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CAMBRIDGE — Benjamin Zander's living room in his stately Brattle Street home is full of objects that tell stories.

There's an ornate 1695 English desk with 16 tiny, secret drawers that remind him of an opera set. "You expect people to come out and sing an aria!" said Zander, 76, music director and conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

There are the deep, soft leather chairs where he interviews young musicians he's auditioning and decides if they're inclined to contemplate music, as he hopes, "or if they just play the trumpet."

But it's the majestic 9-foot Steinway concert grand piano that takes center stage. "It's my professional tool, but it's also symbolic," Zander said on a recent Saturday morning.


The instrument was a gift from Zander's late father Walter, in memory of Zander's grandmother who perished in a Nazi concentration camp. It has a huge sound, "like an orchestra," he said. Then he plays a passage of Beethoven to underline the point. The room seems to tremble.

Walter Zander worked as a lawyer in Germany. He was also an accomplished pianist who had a profound influence on Ben's life, inspiring him to become a musician.

"He used to sit at the piano at home and the music suffused his whole body with joy," Ben recalled. "He looked so happy, so intoxicated." During World War I — or so the family story goes — Walter, who had been called up for military service, spent his free time in the trenches studying Beethoven scores.

Benjamin Zander’s Steinway grand piano given to him by his father in memory of his grandmother.
Benjamin Zander’s Steinway grand piano given to him by his father in memory of his grandmother.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The family was Jewish and fled Germany in 1937 for England, where Ben was born. Walter's mother, Pauline, a sculptor, chose to stay behind. Ultimately she would be incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, then deported to the Chelmno death camp, where she died.


Walter lived to be 95. A year before his death, Ben visited him in London and spent four days interviewing him about his life.

When he got to the part about his mother's death, Zander asked him: "'What did you do with the grief about the fact that she didn't get out [of Europe]?' " His father replied: "It's still an open wound."

He then asked his father if there was anything he could do to help close the wound. Should he visit the concentration camp? Set up a school in her memory?

"He said no, it had to be about the future," Zander said. "And then he came up with the idea, like a bright light. He said: 'I am going to give you a piano as a gift from your grandmother.' He gave me the money to buy it."

Zander said he went to M. Steinert & Sons in Boston and bought "the most beautiful Steinway concert grand they had. It's an incredible part of my life."

Seated now at the piano, he plays a passage from Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica." He had a rehearsal that afternoon with the Youth Orchestra, which is performing the symphony on Feb. 5 at Symphony Hall. (He planned to leave that rehearsal an hour early to jet off to Mexico by private plane to deliver a talk the next day.)

He plays a fugue from the second movement, the funeral march which he calls "the three greatest pages of symphonic music ever written. I don't know anything more beautiful in life than those three pages," he said. "The kids are overwhelmed by this."


Music, he added, "is a very, very powerful force, not like anything else. It invites us to a spiritual realm that you don't have access to otherwise."

On the piano sits a bronze bust of his father at age 15, sculpted by his grandmother. "I'm backed up by these extraordinary people from the past," he said, gesturing to the sculpture. "I feel a direct link to them."

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.