Interview with The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra's Associate Principal Bassist
New York, NY. We caught Metropolitan Opera Associate Principal Bassist Leigh Mesh on a lunch break during the orchestra's rehearsals for a sold out Carnegie Hall performance of Stravinsky's Pétrouchka and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lang Lang and conductor James Levine. Mesh is a charismatic man, at once relaxed and at ease, yet intensely focused and powerful both in musicianship and in personal fitness - the result of a lifetime of pursuing his two passions, music and an active lifestyle outdoors.
The end of his 16th season with the Met marks the beginning of an open-ended leave of absence during which Mesh will be teaching double bass at The Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles. In the conversation that follows, he shares with us the story of his leave, his favorite music and ski slopes, the qualities of his "ideal student," the fun behind the annual Verbier bass hike, advice to musicians struggling to advance their careers, his biggest challenge, and the personal journey that led him to where he is today.
We're looking forward to running into Mesh again very soon in Verbier, Switzerland, where he and his wife Nancy (Associate Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) have spent the last ten years coaching musicians of the Verbier Orchestra, and enjoying the outdoors with their two beautiful children, Guinny and Wolfie.
Notes: So, you're taking a year off of the Met to teach at Colburn. Tell us about that!
Leigh Mesh: Wow. Yeah. It was weird. Totally unexpected, and totally unlooked for. Well - maybe it's been kind of looked for, because you know - I've been doing this for a long time. I have loved playing in the Met Orchestra but- I just finished my 16th year. And I played for 7 years in other orchestras before joining the Met: Columbus Symphony Indianapolis Symphony, and Chicago Symphony. Nancy's played here for 20 years. That's a lot of years!
What happened was my first day skiing in January, I got nailed from behind by a snowboarder who hit me with such force that it broke my ankle in my ski boot. Yeah, it sucked. I also had to have surgery to repair it. The bone on the outside - the fibula- broke in half, and it needed a plate and 4 screws. I'm still in physical therapy. I've broken a lot of stuff, but this break has been brutal and has taken the longest to heal.
Wolfie and I were supposed to take a ski trip together but we had to cancel it because of the injury. Instead, we went to Chatsworth, California, where Nancy's from...it's in the Valley.
In the past, I had coached some players from Colburn in Verbier. I've always wanted to see Colburn. It's kind of like Curtis, where I went to school. I did a class when we were visiting LA. The people at Colburn liked my class enough that they offered me the position of bass professor. I found out the current teacher was leaving for a position at USC. It was kind of just being at the right place at the right time. I am looking forward to it. It's an opportunity to express myself away from the orchestra.
Notes: Is your teaching stint at Colburn just one year, or indefinite?
The position is open, so if they think I'm the right fit for the school, they might make me a permanent offer. But a lot of factors have to line up in order for us to move there permanently. Nancy and my family are huge factors in this. The decision could be really agonizing. I'm commuting 2 times a month from New York to Los Angeles. Everything about it is logistically difficult. I'll be out there 5 days at a time, twice a month. The rest of the time I will be off and at home, and able to spend a lot of time with my family.
Notes: How would you describe the qualities and characteristics of your "ideal" student?
Sheer talent is not the top factor for being a good student. It's desire and commitment and discipline, I think. Don't you? You've gotta have basic talent. I've seen so many people over the years with so much talent, and I've seen that talent isn't the main ingredient for being successful. Good attitude, drive and willingness to work hard are probably more important than raw talent. Being cool, sensitive and supportive of your colleagues- these qualities are very important too.
Notes: How many hours in a week are you rehearsing and playing operas at the Met? And do you spend time practicing outside of work as well?
During the season, we are obligated to play 4 operas per week. That is our base pay. All other rehearsals are paid extra and hourly, so, the more you rehearse, the more money you make. An opera performance pays the same whether it's a one act Strauss opera, or a long Verdi or Wagner opera. I try to practice during the season, but it is hard if we have a double. For us, it means 2 round trips in and out of the city! People think it's insane, and it is, but the positive side of that, is now we are off for 3 1/2 months without the commute.
Notes: How do you inspire sustained periods of focus, concentration and stamina not only in yourself, but in your section?
When I am playing principal, which is often, I have to concentrate all the time. If I miss an entrance, or come in with less than full authority, I feel unease and unrest within the section. You get good at counting and being solid with less effort as time goes on. I always try to play my best. Sometimes I'm successful, sometimes not.
Notes: It was rumored that you once said: "Symphony jobs are for wimps!"
Did I say that? That's not true! It's just that people at the Met, they kind of pride themselves on the fact that opera is really hard, and long! And generally the repertoire is - we just played the Ring. You just can't compare it to any symphonic work, at least none that I've played. The loudest passages out of the biggest Bruckner symphony, the biggest Mahler symphony don't even compare to Götterdämmerung. Just from a physical standpoint...so everybody jokes about it at the Met. In most major orchestras, a concert lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes. But 2 hours and 15 minutes is kind of a joke to us...That's why I said that.
I do not miss playing symphonic music full time. The operatic repertoire is so rich. I feel so sorry for all the symphonic musicians that have never had the privilege of really knowing the Verdi operas. There are some operas that don't wear as well as others; I guess it all comes down to personal preference. I would miss the story and drama, and the voice! I feel fortunate that we play in a juicy, passionate style. It's fun! On the other hand, a lot of operas could use more cuts, they are really long.
Notes: Do you have a good joke to tell?
