Brad Lubman Discusses Conducting and Composing

Brad Lubman Discusses Conducting and Composing

This piece was originally published in Classical Post.

“It's all one and part of the same thing - conducting and composing," says Brad Lubman, one of the foremost conductors of modern music. This wasn't always the case for him, his conducting and composing trajectories unfurled at different rates. But it's where he's arrived.

As a kid, it was Brad Lubman’s goal to be a rock’n’roll drummer, he imagined that he would get a job playing in the studios. That all irreversibly shifted at age 14 when his friend played him a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. “From that point on all I wanted to be was a timpanist and a conductor. My dream was to be a regular orchestral conductor, conducting the repertoire. I was in love with Mahler, Beethoven Symphonies, Brahms Symphonies, Shostakovich, Debussy, Ravel. That’s really what I wanted to do. Of course I liked modern music, I knew some things early on, little hints of Varèse and things like that,” he says.

It was soon after this that Lubman developed an interest in composition. He wrote two works, a very short piece for 5 percussionists (based on some of the syncopations in those famous chords from The Rite of Spring) and a sketch for a brass ensemble piece (based on the mood of Fanfare for the Common Man). Lubman wasn’t satisfied with what he had written.

In college, Lubman developed a habit of starting compositional sketches and putting them away before they were complete. He frequently asked himself questions like ‘Why am I bothering? We already had a Schoenburg, a Stravinsky, a Varèse’. This continued for seven years.

Conducting was a different story. It was “a much more straightforward and simple thing”, he says. “I put together an ensemble in my sophomore year of college to perform Dvořák Wind Serenade in 1981, and I haven’t stopped conducting since then. Whereas with the composing, for seven years I didn’t trust myself, I didn’t have the confidence.”

In 1986, Lubman got through his seven-year writing block and was writing works for friends. He had gone to Tanglewood for a few summers, where he was assistant conductor to Oliver Knussen, and was hoping for a big break to conduct orchestras, become a music director and do the Beethoven symphony cycles. At the same time, he was conducting a lot of difficult contemporary music and enjoying it. In his mind, the emphasis would have been on orchestral conducting, but he became known around NYC as a kind of new music specialist.

Lubman tries to get people to be as open-minded as possible and to lose their notions of musical categorization and boundaries, as he was not always like that. “I was susceptible to influences. Some friends of mine in college didn’t like minimalism. So I thought ‘oh yeah, we shouldn’t like minimalism’. It’s hysterical. Luckily around the age of 30, I started to realize that I should rebel against myself and everything that I stood for,” says Lubman.

Lubman realized that there was a lot of music that he didn’t listen to or didn’t like. “I had either a breakthrough or a breakdown. I thought ‘I’m just imitating and emulating composers that I like, maybe I have nothing to say as a composer?’ That thought really scared me,” says Lubman.

For the next two years, Lubman stopped composing and immersed himself in music that he had not paid attention to before. He listened to the music of Reich, Adams, Glass, Xenakis, Feldman, and Ligeti. “After two years, I really wanted to compose again. I started to write again and everything came out sounding like Feldman. That’s the extent to which Feldman’s music made an impact on me,” Lubman says. He never stopped listening to minimalist music. Lubman has given the world premieres of Steve Reich’s Three Tales, Reich/Richter, Runner, Daniel Variations, Radio Rewrite, and Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, Michael Gordon/David Lang/Julia Wolfe’s Shelter, and works by Philip Glass.

Lubman has certainly arrived as a composer, and his reflections on his compositional journey give perspective to emerging artists. He says, “For many years I still went through this voice searching. My first piece was in 1986, I would say in 2014 I wrote a piece called Tangents that finally made me feel ‘This is me. This is what I’ve been trying to do.’ Imagine the timeline, 1986 to 2014! Now if I was going to say what influences my music I’d say ‘I don’t know, everything?’ Nowadays I can’t even answer that, I don’t want to.”

There are many parallels between Lubman’s career and that of Pierre Boulez. Lubman says, “As I’m standing there conducting all these years, I’m making mental notes. Boulez said that his composing influenced his conducting and vice versa. He was first a composer, he never dreamed of being a conductor. He started conducting in the 50s because there weren’t people around who were able to conduct new music well so he started to do it himself. After a while it just caught on and he started getting engaged more and more by orchestras and opera companies. His conducting was first influenced by his composing, as it gave him such an insight into the inner mechanics of pieces. As he was immersed in conducting the traditional repertoire that he never thought that he’d be doing, he found that all of that experience of conducting overtime started positively influencing how he was composing. I’ve always found the same thing - composing influences my conducting, conducting influences my composing in terms of technical things.”

These past weeks, the two are indistinguishably intertwined as Lubman is composing ‘conducting etudes’ for his private students at Eastman. The 1-2 minute etudes are for an invisible ensemble of 13 players designed to be practiced in quarantine (set to midi), although they may be performed as a collection by live musicians once this has all passed. Each etude deals with interesting conducting problems, like getting in and out of certain fermatas, metric modulations, or tempo changes.

As he says, “Everything I do influences everything else.”

In early March, Lubman was invited to Vienna to hear the premiere of a short piano work of his by Viennese pianist Rudolf Buchbinder at the Musikverein. The work was part of a commissioning project by Buchbinder called Diabelli 2020. Buchbinder commissioned 11 composers to write a short variation on the same Diabelli waltz tune that Beethoven used for his own Diabelli Variations. Buchbinder’s recording of Diabelli 2020 is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.


Brad Lubman, conductor/composer, is one of the foremost conductors of modern music and a leading figure in the field for over two decades. Lubman has led major orchestras including the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Danish National Symphony, NDR Symphony Orchestra Hamburg, DSO Berlin, to name a few. In addition, he has worked with some of the most important European and American ensembles for contemporary music, including Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Klangforum Wien, Musik Fabrik, Ensemble Resonanz, and Steve Reich and Musicians. Lubman was commissioned to write a fanfare and a new orchestra piece as the 2017 Composer and Conductor in Residence at the Grafenegg Festival in Austria. His work Tangents was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic and premiered at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2016. Lubman is the Co-Artistic Director and Conductor of the NY-based Ensemble Signal and is on faculty at the Eastman School of Music.

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