Science & Tech Editor
Freshly graduated from the University of Southern California with his masters of music in sacred music, Daniel Newman-Lessler has already established himself as a force of innovation as the new Interim Director of Choral Activities and Chamber Choir Conductor at UCSB.
At only 27 years old, Newman-Lessler has been drawn to music his whole life — which may explain his high level of success at such a young age.
“My mom claims that it started while she was still pregnant with me. She was driving to a doctor’s appointment and, at this point, there hadn’t been a whole lot of movement or kicking. But she happened to turn on some Elton John and apparently she felt kicking that was in tempo with the music,” said Newman-Lessler in an interview with The Bottom Line.
Newman-Lessler’s fascination with music continued as he grew up. At the age of one or two years old, he was already banging around on the piano, fascinated by the creation of sound. At four years old, he had begun piano lessons and was tapping out made up rhythms in class — a habit that drove most of his teachers crazy.
Although he had a stint as a performer in a progressive metal band in high school, classical piano remained his love, influencing his decision to study composition and piano at USC’s Thornton School of Music as an undergraduate.
Daniel Pollack, a professor of piano at USC, was one of Newman-Lessler’s formative influences during his time as an undergraduate. “I quickly realized being in his studio that I was not going to be a solo pianist because the rest of his students were just at a different level,” said Newman-Lessler.
“It was very humbling because I was very much a big fish in a small pond growing up, but then I went to L.A. and realized that, although I love piano and I’m never going to give it up, it’s not gonna be my career.” Despite that realization, Newman-Lessler describes Pollack as a mentor who made him a better pianist and human being.
After beginning to focus on conducting, Newman-Lessler decided to stay at USC to complete his master’s degree — during which he worked with Nick Strimple, a well-known scholar of Jewish sacred music. For his graduate conducting recital, Newman-Lessler conducted music exclusively composed by Jewish women.
“I feel a certain duty as a conductor — since one of my biggest duties is to decide what music the choir I conduct for is going to perform — to make sure that the voices of these composers [are] heard,” said Newman-Lessler.
“Whether it’s making sure more women are getting programmed or whether it’s making music in response to the environmental movement, music and social justice are going hand in hand. That’s a big thing I took away from my time in Los Angeles.”
Newman-Lessler’s passion for programming innovative classical music, especially music by living composers, has influenced his vision for the chamber choir at UCSB. Inspired by UCSB’s place in the modern environmentalism movement, he designed a set of pieces for the choir that tell the stories of environmentalism and nature through music.
The pieces he has designed for the choir are diverse and thematically oriented — some are warning pieces, while others are musical tributes to awe-inspiring places in nature.
“I rely on themes to help me parse some other stuff away because there is an overwhelming amount of repertoire to be programmed,” said Newman-Lessler. “At the same time, for these pieces about the environmental movement, I focused on representing everything from trees to the sun to the ocean.”
Newman-Lessler is passionate about his position at UCSB, for which he discovered he was a finalist only five weeks before fall quarter began. He describes mentorship as contributing to his decision to apply for the position.
Newman-Lessler sees potential at UCSB and feels “very humbled and flattered to be teaching alongside [its] incredible vocal faculty.”
He is currently focusing on using his creative energy to build a thriving program at UCSB and on working with the university’s high level choral students, all of whom bring different sets of musical and life experiences to the table.