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New symphony music director is 30, likes Britney and is bringing change to Jacksonville

By Marilyn Young, Editor
May 29, 2014
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Courtney Lewis was named music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra one day before he turned 30. He also is the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Courtney Lewis wasn’t even born in the decades he said were the “golden ages” for symphony orchestras.

But he wants to recreate the 1960s and ‘70s in Jacksonville.

The key is for the city’s symphony orchestra to return to being the center of young professionals’ social lives.

“We’ve got to figure out how to make that happen again,” said Lewis, a British conductor who was introduced Wednesday as the symphony orchestra’s music director.

And he comes with plenty of ideas.

The concerts don’t always have to be at 8 p.m.

They don’t have to be two hours.

They can be preceded by a happy hour.

Lewis wants to establish a young professionals group where, when people relocate to Jacksonville, “the first thing they do is join this group,” he said.

Lewis talked about a program he “test ran” in Minnesota, where he is associate conductor. (That job ends in July. His first concert in Jacksonville is September.)

The Friday night show of a triple-concert weekend was only 60 minutes. At the end, they wheeled a bar on stage, allowing the audience and musicians to interact.

For those who think that new idea might alienate veteran fans, it didn’t.

“Some of the people who enjoyed that the most had been subscribers for years,” Lewis said. “It didn’t alienate anybody and it brought a lot of people in.”

Lewis’ hiring was the culmination of a two-year search to replace Fabio Mechetti.

The graduate of the University of Cambridge was contacted by the search committee about a year and a half ago. He later did a Skype interview with committee member Mary Patton while he was “on holiday” — British speak for vacation.

When he came to Jacksonville in March to work with the musicians, he had an exquisite experience.

Three days to success

Lewis talked about the cliché of comparing the meeting of conductors and orchestras to dating.

“There’s an element of this where it can’t possibly be brilliant from the very beginning,” said Lewis, who performed three concerts with the Jacksonville musicians.

The performances, he said, developed over time.

Day 1: “Everybody’s sniffing around each other.”

Day 2: “Things are a little bit different.”

Day 3: “They were great.”

In the beginning, he said, the orchestra may not understand what a conductor wants.

“You have to explain it,” he said. “You have to show it a lot.”

The way the orchestra responded to him changed from night to night.

“I had to do less to get what I wanted and I heard them beginning to listen to each other in a different way,” Lewis said.

He was especially pleased by the latter.

“My job is to facilitate the musicians listening to each other. I’m not a traffic cop. They shouldn’t have to rely on me to play together,” said Lewis, who added that not every conductor sees the job that way.

Being part of that relationship has been important to Lewis for much of his life.

Developing good habits

Born in Belfast, North Ireland, Lewis said he was a chorister from a young age. He played piano and clarinet and wrote music. “I loved composing. I was into that in high school,” he said.

It was in high school that he developed the good habits of being curious and listening to music, thanks to the influence of his “fantastic” music teacher, Phillip Bolton.

Lewis said Bolton thought music should be accessible to everybody. The school’s all-boys choir had 150 voices from a variety of backgrounds. “People on the rugby team also sang,” he said.

He then went to Cambridge to be a composer but discovered that wasn’t where his heart was. He didn’t like the solitude of sitting in a room by himself.

“I wanted to spend my life making music with other people,” he said, “and conducting is the ultimate social musical experience.”

At Cambridge, the university’s orchestras were conducted by students, which Lewis did for four years.

He then went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and “refined what was a pretty rustic technique.”

“Making it work with students is not the same as making it work with professionals,” Lewis said.

Since then, his career has been on a steady rise.

Fast-rising career

In 2008, he got a job in Boston, where he co-founded and served as music director of the Discovery Ensemble chamber orchestra. (The orchestra was involved in schools there, which Lewis wants to happen in Jacksonville, as well.)

He has been associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2009.

In February, he was named assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra beginning in September.

He will serve in that role for two years, while working in Jacksonville.

During the 2014-15 season, Lewis will be music director designate, where he’ll conduct the opening performance in September and closing concert in May. (He will be music director the following seasons.)

For the fall performance, he selected Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” because the festive piece would be “an exciting beginning” to his career in Jacksonville.

The closing concert is “much more typical of my programming style, in general,” he said.

It includes Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which he said showcases every member in the ensemble.

Lewis said he is himself the most when on stage conducting a group of musicians.

“When everybody is pulling in the same direction, it’s the most exciting experience you can imagine,” he said.

Conducting is a job with many parts, Lewis said.

The psychological side of figuring out how to motivate and inspire the musicians is a huge part of it. There’s the cerebral side of learning music and interpreting it, which he said “is also wonderful.”

And the physicality of performing is exciting, as well.

At the end of a performance, he’s “exhausted, but high as a kite.”

Away from the stage

When he’s not leading a group of musicians, Lewis enjoys working out. “I love to lift weights,” he said.

He also enjoys cooking, especially French food. “I’ve done a lot of Julia Child recipes.”

Lewis likes traveling, quickly making the distinction, “not for work.”

“People think conductors see the world, but they don’t. They see hotel rooms,” he said.

He also spends time with his boyfriend, who’s considering dental school when they come to Jacksonville, and their dog, Alfie, a standard long-hair dachshund.

A lot of what he does in his personal life is to “get away from the oneness of being a conductor.”

“Having a strong support network in your personal life where you are not the conductor anymore is really important,” he said. “It’s also important to stop you from becoming an egomaniac.”

Lewis plays the piano for fun and he listens to music for enjoyment.

Not classical music, but today’s commercial pop.

Thumbing through his iPhone, he sees Pharell Williams, “lots of Rhianna, lots of Britney (Spears).”

Not typical of a symphony orchestra’s music director.

But, he just turned 30 today.

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