After my downright spiritual conversation with Michael Lewanski (above, with Mark-Anthony Turnage and ensemble dal niente) I’m not sure if “Making Music Work” is the right tagline. First off, some of the greatest things Michael said during this interview are AGAINST music being ‘work’ in the colloquial sense. Michael told me that every musical performance is a profound experience, and that orchestral music is a unique thing in the history of human culture. He told me that he reaffirms daily that he’s doing music because he likes it. (And he confessed he’s probably do a lot of it for free.) He also sometimes wishes he could skip all his commitments to listen to the newest Radiohead.

Yet some of Michael’s other thoughts were the kind of practical stuff that we all would do well to remember: that musicians are professionals who deserve to be well-paid and respected. That showing up, on time and prepared, is a baseline of respect for your colleagues. And that conductors do not know everything. (Insert happy sigh from instrumentalists here.)

The amazing thing is, having played under Michael, none of these things surprised me much. His principles shine right through when he is on the podium. Work with him as soon as you can. Here’s Michael.

When did you first want to be a conductor? What drew you to the work initially?

I started conducting when I was thirteen. I think it wasn’t for a good reason. I was taking piano lessons – I was pretty into the piano. And I think what happened is I saw videos of piano concertos. Specifically it was the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor piano concerto. And the funny thing is, I don’t remember who the pianist was. I bet it was Andre Watts. What really fascinated me, though, was Zubin Mehta’s conducting. I was like, “That’s the guy that’s having the fun.” I was more interested in the conductor than the pianist.

I don’t remember how it went down, but I remember that I wanted to do it enough that I was really annoying about it. I would just bug all my teachers and my parents about wanting to be a conductor. So then, I first conducted when I was thirteen, the Savannah Symphony, this Berlioz piece. And I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had a lesson or two – not very many. I was a smart enough kid to know that this is one, and that’s two.

How did you end up traveling to St. Petersburg to study?

I was annoying enough to where my violin teacher, who was Russian and studied in St. Petersburg, said to me, if you really want to be a conductor, what you should do is go to St. Petersburg and study with this guy at the conservatory.

I was a naive enough kid to not know that Russia is a scary place. I didn’t know it was scary at the time. First, I went in December of ’94, I think, and spent all of December in St. Petersburg. By the way – December, not the time that you want to go to St. Petersburg. Especially when you are from Savannah, Georgia. Not only was this white stuff on the ground that was very confusing, but it’s also really dark. Really dark.

I don’t think I had good reasons for wanting to get into conducting. It seemed exciting. But I will say this: I genuinely liked music a lot.

How does that compare to how you feel about conducting now?

I still really like music.  I don’t know if much has changed, actually. Philosophically, maybe I have a slightly more sophisticated opinion than when I was thirteen – but only slightly. It’s kind of a selfish thing, really. I just happen to really think orchestral music is great.

I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, as a guy who does all this new music. But orchestral music between 1770 and 1920 is just a special, unique thing in the history of human culture that I just think is really awesome. The institution of the orchestra – not as a cultural institution necessarily, but as a musical body – is an incredible thing. The music written for it is just so special. That sounds naive, and maybe even offensive, but still.

So, in orchestral culture, conductors have this role of ultimate power and authority. And different conductors approach that role … differently.

[laughing] Yes. Yes they do.

(In performance with ensemble dal niente.)

What’s your approach to the role – psychologically, interpersonally?

I’ll say this: I think that conductors are actually kind of overrated. Even this absolutely ridiculous word ‘maestro’. It’s just this horrible – the fact that musicians are expected to call the conductor maestro is just kind of full of it.

On the one hand – if you have 90 people in the room, or 50 people, however many – you have to agree on a bunch of things. And the obvious way to do that is to have one person in the room saying what we’re doing here. How fast is this, how long is this note, what kind of style are you playing in – you really do need that for orchestras to exist.

I think a lot of conductors get so used to being followed by the orchestra, and being fawned upon by management, that they end up buying into themselves. Thinking they’re better musicians than everyone else is. They develop these ginormous egos.

And some conductors really are better musicians than everyone else. Take Daniel Barenboim. He’s just one of the greatest living musicians. He happens to be a conductor also, and a pianist. He just is that guy. I’m sure his ego is pretty healthy – but in all seriousness, when he’s in front of an orchestra, I think he has a lot of authority, because he’s so unbelievably competent. But there aren’t many like him.

