hired by said department, was to inform them of Benjamin's past - not to make him a pariah forever, but simply to make sure that they didn't accidentally hire him for youth orchestra gigs!

Instead Zander did exactly the opposite thing.  So in no way does the NEC opera department's cluelessness exonerate him.  In fact, it only throws his culpability into a different kind of relief, and indicates how endemic this sort of thing is to the classical community; people keep their mouths shut about behavior that they should actually discuss.  Although amusingly enough, Zander says the same thing himself in Edger's article, claiming that "Whether filming for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, American Repertory Theater, or Boston Ballet, Benjamin was well known in Boston’s cultural community."

Now minors weren't often involved in those other videotapings - but I have to admit, Zander is quite right - the classical music scene is too tolerant of pedophilia, and that has to change. Only that's no defense for Zander!  It IS unfortunate that he should serve as the scapegoat for such a change, but that's the way change often works, isn't it.  And I think it's worth noting that years ago, at the start of his career, Zander was one of "Benjamin Britten's boys," underage treble sopranos and other musical talents around whom all manner of rumors swirled. So it's possible, I think, that internally, and unconsciously, he may be in denial about certain aspects of the classical scene, or may have "normalized" a situation which is inherently inappropriate.  I also recall that similar allegations have long trailed after a certain major conductor on the Boston scene - rumors so rampant I once heard his own staff joke about them (and in fact at one point I suggested via email to Edgers that he should investigate these rumors, as the Globe was the only local institution with the legal resources to support such a risk; I never heard from him again).

So I guess my feeling is - I feel for Benjamin Zander, and his case is complicated; and he shouldn't be punished for his mistake forever.  But let's also not pretend that it was merely a "mistake," like misplacing a shopping list.  And let's not pat classical music's pedophilia problem back into the closet just because the Globe, or Zander's glittering friends, thinks we should.  Ironically enough, Peter Benjamin's crimes may in the end serve some positive purpose, if they shine some disinfecting sunlight into this particular corner of the classical world.

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