Interview with Lorenzo Micheli

Lugano - July 2017

Lorenzo Micheli teaches guitar at the Conservatorio della Svizzera italiana, is Artist in Residence at both the University of Colorado Boulder and Columbus State University, and is one of the teachers of the Masters degree at the Conservatorio Arrigo Boito in Parma and the Pablo de Olavide University in Seville.
He has played in many of the world’s concert halls, from Carnegie Hall in New York to the Schubert-Saal in Vienna, from the Hall of Columns in Kiev to the Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid, from the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow to the Sejong Center in Seoul.
In the last year he has given around fifty public performances, mostly as soloist or with guitarist Matteo Mela in their duo “SoloDuo”, whose playing has been described by the Washington Post as “extraordinarily sensitive – nothing less than rapturous”.

With great simplicity and humility, Lorenzo talked about himself during a long and detailed interview in which he was able to go through the various moments of a performance: from what he usually does before an important concert, to a description of the performance itself and the emotions that accompany it; he also talked about the feelings he experiences after a concert, and about the differences between the performer’s and the listener’s impressions of it.

In terms of preparation, Lorenzo recognises that what he now does in order to ensure that he arrives on stage prepared and focused is different from what he did five, fifteen or twenty years ago.
Asked, “What do you do on the day of a concert?”, he replies, “What I don’t do is … try to relieve tension by means of technical study. … As far as the instrument is concerned, I simply try to maintain physical contact with it.” In other words, he doesn’t want to arrive on stage and see his instrument as an unknown or foreign object that he happens to have to deal with; instead, throughout the day he wants to touch it, to press the strings, without necessarily playing it and certainly without practicing.
He also likes – when possible – to test the acoustic of the concert hall, because “it’s a bit like getting the measure of the space around you; it’s essential, because if you don’t do it beforehand you’ll have to do it once the concert had started.”
He adds that, unlike many performers, he prefers to keep active: “On the day of a concert I like to do things. I feel a physical need to be occupied. … This means not shutting myself up in a hotel, … if I’ve got some teaching to do … on the day of a concert, I’m very happy … if it’s possible to go out on my own, to go and see something, I’ll willingly do it. … Whenever possible, I like to go running the morning before a concert, it’s something that really does me good. Shortly before a concert I eat … and then, when waiting, I read a book, usually fiction; because … I guess the ultimate purpose of all these things we do before playing is to try to find some kind of distraction to relieve … the tension of that final hour.”
While he usually makes every effort to do these things that help him to prepare for the moment of performance as well as possible, he admits that he doesn’t make use of fixed rituals in the hours leading up to it: “The existence of a ritual is at odds with the fact that at the practical level almost no ritual can be stable; … so I prefer not to have fixed practices, because, in a sense, constant variability gives you some protection from possible emotional repercussions. … For me nothing is really indispensable except the instrument,” and he adds, smiling, “The only aspect of the performance that’s important and that can’t be eliminated is the performance itself. The only thing that can’t not be there.”

And so, close to the beginning of the concert, Lorenzo begins to concentrate fully on the performance: “I start to run through in my mind what I’m about to play, and to focus on my surroundings: the hall, the stage, the lighting; if there’s already someone in the hall I like to go out and look at them.” He recognises that in that moment tension is helpful: “Unfortunately … I have personal experience of what it means not to be scared, and have discovered that, for me, it’s a very bad thing. In the sense that the absence of tension, of a state of emotional susceptibility, … has direct consequences in terms of concentration. It has happened to me to have ten concerts on ten consecutive days, and on the evenings that were less important or when the audience was less attentive, I remember having switched to autopilot while I was playing, and having begun to think about other things. … So … I much prefer to feel tension! The way I deal with it is not by trying to suppress it, but rather by turning it onto the musical text and … clinging onto the music. In other words … my own tension becomes an additional arsenal of possibilities for reading the musical text … which in the end is what saves me. … Insecurity, the sense of inadequacy, the fear of not being understood or followed, all vanish in the face of real immersion in the music you’re playing. And in fact … it’s tension, in the moment in which you concentrate on that horizontal thread of the musical text, that allows those listening to follow what you’re saying. And those who listen and don’t have the tools for following the musical text are nevertheless able to understand that within this text there’s a tension that holds everything together, from beginning to end.”