There are a lot of funny things that go on in that opera house, and some funny jokes. Too many to tell, but here's one. In my first year on the job, we were in the middle of Gounod's Faust, I think in Act 3 with an extended organ solo. Julius Rudel was conducting. He was hilarious because he used to get very angry when things went wrong, he was his own worst enemy. No sound was coming from the organ which is behind the bass section. He yelled over to the organist (in the performance!) "Where is the organ?!" Our personnel manager at the time was a member of the bass section, and he answers back, "Maestro, the organ isn't working!" Without missing a beat, I hear the reply from one of the old guard in the cello section, "I know the feeling." Maybe you had to know this old guy with that gravely voice, but when I heard that in the middle of the show, I just lost it. Tears were running down my face, I couldn't play for a few minutes. Good memory!
Notes: Do you have a favorite piece of music? What piece would you take with you to a desert isle?
It would be Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten - definitely my favorite opera. Peter Grimes - a close second. Everything about it is amazing to me.
Notes: What would you say you find the most challenging in life?
Achieving a good balance between everything that goes on in your life - your profession, marriage, parenthood, and taking care of yourself. To do all of those things well, is hard.
Notes: So you and your wife Nancy both work extraordinarily demanding full time jobs at the Met, you have two great children, you also find the time to be in the outdoors and take trips and stay committed to skiing, cycling and a healthy lifestyle.... Looking back twenty years ago, were these the things that Leigh Mesh dreamed of?
Yeah. What happened for me is that I had to put the whole goal of winning the position I wanted in the Met or an orchestra like it, before everything else. Many other things in my life were on hold until I could achieve that. I wanted to have a nice solid stable home. Definitely for me, everything had to be on hold while my focus was winning a job.
My first job was in the Columbus Symphony - I was in Ohio for almost 2 years. Then I went to the Indianapolis Symphony. I actually got in trouble with the management in those orchestras because I took every single audition that was better than where I was currently positioned.
So now, everything feels very stable, but the journey getting here was pretty hard. I really feel for people who are struggling with things like I did. It's so difficult. For me, I had to settle my career goals first.
Notes: It's so common for musicians to have very difficult personal lives while trying to advance their careers. Do you have any advice for musicians that are struggling to balance those two aspects of their lives?
Don't get involved with anybody emotionally until you have a job. No- I'm joking. Sometimes you can't control things in your life... but I would think that for sure, having children before achieving your personal goals makes it much harder to actually do it. If you're on the job / audition circuit, you are competing with people who are in their early twenties just out of school with lots of time to practice. You can't do that and be a parent at the same time, at least not well, I think.
The other night I had to go to Guin's 6th grade orchestra concert. I went early with her to help tune the strings because no one can tune the instruments except their teacher, and right before the performance, her teacher asked me if I could play the high hat in the Pink Panther! In the performance! I was really nervous, but pulled it off. Ironically I play drums, I have a big set in my house, but that jazzy high hat thing is tricky to make sound right. Wolfie also had flu and he had temperature of 104, so Nancy had to be with him...Another glimpse into our lives.
I feel like the time you have with your kids (while they want to be with you) is so short, that you should make the most of it while you can. Especially those years when you can really do stuff together...Nancy and I are really thankful that Guinny and Wolfie want to be with us so much, and that they are always so happy go back to Verbier in the summer.
Notes: At Verbier each summer you seem to inspire unusual solidarity in all the members of the bass section. What's your secret?
I think the bass section's training is in the pub at night, and that's where they bury me, cause I can't drink! We always do a bass hike, but the past couple of years, it's turned into a skinny dipping party in some Alpine lake...[laughs] . Everyone thinks it's really fun getting naked and going swimming. There are some very hilarious photos from past hikes! I'll show them to you this summer.
Notes: Some might argue that there's a similar parallel going on between drug use in pro sports and the widespread use of beta-blockers and other drugs in the audition and performance circuit. How do you feel about the issue?
Well, it's not quite the same. I don't think that beta-blockers can really physically change the way you play music. It's not the same as somebody who doesn't have enough strength getting shot up full of EPO and all of a sudden they've got 4 times the amount of strength that enables them to be competitive with somebody that's much stronger. So, I don't mind it that much. I used to take a very small amount of Inderal for auditions because I used to get incredibly nervous. There was just too much on the line. I felt it was stupid to mess something up because of nerves. But since winning the Met job, I haven't used beta blockers at all. I've just kind of learned to control my nerves. Everybody has them!
If somebody needs Inderal all the time to play and perform, that seems weird to me. But if they've been practicing for months and months for an audition, and they take a small dose to help them to be calm in the audition, I'm fine with it.
Notes: Tell us about your passion for skiing.
Every year pretty much I live to ski. Before I went into music, I was going to do something in skiing. My best friend growing up is a lawyer living in Aspen. He moved there to be in the mountains. Skiing was always a big part of my life before music. I grew up in New York, north of here. We skied and raced on ski teams in high school. I also run, cycle, and do ski specific exercises. It's really hard to only have a few days, and go from sea level up to 10,000 feet and be fit and strong. I love to work out, but I also do it specifically to train for skiing. The more fit I am, the more I can enjoy skiing.
Well, I telemark ski - it's kind of like cross-country skiing where you go down on one leg. I do a lot of different squats, also one-legged squats. I try to do exercises that simulate the motion.
I try to back country ski as much as I can, and it takes a lot of work to get uphill under your own power. Favorite slopes: Utah, Colorado. In Salt Lake there's around 10 world class places to ski. Alta's great. I back country ski near Alta also. There's one place in Ogden, which is north, where you stand on top of the summit and look behind you... there's the Great Salt Lake right there. It's really beautiful...just such a magical place.