Michael McLean Finds His Element

August 7, 2007, 12:00 AM · Sometimes Los Angeles violinist, teacher and composer Michael McLean wishes he could go back to that childhood moment, when he first heard Mozart's 40th Symphony.

"It was like a bolt of lightning, straight from Zeus," said McLean, whose new violin concerto, Elements, was recorded last year by violinist Brian Lewis and the London Symphony. "I knew I was a musician; I knew I was a composer."


I spoke with him at the Colburn School in LA, where he teaches.

Until that moment when he heard Mozart, the music McLean had heard as a child in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Mich., had not caught his attention. His older brother listened to Kiss and Destroyer; his older sister's tastes included Rod Stewart and Elton John.

One day while rummaging through his parents' record collection, he found, buried beneath the Mamas and the Papas and Simon and Garfunkel, a Time/Life collection of classical music his father had purchased. Curious, he looked through the contents: Bach Brandenburg, Handel Water Music, Mozart 40th Symphony, Beethoven 3rd Symphony, Schubert "Unfinished" Symphony and more. He decided to pop Mozart 40 onto the turntable.

"I put that on, and it was a huge spiritual awakening for me," said McLean. “I listened to that record hundreds of times. I wish I could go back to that moment: really experiencing what that music was about, with no intellectual filter."

In a way, Mozart was McLean's first composition teacher. At age seven, McLean started composing at the piano. When he was 11, he bought himself the score for Mozart's string quartets at Borders Books in Ann Arbor. Though he could barely read music at the time, he taught himself viola clef and studied functional harmony and sonata form so that he could delve into the music of Mozart.

"I would study the exposition of one of the quartets, then I would write the development," McLean said. When he was finished writing a development, he would go back and see how Mozart had written it. "It was always a crushing blow!" McLean laughed.

He remembers taking an eight-week family trip across the country, driving from Michigan to California in a van. He took his violin, and the score for the Mozart quartets.

"That started a lifelong obsession of studying scores." said McLean, who is a self-proclaimed "Dover score-oholic."

His mother joked, "Michael, you are 11 already and you haven't written a symphony yet!"

That didn't last for long: in junior high school, McLean wrote a string symphony, a string quartet and two violin sonatas.

McLean studied composition at Northwestern University's School of Music in the 1980s, a time when atonal music and serialism still dominated academia, and the predominant feeling was that traditional tonality had run its course. It was no longer possible to say something new without crushing old idioms; being "derivative" was seriously out of style.

"It was a weird time to study music," McLean said. "New music had to be..." McLean demonstrated on the piano: BANG, boom, all over the keyboard.

"There was such a disconnect between music and human feeling," McLean said of that time period in music. " It left a lot of the audience, and musicians behind, in the dust."

"Thank God for the minimalists, and composers like Arvo Pärt, who broke the mold" and started to change what was set in place by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples.

Pärt's spiritual minimalism "was accessible, very profound music that reached me in a way that some of the new music of the 60s did not," McLean said. What did all this mean for a young composer whose primary inspiration was the genius of Mozart?

"Compositionally, I wandered," McLean said. "Eventually, my eclectic tastes began to pull things off the shelf."

For example: Tangos. Once out of college, McLean arranged and wrote more than a dozen tangos, and eventually he wanted to record them all. It was for this project that McLean called upon University of Texas Violin Professor and Juilliard graduate Brian Lewis. The two had met at a Suzuki workshop at Texas Christian University in 1997. Lewis also is the son of well-known Suzuki teacher Alice Joy Lewis of Ottawa.

McLean remembers Lewis playing the Wieniawski Concerto; "He played brilliantly," McLean said. McLean knew that Lewis was the perfect person to record the tangos he'd been composing and arranging.

In 1997, Lewis and McLean, along with Barbara Barber and Kate Stevens, recorded Care to Tango?, featuring 14 of McLean's arrangements and original compositions. This project cemented McLean and Lewis's friendship. If anyone can both understand the intellectual underpinnings and find the fun in a piece of music, it's Lewis.

"We were listening to these takes" of the tango recordings, McLean said, laughing, "and he would grab a throw off the couch and a lamp shade and start dancing around the living room!"

At the time, Lewis was just starting to practice the Bernstein Serenade, which is the piece paired with McLean's "Elements" on the recent CD.

"We just clicked, musically," McLean said. "It really got me wanting to write him a piece."

In fact, McLean wrote the first movement of "Elements," "Earth," later in 1997, then put it aside. Several years later, Lewis commissioned McLean to write a Suite for Violin and Piano for the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Ottawa Suzuki Institute by his mother, Alice Joy Lewis.

Both McLean and Lewis were teaching at Sound Encounters, during which McLean stayed at the Lewis family house, sitting on the porch late at night and talking about music and sonorities. When Lewis actually asked McLean if he could write him violin concerto, McLean told him that he'd already started; the first movement was sitting in a drawer.

In 2000, Lewis and McLean signed a commission contract during a break at the Suzuki workshop in Minnesota, where they were both teaching. McLean went back to Dallas and began with the rest of "Elements," with movements based on the concepts of Earth, Fire, Air and Water.

McLean had been reading works by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and "all of these things coalesced with this piece," he said. Every few months, Brian would fly in from New York to read through the score and offer his thoughts.

"We didn't change a lot of notes – I wrote pretty idiomatically because I'm a violinist," McLean said. At the same time, Lewis's playing was a major influence.

"Brian's playing was a big inspiration to me," McLean said. "I could see him playing the gestures as I was writing."

For example, in the movement, "Fire," Lewis told him to make it as difficult as he wanted to. How hard is it? "It's (Suzuki) Book 35!" McLean laughed. "He basically got what he asked for."

