Guest conductor Courtney Lewis nervous but excited about his first concert with the Jacksonville Symphony
By CHARLIE PATTON, The Florida Times-Union
March 8, 2014
Courtney Lewis, the 29-year-old conductor who will lead the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra this week in a concert that will climax with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, got some exciting new recently.
Late in February, Lewis was appointed assistant conductor of the prestigious New York Philharmonic for the next two years. But that appointment doesn’t mean he’s no longer a candidate to be the next music director and principal conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Lewis said in a telephone interview last week.
“It doesn’t affect that at all,” said Lewis, who is also associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and music director of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra. “The New York job is 20 weeks a year ... I’ve been looking forward to coming to Jacksonville for a couple of years ... I’m really excited to finally meet everybody. I hear the hall is wonderful.”
The highlight of the program Lewis is conducting will be the Rachmaninoff’s concerto, which has the reputation of being among the most technically challenging classical piano pieces. Joyce Yang, the 2005 silver medalist at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, will perform the piano solo.
Lewis said the Rachmaninoff concerto was the choice of symphony officials “who were very keen to have Joyce Yang play.”
He picked the concert’s other two pieces, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod, and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. Both, like the Rachmaninoff concerto, are romantic, but otherwise quite different.
He said he’s concerned about the challenge of conducting the Rachmaninoff concerto, which was featured in the 1996 Australian movie “Shine,” in which the composition’s difficulty helped unhinge the pianist David Helfgott, played, in an Oscar winning performance, by Geoffrey Rush.
“It’s a mammoth piece of music ... full of wonderful melodies,” he said. “It’s well composed but it’s very difficult to conduct. I’m a little nervous about it ... But Joyce is wonderful. It’s a wonderful piece to end the concert with.”
Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis said he was “drawn to music at a early age,” first as a chorister, then a clarinetist and as a composer. At the University of Cambridge he studied composition. But he also began conducting.
The problem with being a clarinetist, he said, was that there were many musical passages that didn’t call for the clarinet.
“I’d be sitting there while all this wonderful music would be flowing by,” he said.
The problem with being a composer was that it was a “very solitary experience,” he said. “I wanted to spend my life working with other musicians.”
So he became a conductor. He said the combination of the intellectual challenge of analyzing the music, the psychological challenge of leading a group of musicians and the physicality of actually on the podium, baton in hand, all have great appeal to him.
“I also very much enjoy the other sides of the job such as being a leader in the community,” he said.
Working with an orchestra for the first time can be “a little bit scary, a little bit like a blind date,” he said. “But I think in this situation I’m looking forward to it.”