By Greg Cahill
Ask Lucia Micarelli about her knack for eclectic programming and the soft-spoken, classically trained violinist offers a characteristically modest response. “I don’t think it’s a big deal anymore, because so many people are playing around with all these different styles,” she says, during a phone call from her Los Angeles home. “Even people who are well-established in classical careers are exploring other types of music. The younger generation of soloists is much more open and interested in other genres, even more so than ten years ago. That’s exciting to me.”
That’s all true, but few other musicians can lay claim to being an ambassador of eclecticism with a global media platform.
Earlier this year, PBS-TV debuted An Evening with Lucia Micarelli, a 60-minute showcase that found the 35-year-old violinist performing everything from a triple-fiddle Irish jig and Ravel’s rhapsodic Tzigane to Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Led Zeppelin’s rock powerhouse “Kashmir.”
Jazz, folk, Cajun, classical, rock—it’s all part of Micarelli’s musical world. The music from that broadcast will be released in October on a 16-track live album. And in her first nationwide solo concert tour, the violinist is set to perform 24 dates, beginning in July.
It’s already been a long road. Micarelli, who is half Italian and half Korean, was born in Queens, New York, and began playing violin at age three. She studied at the Juilliard School’s pre-college division with legendary violin teacher Dorothy DeLay and then at the Manhattan School of Music for a year with Pinchas Zukerman.
But she left school before graduating.
“I felt like I needed to figure out how to apply all the technique and skills I learned in a real way,” she told Strings in 2010. “School felt a bit myopic.”
She soon built a reputation as a go-to rock and jazz violinist, touring with the popular progressive-rock band the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, pop singer Josh Groban, classic-rock artists Jethro Tull, and pop-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, among others. She also released two major-label solo albums: 2004’s Music from a Farther Room and 2006’s Interlude, both of which combine pop, tango, jazz, and classical selections.
In 2009, she appeared on Botti’s popular PBS-TV special Chris Botti in Boston—the video excerpt of her star-turn solo on plaintive Botti ballad “Emmanuel” has netted more than 7.6 million views on YouTube.
Landing a starring role in 2010 as a New Orleans street musician on the hit HBO series Treme proved fortuitous in unexpected ways. Initially, Micarelli’s management had received a call from a New York casting director looking for a violinist to fill the part. Micarelli had no acting experience (creator David Simon often uses amateurs to add authenticity to his projects), but the violinist began considering the offer after watching a video interview with Simon (whom Esquire has dubbed “the greatest man in television writing”) and being impressed by his intelligence and serious nature. Then, on the Fourth of July, Micarelli tripped and landed on a wine glass, severing several nerves in her left hand and leaving her worried that she would never again be able to play professionally. (She still has only partial feeling in three fingers.)
“As time has passed, I’ve realized that Treme really blew open my musical world.”
She went into physical therapy and decided to pursue Simon’s offer.
Her experience during four seasons on the show helped to expand Micarelli’s musical horizons and is reflected on the new album, which includes a rendition of Treme co-star Steve Earle’s ballad “This City.” Yet, she remains committed to classical music and is excited about introducing it to the uninitiated. “I’m aware that the majority of my audience isn’t your typical classical listener, so I feel more motivated to bring classical music to them,” she says. “I present it in its natural state alongside jazz and other styles.
“One of the things that’s so exciting to me is that consistently what audiences are most drawn to are the classical elements of the show. Even little kids. After the show, I’ve had people come up to me with their seven year old and I’ll ask the child, ‘Did you like it?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes.’ I’ll ask, ‘Was there a song that you liked the best?’ And they’ll say, ‘I like the Ravel duo.’ It’s like, wow! It’s amazing. And I think it helps that it’s not presented in this sort of pretentious fashion.
“It makes it more interesting to the audience.”
Strings caught up with Micarelli earlier this summer to discuss her new album, her eclectic musical taste, and her desire to use the universal language of music to connect with a diverse audience.
You acknowledge Treme on the new album. How did your experience on the show affect you personally and professionally?