As Lewis told me at the Starling-Delay Symposium in New York earlier this year, "there are certain parts of this piece that are very, very challenging."

Lewis said that when he first read "Fire," he asked McLean, "How to you play this?" and McLean responded, "I can't play it, I wrote it for you!"

The first movement, "Earth," draws its inspiration from story of Genesis, with the violin as a kind of "Adam" figure. McLean also acknowledges "there is a little Sam Barber in the first movement."

Much of the "Air" movement is in f minor, "way in the upper ranges of the violin. You get such a covered, misty sound there, but it isn't idiomatic for the violin," McLean said. "It paints a picture. We get this cloud structure, this antiphonal effect. It's just a very ethereal effect, with these internal canons happening throughout."

McLean also included some of those modern composing techniques he studied in school; but with his own stamp. For example, he put a 12-tone row in the movement "Air."

"It's a 12-tone row; it just happens to be over some beautiful chords," Lewis said.

"The joke was composing a 12-tone row in the most lush, beautiful way," McLean said.

And the movement "Water" makes use of minimalism to portray the flow of water.

"It starts with drops of rain that turn into torrents of water," Lewis said.

Also, water, in the context of Jungian psychology, is the symbol of the subconscious. The "development" of the movement is meant to portray subtitled dreams, McLean said. "This is where, in the hero's journey, we go into the underworld, or into the dark recesses of our pysche," McLean said. In this section, McLean wrote a dance, or rhumba, which "is that arrival point to the underworld."

McLean finished the piece in 2004, revising it with the help of his University of Southern California film scoring teacher, David Spear.

What happened next comes straight out of Composer Fantasy Storybook Land: McLean's piece was recorded by Brian Lewis, on a Stradivarius, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Lewis was offered the opportunity to record the Bernstein "Serenade" with the LSO. When he was asked what he'd like to pair it with, he told them that he had a work he felt was "stunningly beautiful" and would make the perfect pairing: McLean's "Elements."

"It's almost as if this was destined for it to be recorded," Lewis said. "Michael never heard it played until we recorded it with the LSO in Abbey Road Studio."

Lewis, left, and McLean at Abbey Road.

"I remember standing on the podium, thinking, we're not in Kansas anymore," said Lewis, who played the "Artot" Strad for the recording session. "Here I am, playing the 1728 Artot Strad , with the London Symphony and Hugh Wolff, playing a piece commissioned for me, recording in Abbey Studio. I'm standing where the Beatles stood!"

Lewis took off his shoes and recorded in stocking feet.

"It was truly a life-changing experience – this is my first recording with orchestra," Lewis said. "To be able to have your first major recording with orchestra to be in that environment was very special."

As for "Elements," Lewis has found that "people have a really direct emotional reaction to it."

"Michael writes so beautifully for the violin -- composition is very ingrained in him," Lewis said. "The music is honest and real. "

"Those are the types of composers one cherishes deeply."


August 7, 2007 at 07:36 AM · Laurie, something about the way you wrote this makes me want to meet Michael McLean and listen to his compositions. I think he and I would get along. Thanks for putting this entry together.

August 7, 2007 at 09:07 AM · You people look so healthy out there. What are you doing? Twice as healthy as anyone back east. Ten times as healthy as anybody in Europe. Plus you're grinning ear to ear and having exponentially compounded good luck. Bartender, give me what they're having.

August 7, 2007 at 05:57 PM · Thank you so much for posting this interview!!! It's great to get some more background about Michael McLean, and this piece. I've been lucky enough to meet both him and Brian Lewis at the camp you mentioned — Sound Encounters. In fact, back in 2004, the SE orchestra gave what I think was the world premiere of the Earth and Fire movements. It was an amazing experience! And this summer, I was able to sneak in on one of McLean's composition classes, where he walked us through the score explained bits of the story and writing techniques. I even got him to sign my Elements CD. ;) Anyway, thanks SO much for posting this!! It was a treat to read.

August 7, 2007 at 06:53 PM · Thanks for this interview, Laurie! Both Michael McLean and Brian Lewis are the best type of musicians and people you could hope to meet. Hearing about The Elements from McLean himself was a real treat :)

August 7, 2007 at 07:11 PM · Thanks for sharing this Laurie!

August 8, 2007 at 02:51 PM · That's a great article! I have also met both of them at Sound Encounters and they are awesome. Michael came and conducted our orchestra one morning. After he was done our regular conductor (David Barg) stepped back onto the podium and said, (correct me if I'm wrong Sydney and Ruth) "Mark today on your calendars, he is the next John Williams."

August 8, 2007 at 04:44 PM · Haha, yes, I remember that Atticus!! And you know, what, I think Mr. Barg is right. :)

August 8, 2007 at 04:45 PM · Atticus, I listened to your performance of New World "Peace and Praises," another yummy piece by MM, and well-played.

I actually met Michael when he came to do a teaching seminar with my Suzuki group this spring -- a Tango workshop. Michael and I realized we'd gone to Northwestern together, taken from the same teacher, played in orchestra together. It was like meeting an old friend!

I guess what strikes me about Michael is that he is clearly a natural composer, and one who has worked very hard. One thing he said to me, which I didn't quote in this article, was : "I kind of came to composing through the back door."

A baffling statement, isn't it? Here is someone who so clearly studied everything he could get his hands on about composing, and has been prolific about practicing his art since the age of seven.

But in my view, when it comes to composing and academia, the front door has stood, locked shut for about 40 years, with 12 cactus plants shoved against it and an ugly monster guarding the entry. I absolutely love to see someone breaking free of it. Please do, come in the back door if it's the only one open. We need more than ghosts in this house!

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