scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Troubles amount to a ‘cancer’ at Boston Philharmonic

Essdras M Suarez

The students said they could no longer keep quiet. Days after one of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s top artistic advisers was arrested on child pornography charges, a dozen young musicians filed into a conference room at the Philharmonic’s headquarters and sought answers about the future of the organization.

They were angry, and worried. The orchestra’s leadership, the student players said, had seemed to brush aside the arrest, ignoring the tsunami of emotions triggered in the organization’s youth orchestra.

The tense Oct. 5 conversation turned to sexually suggestive messages sent to students by a man who had served as an associate conductor with the youth orchestra, according to interviews with several students, their notes, and audio of the meeting that was recorded by one attendee and later provided to the Globe.


Two hours into the session, the philharmonic orchestra’s managing director Elisabeth Christensen acknowledged that she had miscalculated the depth of the student anguish, according to the recording. Christensen said she had gone into recent meetings with unsettled students “thinking that I was treating a broken ankle.” But she now realized “the patient had cancer.”

Conductor Benjamin Zander started the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in 2012.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Six years after conductor Benjamin Zander founded the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, the widely admired arts institution and its parent organization are in turmoil. Two of Zander’s closest advisers — David St. George and Benjamin Vickers — have been pushed out. St. George, who provided Zander with musical critiques in rehearsals, was fired after his arrest and Vickers, as associate conductor, was released for sending students inappropriate messages. A third employee has been placed on leave and is under investigation for inappropriate behavior. And some students are quitting in disgust.

At the heart of the controversy is 79-year-old Zander, the maestro with a shock of white hair, a megawatt style, and an illustrious reputation that took a serious hit in 2012. That’s when his four-decade run as teacher and conductor at the New England Conservatory ended, after he was fired for knowingly hiring a convicted sex offender to videotape performances of NEC’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.


Immediately after his high-profile departure, Zander turned to the Boston Philharmonic and founded another youth orchestra. Now, an independent investigative firm hired by the Philharmonic is scrutinizing operations at that youth orchestra and there’s more soul searching to come.

“When there is a trauma,” Zander told students at the Oct. 5 meeting, “all the fault lines become visible.”

Zander and St. George declined to be interviewed and Vickers could not be reached for comment. Christensen released a lengthy statement on behalf of the organization.

“We remain shocked and profoundly disturbed by the incidents brought to our attention and have acted expeditiously to address each one,” the statement said in part. “We will continue to do so and to strive to vigorously meet the highest standards of organizational ethics and behavior.

Following a firing, Zander builds another orchestra

The 120-member Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s mission is “to provide an environment for musical excellence and leadership development that strengthens communication and deepens the human experience.”

It has garnered renown for the talent of its young players and quality of its performances. And also for this: It’s free. While many of the several dozen other youth orchestras in the country charge tuition to student players, often several thousand dollars each year, Zander’s outfit offers students age 12 to 21 a no-cost, high-level entree into the classical music world. There are performances in Symphony Hall, one of the world’s top concert venues, and summer tours in major cities from Europe to South America.


About half the members in the youth orchestra are in college, and most of the others are in high school. A handful of musicians are as young as 12 or 13.

The youth orchestra operates as a minor league of sorts, providing a training ground for college students aspiring to a professional music career, while affording younger members the chance to collaborate with older students.

Zander, who founded the Boston Philharmonic in 1978, created its youth orchestra in 2012, more than doubling the number of musicians in the arts organization. But two former staffers said the expansion came with little strategy, cost controls, or policies in place to deal with such a dramatic move.

The Globe interviewed 14 current or former members of the youth orchestra, all over age 18, and two former staffers. All but one declined to be identified by name for fear of reprisal in the tight-knit musical community, but several shared notes and e-mails of the Oct 5 meeting. One person recorded it because of the gravity of the situation.

The Sept. 25 arrest of David St. George triggered turmoil in the youth orchestra. St. George, a senior adviser who was well liked by students, helped rehearse certain sections of the youth orchestra.

St. George was charged in federal court with receiving and possessing in his Arlington home thousands of files of child pornography, including images of sexual assaults of children between 6 and 8 years old. Philharmonic leaders have said they do not have evidence to suggest his behavior involved any of the organization’s musicians or staff. St. George told investigators he had no interest in engaging in sexual acts with children, apart from looking at child porn, according to the criminal complaint. His attorney, William Fick, declined to comment.


Five youth orchestra members told the Globe they quit after the St. George arrest, saying they were disgusted by the episode and frustrated by other problems they felt administrators had ignored.

“Our trust in this organization has been compromised,” stated a letter to Zander four of the five signed, along with 16 otherstudent leaders from the youth orchestra.

“As the founder and leader of this youth orchestra your lack of apology and ownership for his affiliation with this group is quite upsetting,” said the letter, referring to St. George. “We hope that this orchestra will proceed along a path of honesty, safety, and personal accountability.”

As the fallout from St. George’s arrest swirled, the philharmonic said they suspended without pay Vickers, a Zander protege, for sending inappropriate messages to students. Two of the students, both over 18, shared with the Globe copies of Facebook messages from Vickers. In one, Vickers repeatedly asked the young man about his sexual preferences and whether he was circumcised. That chain of messages stretches from August through September.