I then ask him, “What images/emotions/sensations come into your mind in the moment before you walk onto the stage?” Lorenzo replies, “There is certainly, inevitably, a sense of relief in going on. … And then, depending on circumstances, various states of mind can come into play: including insecurity, for sure, because you don’t know how some things are going to work out; but at the same time you’re driven by curiosity, and by a desire to communicate.”
Wanting to probe further, I ask him, “What emotions do you usually experience before a performance?”
Lorenzo seems very sure about his reply: “Let’s say that there are three things I feel to differing degrees: inspiration, enthusiasm and enjoyment. There’s also a sense of intimacy, to be sure … and curiosity, an active curiosity, the desire to find out, to see how far what you do will be accepted and understood, which in a certain sense goes hand in hand with a sense of community and sharing. Then there can be two negative emotional reactions – inadequacy (you find yourself stupidly asking why you should be there playing and the others should be there listening, and it’s only in answering that inadequacy that you move forward) and embarrassment, that tiny, irrepressible part of yourself that in spite of everything is embarrassed (though even embarrassment and shame can be positive factors that are of use to the performance). And … at the end, serenity, because … being able to develop and control a coherent musical thought from beginning to end induces a state of serenity.”

Discussing with Lorenzo the most important moment for a musician, namely that of the performance, I ask him how he manages to maintain serenity, optimism and focus throughout. Without much hesitation he replies, “If it doesn’t seem tautological, my answer is: through what I’m doing! I concentrate on the musical narrative, and … over the years I’ve learned to look to the right and not to the left (I mean, looking at the music). In other words, the audience is listening to what you’re doing now; it has no way of seeing ahead but neither can it hold onto much of what’s past, other than a few general impressions, which are what will last right to the end. So it’s very important to make sure … that what has been doesn’t compromise what’s happening now and what’s still to come.”

In an attempt to make what he’s saying even more concrete, I ask him how comfortable and confident he felt during his last performance on a scale of 1 to 7 (where 1 is “not at all confident” and 7 is “really confident”). Smiling, he says, “I’d say 5. One is always highly self-critical, so one’s perception of what one does is obviously influenced by a certain degree of expectation. So … leaving aside minor problems or momentary losses of concentration, 5 would reflect a feeling of substantial satisfaction, in relation to a 100% that one never achieves.”

Lorenzo nevertheless confesses that he doesn’t like to discuss his own assessment of a performance immediately after a concert. On the contrary, he prefers to keep it to himself, analyse it, and only later, if necessary, put it into words: “It’s a bit like when I go to the cinema to see a film; at the end I’ve got nothing to say, not because the film made no impression on me, but rather for the opposite reason. When you’ve spent two hours watching a film you’ve enjoyed, you have keep it to yourself, inside yourself, at least for a moment. Then maybe a bit later you can talk about it, you manage to put your impressions into some sort of order, but only after the film has worked on you. … And the same thing happens with music.”
Finally, he adds an interesting thought: “Personally, I’d say that the final applause isn’t that important. Especially after certain programmes, silence might actually be the right response.”

Lorenzo then explains that his reflections on his performances have altered over the years, partly as a result of experience: “I’m no longer as self-critical as I was and perhaps manage to be a bit more objective in my assessments … maybe because I have different priorities, so am less concerned about secondary things, such as mistakes. … Whereas in the past mistakes prevented me from assessing any other aspect of the performance, now I basically manage not to worry too much about them. And perhaps I’m a bit less severe, though at the same time I use my own feedback to reorganise my work: it’s an opportunity to take stock in order to work out which direction to go in.” Finally, he adds, “I think it’s normal when you’re twenty to believe that every performance has been a disaster.”

Lorenzo continues to discuss his thoughts, giving some consideration to the important relationship between performer and listener: “One of the abilities that you develop as a musician is to tune in to the wavelength of those listening; to sense, for example, if you have their attention, and to be aware if you lose this attention for some reason, which could be a loss of conviction on your part, or a structural problem in the music you’re playing, or environmental factors.”
Even so, the player’s impression of a performance doesn’t necessarily correspond to that of the listener, because they’re based on such different things. Indeed, he adds, “It can happen that I feel very pleased with something that, afterwards, I realize didn’t have the effect on those listening that I’d imagined. Vice versa, it can also happen … that I’m aware of a sympathy, an attention and a response on the part of those listening that’s completely out of proportion with what I’m doing. And in fact it has happened to me that I’ve been really unhappy with a performance that maybe fifteen years later people will still talk to me about, saying, ‘Ah, what a concert that was!’ And I know, deep down, that it wasn’t actually the great concert they think it was, and that, for various reasons, their perception of it was distorted. … For us the greatest challenge is to bridge the gap between your idea of what you’re playing and the idea that those listening have of you. … And it’s very difficult when you’re playing to see yourself, not so much to see yourself from the outside, but somehow to find that middle way that makes it possible to weld together your own image of yourself, the image you have of yourself when you play, and the impression those listening have of it from outside.” And he concludes, smiling, “You might say it’s the musician’s Pirandellian dilemma.”

An Interview with Lorenzo Micheli by Cinzia Cruder / Translation by Laura Davey