Weekly Interview: Robert Lehmann Oct. 26, 2007
Posted by Gazette Editor at 10/26/2007
By Cliff White
Robert Lehmann doesn’t think, as many others do, that classical
music is dying. He just thinks it lacks a decent public relations
Lehmann, 39, a Scarborough resident and professor of music at the
University of Southern Maine, has long focused his energy on the
future of classical music: its next generation. He has served as
conductor for a number of youth orchestras and holds a firm conviction
that classical music can have a significant positive impact on a
young person’s development.
“Classical music is suffering from a lack of understanding
because our priorities in the public schools are not directed toward
the arts. I think the arts are very, very important for the human
condition,” Lehmann says. “They have been proven over
and over again to be beneficial in terms of intellectual development,
socialization skills and the creation of your own personality.”
Lehmann speaks from first-hand experience. Since he picked up a
violin for the first time at the age of 12, his life has been shaped
“Ever since I was a kid, I have been surrounded by classical
music. I can’t get enough of it. I love it,” Lehmann
says. “It speaks to me in a very personal way. It moves and
Lehmann was born in Mexico City to a musical family. His mother
was a professional violinist in the National Symphony of Mexico.
Lehmann was given opportunities to play both the violin and the
piano in his younger years, but says he did not become interested
until he picked up a violin on his own and started without instruction.
“I wasn’t really into [playing] as a kid,” Lehmann
says. “One day, I picked up a violin and just started playing
it. I would listen to recordings of symphonies and started trying
to play along by ear. That led me to play things I probably had
no business playing, and somehow the technique found a way to catch
Lehmann says when he first starting playing the violin, he had no
formal practice routine rather just played when he felt like it,
which he says happened a lot.
“I was essentially self-taught until I was 15,” Lehmann
says. “Then it struck me I would get a lot better if I had
some instruction. At that point, I was ready to go on and get a
The instruction enhanced and honed Lehmann’s innate natural
ability. By the age of 17, he had graduated high school a year early
from a conservatory and was playing violin alongside his mother
in the National Symphony of Mexico.
“It’s an eye-opening experience, playing with a professional
orchestra at 17,” Lehmann says, “but it was a lot of
fun to play together with my mother.”
Lehmann attended college in the United States, at the University
of the Pacific in Stockton, California on a full scholarship.
“One of my professors was stunned that I had never played
a three-octave scale, and I had never played a piece by memory.
That didn’t last long – he had changed that. He told
me, ‘In a month, you’ll be playing the first movement
of a concerto from memory. So get working.’”
At graduation, he was named the Outstanding Graduating Senior of
the Conservatory of Music. Lehmann then went to work on a master’s
degree in music at the University of Rochester in New York. While
there, he played in the school’s philharmonic orchestra for
two years and was named concertmaster in his second year, a high
honor marking him as a preeminent violinist. He also participated
in summer residence at the Schlossfestspiele, an opera company,
in Heidelberg, Germany.
“It was a wonderful experience being a young person living
in Germany,” Lehmann says.
He continued his education, obtaining a Doctor of Musical Arts degree
from Boston University. It was at this time that he began actively
pursuing another musical outlet – conducting. He served as
conductor of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Empire
State Youth Repertory Orchestra, the Rhode Island Youth Philharmonic
and the Mozart Society Orchestra at Harvard University.
“I’ve seen music transform kids,” Lehmann says.
“Some extremely shy kids are able to really blossom through
their instruments. Many of the kids that select the arts find great
camaraderie, companionship and socialization in youth ensemble programs.
I think it’s just as necessary as any sports program is for
sports minded people – and a lot of kids I have worked with
have done both.”
Lehmann says conducting is much different than playing the violin.
“As a violinist you can always practice on the instrument
any time you want, but the only time a conductor gets to practice
is when the entire orchestra is assembled,” says Lehmann,
who adds a symphonic or philharmonic orchestra is composed of about
80 to 100 performers.
Among Lehmann’s many titles and accolades, he is also music
director at the North Shore Philharmonic in Massachusetts and music
director of the Portland Chamber Orchestra. Lehmann says he often
ends up with a lot on his plate because he has a hard time turning
down opportunities. “For a young conductor, I can’t
say no to these opportunities,” he says. “I take advantage
of them to learn as much as I can.”
He says every conductor has his own style and it is especially interesting
to watch different conductors conduct the same piece of music.
“Even before the music has started, the way the conductor
stands on the podium already begins to affect the musicians’
psyche,” Lehmann says. “That’s what allows the
same orchestra to play the same piece with a different conductor
and get a completely different sonority and interpretation.”
Lehmann describes his own style as dynamic.
“I wear my heart on my sleeve. I take a lot of risks,”
he says. “I would rather have a moving and powerful performance
even if there are a few flaws in it to a note-perfect but bland
performance. The audience, I think, wants to see people take risks.”
Lehmann compares conducting to cooking.
“There’s a process to creating and serving a meal which
similar to conducting,” Lehmann says. “There are just
certain things that go together. You have to know when to add salt
and pepper, know when to reduce the heat on something when something
is starting to burn. And you bring all the entrees to the table
for the performance.”
Lehmann says what he loves most about conducting is his ability
to use a large group of musicians to shape and impart his art on
“I couldn’t think of a better job,” Lehmann says.
“It’s the ability to extract the best I can from the
players, to inspire them, and to be inspired by them, and to recreate
music written on a page for listeners.”
The conductor says he thinks it’s important for people going
to a musical performance to have an understanding of what they are
“I have an analogy I draw for classical music,” he says.
“It’s like visiting a museum. Why do people go to a
museum? To appreciate the wonderful works of art created by geniuses
and masters. But you enjoy your experience at a museum so much more
if you have an understanding of what you’re going to see.
The same is true of going to a concert hall. It’s so much
more meaningful if you have some understanding of what you’re
Lehmann hopes to get more people in southern Maine interested in
“Music speaks different things to different people and inspires
them in different ways,” he says. “My hope is that others
may have a chance to experience the passion that I have for music.”