A sign in the front garden of Benjamin Zander’s Cambridge home reads “MORE BEAUTY IN THE BACK, PLEASE PEEK.”The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) conductor and educator believes his yard’s lush, vibrant flora is simply too uplifting not to share.
Since May, Zander has been cultivating another kind of garden as well — a musical garden of free weekly concerts held in his driveway, framed by hosts of colorful flowers. The performers are friends and professional musicians from the BPO, all volunteering their talents to provide musical gifts to passersby. (Zander offers each a $50 honorarium “for babysitting or gas.”) It’s not a fund-raiser, nor is it sponsored by the BPO, Zander’s executive assistant Amanda Grohowski points out. “It is simply a personal project of Ben’s … a way to share Ben’s beautiful garden and music with his beloved neighbors and friends in the Cambridge area.”
“It’s intimate, fun, and very relaxed and informal, but the music-making is very high level,” Zander says. “It makes music a natural activity, just as Medieval and Renaissance people would take their instruments out in the town square. With all the concert halls closed, we have to find another way. You can’t keep music down.”
There is no advertising for the Sunday afternoon concerts, save for an informal neighborhood mailing list. The goal is to avoid large crowds. As host and emcee, Zander puts out some chairs he keeps in his garage — six feet apart — and some of the audience stay for the duration, while others are the recipients of serendipity, chancing across these musical moments as they make their way down Brattle Street.
“I was on my bicycle, escaping from a day, a week of zoom and gloom meetings,” wrote Harold Nassau in a note slipped through Zander’s letter box. “I cannot begin to tell you how beautiful and moving it was to listen to the music. These months have been so devastating, so inhuman, so painful for all of us. But the music, its purity and perfection, [was] simply the best of the human experience … I left in tears.”
The first concert was an hour of solo Bach by BPO associate principal cellist Velléda Miragias, who has been instrumental in organizing the details of this concert series, dubbed “Safe and Sound.” “My soul needed it more than I knew,” she shared in a missive to Zander.
Zander recalls, “It was magical! Everything seemed to stop on Brattle Street. Passersby stood entranced, some sitting on the wall, some over the other side of the road. Several cars stopped and rolled down their windows so they could listen. People are so hungry for live music. It’s like eating fresh fruit after a diet of canned food.”
Two former players in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which Zander founded and conducts, stepped up to play duets the following week, and the series has grown organically through word of mouth from there, Zander says. “Players are basically doing it for nothing because they love to do it and need to do it.”
At a recent concert, Zander says, a player burst into tears when the music started, saying it was so moving to be able to play for someone for the first time in weeks. “It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like for musicians to have no prospects to play,” Zander says. “This was a godsend. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go on as long as people come forward and want to play.”
Internationally renowned flautist Carol Wincenc, who spearheaded the July 5 concert, told the audience, “I was so emotional when we started all playing together, because we hadn’t been able to play in person, so just the sheer sound of it was magnificent.” For the first time, the event was videotaped for live streaming on Zander’s facebook page (facebook.com/OfficialBenjaminZander). It had nearly 10,000 views from around the world at last count.
“We were packed. I would guess 100 people came and went, often hovering for a while with a bemused look on their faces,” says Zander, who praised the audience for wearing masks. ”It’s all about what Harold wrote about so eloquently — good will, beauty, community, shared experience — especially the extraordinary and mysterious power of music to lift spirits and heal psychic wounds.”