So I guess I approach my role is: I work really hard. I develop a lot of opinions that I like to think are well thought-out. And I try to convey these in a direct sense that doesn’t impose upon the musicians. There are ways of doing this that are just fundamentally respectful of orchestral musicians, humanity, and musicianship. And there are ways that are disrespectful. I know that I’m just some guy, waving my arms. Beethoven and I haven’t spoken on the phone in quite some time.

I will say, I thought your approach to the conductor role was totally different when you were working with ensemble dal niente.

In contemporary music, the conductor is really there as a matter of necessity, because you have to know that you’re in bar five, and you have to know what the meter is. A lot of it is so hard – there’s a lot more traffic-copping in contemporary music. And the smaller the ensemble, the more I feel that way.

Musicians who do contemporary music are extremely devoted to that, and are already extremely high-level players. It’s really not your job to impose your will on them. It’s good to just have a discussion about how you’re going to play this. And the conductor should be a part of that discussion. The conductor has a perspective – but it shouldn’t be the only one.

So, talking to Michael about music is pretty exciting, but I also wanted to ask him about the nitty-gritty of the musician’s life. Here are some awesome highlights.

Michael on free time:

Here’s the thing. I think actually, in my soul, I’m a very lazy person. Really, what I would do if I could get away with it, is – what did Carlos Kleiber say? He wants to be like a flower. Sit in the garden and eat and drink and have sex all day. Obviously, I really like music and I would be very sad if I didn’t do it. But if my life were like, one rehearsal a day of music that I really like – and then I’d go sit on the beach all day – that’d be it. If you really want the ideal, that’s it.

Michael on listening to music:

I really like listening to music. I’m not sure if all musicians do. I feel like there are some musicians where it becomes such a profession to them that they want to get away from it, if they can. I think that’s sad, actually. Some version of that is really easy to get into. I really try to remind myself, every day, that I’m in this cause I like it. Once that goes away, you’re just absolutely soul-dead.

I downloaded the Radiohead album on Saturday. I didn’t listen to it yet! I’m just pissed off by that. I put on three songs in my car, here and there. I haven’t listened to it yet, and it’s freaking Friday! When I was an undergrad, I was the second guy in the store, buying Kid A when it came out. The first guy in the store was Evan Johnson, he’s a composer [at Yale at the time}. If a Radiohead album just came out, I wasn’t going to class that day. (Editor’s note: this interview was in February. So hopefully ML has listened by now.)

Michael on making money doing music:

I will say this: no musician should ever be satisfied with the amount of money they have. I think it’s important that musicians in our society are treated like professionals, with respect.

Of course, I wouldn’t mind making more money than I do. But I don’t sit around thinking of ways to make more money. I’m not sure if I want to say this out loud, for fear that the Business Manager of the School of Music will see it, but – if it’s a music thing that I really want to do, I’m probably gonna do it. Whether I get paid a lot or not. Especially contemporary music – it’s not any secret that it doesn’t pay very well. I’d eventually like to get paid more for it, but it’s still really valuable. It’s fun. Why would I not?

There’s some kind of calculus. There’s some variables, some x’s and y’s. One of the variables is: how much fun is this? There are music things that are not fun for me, that I will not do unless you pay me.

The best damn thing that Michael said during our interview:

Zubin Mehta said that Mozart makes him believe in God much more than going to church. And I do have an uncomfortably old-fashioned fetishization of this art form. A performance of a piece of music is a profound experience, is a miraculous thing that happens in the world every day. The composer, the performer and the audience member – there’s some sort of communication that can happen there that can’t happen in any other medium. From that idea flows a performer’s profound understanding of what’s happening in a piece of music. In performance terms, things that I value a lot are: how it is that you can clearly articulate what’s happening in a piece of music so that you can show that to an audience. And that means things like style. Things like phrasing. Things like articulation.

The performer has to have a really clear idea, all the time – a purposeful, intentional idea – of what you’re doing. That sounds kind of simple-minded, but we do so much playing that it’s easy for it to feel routine. Without really having a lot of purpose and intention behind it.

How loud is this accent? How do I want an attentive listener – an idealized, impossible notion of an ideal listener – how do I want them to experience this accent? That’s the kind of broad set of values that I want kids to take away.

I don’t think that listener exists. It took me awhile to realize, but that’s actually the person I’m performing for. And when I go to performances, I try to be that listener. Being a good performer does involve being that listener. You have to be that listener for yourself.

Yep. Ever since the interview, my ideal listener has been following me like a wonderful shadow. Warmest thanks to ML for being so generous with his time. Thanks also to the folks of ensemble dal niente for letting me steal photos.