Both young men told the Globe they did not report the incidents to orchestra leaders. Neither felt comfortable telling anyone earlier about the messages.

Vickers resigned in late September.

Students said they pushed for the meeting because they worried problems would be swept under the rug after the St. George arrest.

“We wanted to let the administration know they are being held accountable for their actions,” said Mark Macha, a junior at New England Conservatory who plays trumpet in the Boston Philharmonic’s youth orchestra. “I want the orchestra to continue. I enjoy the music, my colleagues, and the tours are unbelievable.”

Several former student members told the Globe they had been uneasy about reporting problems to administrators because the top leaders, including Vickers and St. George, were all close friends with Zander, and they did not want to be seen as challenging him. They also said there was no process, either a written policy or one explained to them when they entered the orchestra, for reporting concerns.

In response to questions from the Globe, Christensen, the managing director, said the organization just recently introduced and distributed a handbook to staff and issued an organization-wide harassment prevention policy and whistleblower policy, which “clearly outline healthy behavior and procedures for reporting misconduct.”

A charismatic leader and secretive financing

In airing their grievances to orchestra officials, students highlighted Zander’s firing at NEC and suggested the organization proceed with caution.

The students noted in their letter to Zander “how many young children there are in this orchestra” and “your history with the NEC.”

Zander has been open about that history. Following his 2012 firing, he defended his actions, saying the videographer he had hired was convicted of sex crimes nearly 20 years earlier and had not re-offended. But Zander quickly apologized for his lack of judgment. He told the Globe at the time that the episode had humbled and transformed him.

He then channeled his irrepressible energy into creating the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.

Zander has garnered world renown for his work with the Boston Philharmonic, as a guest conductor, and inspirational speaker. His exuberant 2008 TED talk, about the importance of classical music being accessible and engaging for all listeners, has notched more than 10 million views online.

Zander’s larger-than-life personality is the driving force at the Philharmonic, with few checks or balances on his decisions, according to two former staffers.

His persona, and connection to a philanthropic billionaire, proved to be helpful in raising funds, too. It helped enable the youth orchestra to be tuition-free, which drew in talented students of lesser means.

This issue of money and Zander’s system for doling it out to select orchestra members was a separate, gnawing matter raised by students in their Oct. 5 meeting with administrators.

Zander conducts both of the Philharmonic’s orchestras, sits on the board, and is one of the organization’s key sources of cash, contributing over $300,000 in the past year, according to the Philharmonic’s audited financial statements and its October program guide.

Over the last several years, students said, Zander has quietly let certain members of the youth orchestra know they could write him a letter asking for financial aid, which would be provided by a friend of his, Hansjörg Wyss, the billionaire philanthropist known for his donations to environmental and social justice causes.

Wyss is now the romantic partner of Zander’s ex-wife, Rosamund Zander, who until recently was listed on the Philharmonic’s website as a coach. Rosamund and Zander maintain a working relationship.

In e-mails shared with the Globe, Zander told certain students to think of the money from Wyss as from a “generous uncle,” and advised them to not discuss the payments with other orchestra members.

“This is not a grant from the [Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra],” he wrote in one e-mail, “it is entirely a private matter.”

Amounts received by students interviewed by the Globe range from $3,000 to $12,000 a school year. Several of the students said they felt uncomfortable with the under-the-radar payments. Some said they wanted to leave after the St. George arrest but were staying in the orchestra simply because they need the Wyss grants.

Wyss, who did not return a phone call seeking comment, is listed in the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest program guide as donating more than $500,000 since July 2017. He is by far the organization’s single-largest donor.

The second largest donor is Zander himself. The Philharmonic’s audited financial statements note that Wyss, Zander, and one other unnamed donor together provide roughly 45 percent of the organization’s funding.

“If a significant reduction in the level of this funding should occur, it may have a significant effect on the orchestra’s programs,” the document states.

In the Oct. 5 meeting, Zander told the students that there was nothing “nefarious” about the Wyss grants to students and that such gifts began several years ago after Wyss wanted to help one member who was financially struggling, according to notes provided by students.

That arrangement grew to include other members, but Wyss could not donate to every one, hence the secrecy, Zander told them.

In a statement, the Boston Philharmonic said Wyss grants are awarded “based on demonstrated financial need” and funded and issued independent of the Philharmonic.

The way the Boston Philharmonic handles the Wyss grants is unique, according to Rosina Cannizzaro, executive director of the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association and vice chair of the Youth Orchestra Division of the American League of Orchestras.

Cannizzaro said there is an industry standard for organizations to award financial aid that includes a formal application process and, typically, review by a committee.

It’s also rare for a youth orchestra to not have a sexual harassment policy, she said. Such a policy is essential, as events at the Boston Philharmonic make clear. In 20 years working with young musicians, Cannizzaro said, she could not recall another instance of an orchestra adviser being charged with child pornography charges or an adviser resigning for sending inappropriate messages.

It has been a season of discord in the organization. But you wouldn’t know it to hear the orchestra play.

At the recent spirited opening of its 40th season. Zander sprinted up the stairway and the professional orchestra delivered a command performance. The youth orchestra, minus the players who have left, is slated to open its season Nov. 25.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.