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Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra names Courtney Lewis as its next music director

By Charlie Patton,
May 28, 2014
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On Sunday, April 27, the day after the last of the eight Masterworks concerts that amounted to a tryout for the role of music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Lewis got the call.

Martin F. Connor, chairman and CEO of Jacksonville Symphony Association, told Lewis he was the unanimous choice of the nine members of the search committee, four of them orchestra members. Lewis was thrilled.

“I really wanted the job,” said Lewis, who conducted the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra March 13-15 in a concert highlighted by Rachmaninoff’s challenging “Piano Concerto No. 3.”

“I had thought about it every single day,” Lewis said. “I really felt like it was the right place to be for me. I felt thrilled and over the moon.”

“He had a clearly articulated vision of where he wants to take the orchestra,” said James Jenkins, the orchestra’s principal tuba player and co-chairman of the search committee.

“I thought he made the orchestra sound better,” said Peter Wright, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist and the president of the local musician’s union. “He seemed to command the respect of the orchestra.”

“He knows everything about what it takes to run an organization,” said Mary Carr Patton, a symphony board member and Jenkins’ co-chair, citing Lewis’ experience as founder of the Discovery Ensemble in Boston.

Lewis’ appointment as music director was announced by Connor in a news conference Wednesday, the day before Lewis’ 30th birthday. Connor said Lewis told him during their phone call that his dream had been “to be a music director before I was 30.”

Lewis said three major factors made Jacksonville attractive to him. The first was the quality of the orchestra.

“The orchestra is great,” Lewis said. “I had a wonderful experience with them. They are a group of passionate and talented musicians.”

The second great attraction was the Jacoby Symphony Hall in The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s such a fantastic space with great acoustics,” Lewis said.

The third thing he liked about Jacksonville was that community leaders seemed to him committed “to help build an orchestra and take it to the next level.”

“There seemed to be broad community support for the orchestra and a great desire that it would grow,” he said. “People want the orchestra to be a focal point for Jacksonville.”

Lewis, who grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said one of his major goals as music director is expanding “the diversity of the music” the orchestra plays. In particular he wants to play more music from the late 20th and the early 21st centuries as well as from the 18th century.

That approach will be on display in next season’s closing Masterworks concert, which will pair Haydn’s “Symphony No. 92, the Oxford,” composed in 1789, with Thomas Adès “Three Studies after Couperin,” composed in 2010, which is a modern take on the work of French Baroque composer François Couperin, who died in 1733. That concert will also include Bela Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” premiered in 1944.

The goal is to pair unfamiliar pieces with beloved pieces “in a way that isn’t frightening to audiences,” Lewis said.

He also wants to find “new ways to introduce the power and passion of classical music to new audiences,” he said. “... I want us to be offering different concert experiences than coming and sitting for two hours at 8 p.m. in Jacoby Hall.”

Lewis also will conduct the first Masterworks concert next season Sept. 26-27. That concert will feature several solos by Wright on the clarinet, an instrument Lewis once played, as well as Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” Lewis said he will also spend time in Jacksonville planning for the 2015-16 season, which will be his first full season as music director.

He will continue as music director of the Discovery Ensemble, an acclaimed chamber orchestra that does educational outreach in Boston, which he cofounded in 2008.

“What’s most striking in the rehearsals is the rapport between Lewis and the players,” the Boston Globe reported in 2013. “His style of conducting is quick, alert, physically expressive. After each movement or passage he whips through the technical stuff — notes on tempo and dynamics — but he also communicates through metaphor, speaking evocatively about the music and giving the musicians room to respond, to draw it out of themselves.”

Lewis will also spend the next two years as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic, considered a highly prestigious appointment. But he is ending his association with the Minnesota Orchestra, for which he has been an associate conductor since 2011.

Lewis is the orchestra’s eighth music director. He succeeds Fabio Mechetti, whose tenure began in 1999.

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