I’ve been thinking about that lately. I didn’t expect that experience to be so musically challenging. I just thought, ‘OK, I’m gonna try to act and that will be a lot to do.’ But as time has passed I’ve realized that Treme really blew open my musical world. It exposed me to a lot of styles that I didn’t know about previously. But also there’s an amazing musical community in New Orleans and the musicians have this amazing spirit that’s expressed through their music. That really influenced how I feel about music because there’s an attitude in New Orleans about music just being so enmeshed in people’s lives. When the family gets together, they fix meals together and while food is cooking they’re playing music. When there’s a funeral, they gather in a second-line to play music to honor the dead. It’s a part of everything.
That’s really different from the musical world that I came from, in which you practice in private and work hard to get something down perfectly and then you perform it. There’s a preciousness about that approach to music—growing up in a conservatory environment can make you feel that the music is all about performance. It’s a recital. Obviously, that part of my brain isn’t going to change entirely, since that’s how I grew up. But seeing musicians incorporate music into their everyday lives and seeing them use it to connect with people socially makes you realize that there’s so much more to it—music can be about joy, it can be about celebration, it can be about history.
And Treme shifted my perspective, so I have more intention now with the music I play. I now have a different understanding about what music means to people. I’m more focused on connection, on sharing, on feeling that we’ve come together to share this moment. Now I feel that performances are a communal experience in which we’ve come together to create a beautiful evening. There’s more joy that way—it’s more fulfilling.
Did that perspective inform the programming for the PBS special and the new live album?
When I first sat down to program a solo concert, I knew that I didn’t want any filler. I wanted to play the music that I really, really love and that I feel super connected to. So, I decided that I was not going to think about genres or how we execute things—I decided that I would think only about the music that I really love. As a result I came up with this crazy, seemingly incohesive list of jazz and classical and Cajun and folk and rock. It was all over the place and I just went for it. A little bit eclectic. [Laughs.]
But these songs all have meaning for me—you end up taking a journey through my musical life. It makes me feel that I am connecting with the audience—it’s more intimate than anything I’ve done in the past.
As a player, what are the technical challenges of shifting from classical to Cajun to rock and so on?
First of all, I have so many challenges to begin with [laughs]—the instrument is a challenge, the music is a challenge. I was worried initially that it might be difficult to switch back and forth. But I didn’t program the show thinking that I wanted to showcase a lot of styles; I programmed it thinking I wanted to play music that I like. So because I’m attached to the music in a personal way, I look forward to what I’m playing. It doesn’t feel like I’m switching genres at all, it’s more like telling a lot of different stories. So, in performance I don’t think about those challenges.
“I’d like to think that I’m curious on my own, but if I think about all the different paths I’ve taken I can usually link them to a person that I’ve met or a world that I sort of came into.”
Technically, I’m more aware of it when I’m practicing. For example, when I practice classical music, I do more technical work: string crossing exercises, flow work, and stuff with the metronome. It’s more about cleaning things up so they’re more precise. And when I practice jazz or folk, I just focus on slightly different things. I’ll spend a lot of time just getting slides to sound the way I want them to or fussing over what kind of turn I want to do—is it a turn above the note or a turn below the note? Or do I do a little weird stop-bow thing someplace? But in performance, it doesn’t feel like I’m shifting genres. The bigger challenge is shifting from playing my instrument to singing. That’s the only time I feel aware of a challenge.
You started singing when you filmed Treme.
Yeah, and it’s the thing that I’ve done the least. So there’s a certain apprehension about that. I am a very emotional player, but when I’m singing I feel really vulnerable. I’ve noticed that I get even more emotional when I sing. I don’t have as much focus or muscle memory—it’s a much more raw experience.
I sense that you have a lot of curiosity about music.
