As a conductor, composer, vocalist, pianist, US Presidential Scholar of the Arts, and rising sophomore at Harvard, Benjamin Wenzelberg has compiled an astonishing list of accomplishments in his 18 years. Wednesday at Symphony Hall, the New Jersey resident added another: After auditioning alongside three other finalists, he was chosen to conduct the Boston Pops in Leonard Bernstein’s overture to “Candide.” The performance Thursday night is part of the Pops’ ongoing centennial celebration of the legendary composer. We spoke to Wenzelberg by phone hours before the big show to talk music, his personal love for Bernstein, and what drives him to get stuff done.
Q. How are you feeling about the win? What are some of the thoughts going through your head?
A. I’m beyond excited and overwhelmed. I definitely felt, and still feel very much, that just being a finalist is an immense honor and privilege, and the experience of getting to stand in front of one of the greatest orchestras in the world and experience their brilliance and their incredible musicianship — and also getting to bring some of my own ideas to the party, so to speak — is incredible and the greatest opportunity. It’s just that much more exciting to get to do it again and to perform in concert with them. It’s like riding a roller coaster, except it’s constantly the moment where you get the most rush.
Q. Take me through Wednesday. What was the competition process like?
A. We [Wenzelberg, Tamara Dworetz, Jherrard Hardeman, and John Masko] got there in the morning, and we had an interview with Dennis Alves, the director of artistic planning at the [Pops]. When we didn’t have our interviews, we were allowed to peek into Symphony Hall and see them setting up and preparing, and it was this surreal moment of right now, it’s a few musicians warming up, and soon it’s going to be a full group of musicians playing the overture to “Candide” — and I guess I’ll be there too!
We then got the chance to listen to the rehearsals, in addition to our respective auditions. To see the Pops go from playing classical to Broadway or even pop music at times, I think that’s something I’ve always loved about them. They’re really able to bridge the highest artistry with community accessibility. That’s really what music is about, bringing people together. I think Bernstein also had that philosophy; whether as a composer, conductor, or educator, he was somebody who appreciated the power of music. I like to think that in my own musical pursuits, I do that as well, whether it’s writing my own opera for family audiences or talking to kids about what an opera is and what it means to write music. I think that there’s a real joy in that.
Q. It’s interesting you bring up reaching younger audiences, considering that you were the youngest of the four finalists. Did you feel any extra pressure being in that position?
A. I didn’t really think about it too much. But it’s true, what you say, talking about younger audiences while I myself am young comparatively. I think maybe for that reason I feel a strong connection to where my love for music started, and bringing out that same passion and excitement in different kinds of kids and other age groups.
Q. Any advice from Keith Lockhart?
A. We got the chance to meet Keith yesterday, and it was so cool! [Laughs] Everyone’s words of advice seemed to be “have fun,” and it’s true! This is a great group of people, this is an amazing orchestra, [“Candide”] is a fantastic piece of music that is meaningful to so many different people, and [the show] is in honor of one of the greatest luminaries of music across all time. How could you not have fun? I just can’t wait.Interview was edited and condensed. Robert Steiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.