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Senior Correspondent

When to Give Up Your Pride

In the C.E.O. Afterlife

One of my favorite ‘inspirational’ books is "The Art of Possibility," by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. Though I read it 10 years ago, one passage still stands out in my mind. Ben, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, had been teaching a master class at a festival in Newcastle, filmed by the BBC. One of his students (Jeffrey) was a very serious, young tenor from the La Scala Opera Company. The tenor was trying to sing ‘Spring Dream’ from Schubert’s "Die Winterreise," a song cycle that describes the depressive journey of a jilted lover through the cold days of the soul. Seemingly, he longs to have his lover in his arms again but of course that is not to be. She’s lost forever.

“The music,” wrote Ben, “is some of the most intimate, soft, subtle, and delicate in the repertoire. But when Jeffrey began to sing, there was no trace of melancholy. Out poured a glorious stream of rich, resonant, Italianate sound. Pure Jeffrey, taking himself very seriously. How could I induce him to look past himself in order to become a conduit for the expressive passion of the music? I began by asking if he was willing to be coached.”

The young tenor said yes, but he had no idea what was in store for him. “I engaged in a battle royal,” wrote Ben, “not with Jeffrey but with his pride, his training, his need to look good, and the years of applause he had received for his extraordinary voice. As each layer was peeled away and as he got closer to the raw vulnerability of Schubert’s distraught lover, his voice lost its patina and began to reveal the human soul beneath. His body, too, began to take on a softened and rounded turn. At the final words, “When will I have my lover in my arms again?” Jeffrey’s voice, now almost inaudible, seemed to reach us through some other channel than sound. Nobody stirred — the audience, the players, the BBC crew — all of us were unified in silence. Then, finally, tremendous applause. I thanked Jeffrey publicly for his willingness to give up his pride, his training, and his vocal accomplishment, and explained that the applause was for the sacrifice he had made to bring us to a place of understanding. Whenever someone gives up their pride to reveal a truth to others, we find it incredibly moving.”

That’s not all. During the applause, Ben had noticed that the BBC cameraman was so moved that he was crying. Later, in the pub, the cameraman confessed that he hadn’t been able to see through the lens for his tears. “When I was sent on this job from London,” he said, shaking his head, “I had no idea that this music stuff was about my life.” "The Art of Possibility" is a book for every walk of life.

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