I can’t really pinpoint it. I didn’t listen to anything except classical music until I was 17. Then I started listening to Miles [Davis] and John [Coltrane] and Led Zeppelin, all in the same few weeks. It was a real interesting experience. And a lot of it has been driven by the people I have met. I’d like to think that I’m curious on my own, but if I think about all the different paths I’ve taken, I can usually link them to a person that I’ve met or a world that I sort of came into.
So, when I was 17, I met the cellist David Eggar, who was both a classical cellist and a pianist who could improvise and play jazz. I was just blown away. I knew that I wanted to learn to improvise. I wanted to be able to do what he was doing. While touring with Josh Groban, I met [jazz trumpeter] Chris Botti and found myself on the road with a ridiculously legit jazz band—everybody I was around 24 hours a day was a jazz cat. I was so impressed. They taught me a lot—they told me about their childhoods and how they had experienced music, and they would play their favorite records for me and give me advice. It was the same when I was filming Treme.
I would find these musicians and learned that someone else’s perspective is always going to be different from yours. So, to a certain extent I feel comfortable around most any musician—I feel that on a base level we get each other. But it’s incredible how different everybody’s story is and how their paths are different and how they came to the music and how they think about it.
I think I have a curiosity about people and I just happen to be around musicians all the time. They have given me so much. I’ve learned that it’s a good thing to put myself in situations where nobody else has the same background as me. That’s how I really grow. Now, I seek out situations like that so I can learn from people all the time. I just find people really fascinating.
Did Pinchas Zukerman encourage or discourage your eclectic interests?
Well, I was doing that secretly. [Laughs.] I don’t recall that I ever brought that [eclectic side] into class or that we ever really talked about it. But Zukerman has his own program at Manhattan School and it required you to play chamber music. At Juilliard, in pre-college, you could play chamber music but you didn’t have to. With Zukerman, you did. That was huge for me.
My love of ensemble playing really came from Zukerman. I knew about chamber music but hadn’t spent a lot of time with it. He was adamant about playing chamber music. He also felt it was really important for our solo playing. I fell in love with it so hard. I mean, I had done some of it in pre-college and had done a healthy amount of quartet playing, but I didn’t start to appreciate or understand chamber music until I studied with Zukerman. That was the beginning of . . . well, changing my mind, and I continue to do that. Up until that point, I was focused on the solo repertoire and preparing for competitions—you get really focused on that because solo repertoire is very different than chamber music. Not technically, or anything, but chamber music is all about listening, interacting, and sharing. It’s all about connecting with other people and being reactive to them. That wasn’t a strength of mine—it wasn’t something I had practiced. I was pretty much in the practice room working on my concertos. But I loved chamber music so much, I loved collaborating and being part of a group, and having other people’s opinions and ideas feeding my awareness.
When I look back, I see that what I am doing with my solo show has a very strong chamber-music element—I have essentially a string quartet onstage and I bring a lot of classical chamber-music arrangements into the program. I love playing with people; I love small groups like that.
Do you still play chamber music for fun?
I get together with friends on occasion, but I don’t have time to attend chamber concerts outside of my own program. I’m always looking for ways to fit in a chamber movement in my program. I’m trying to fill my show with all the things I wish I had time for in my extracurricular time. [Laughs.]
Tell me about your upcoming national solo tour.
I’m really excited about going on the road and meeting so many people. Obviously, recording is so isolating—you have such a disconnect with your audience. But playing live, and with a program that isn’t a rigidly structured classical program, I get to know my audience and to talk to people. That’s been the most gratifying part. I also get to play with my friends: My husband, Neel Hammond, plays violin with me, and Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, one of the cellists, I’ve known since I played with Josh Groban. I tour with Eric Byers, the cellist from the Calder Quartet. Ben Jacobson, the Calder violinist, has played with me a lot as well.
They’re all really close friends and when we get together in concert, it’s like family. I haven’t always had that experience in my professional life and it feels like that New Orleans thing, getting together with my loved ones and celebrating and sharing. It’s new and exciting and I still have moments onstage when I look around and think, “This is so cool. I get to play with you guys and I love you guys.” I’m really enjoying that right now.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.