Minnesota Orchestra review: Associate conductor Lewis graduates with honors
By ROB HUBBARD, TwinCities.com
June 12, 2014
If you've attended any graduation gatherings lately, perhaps you've contemplated how the conventional academic arc can parcel a young life into four-year increments. With that in mind, the Minnesota Orchestra's associate conductor, Courtney Lewis, is graduating this weekend. After four years in the post, he's moving on to become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
Or maybe this weekend's concerts are more like his final exams, for they feature what will likely go down as the toughest program the native of Northern Ireland has tackled during his four-year tenure. It consists of two symphonies, one a relatively recent work -- American composer Kevin Puts' Fourth, bearing the title, "From Mission San Juan" -- and a turbulent musical marathon, Gustav Mahler's Fifth.
Lewis passed the test with flying colors midday Thursday at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. The Puts symphony was mesmerizing and impeccably executed, the Mahler a deeply involving 70-minute journey. Throughout both, Lewis, who recently turned 30, displayed extraordinary confidence in his skills and interpretive ideas, and the orchestra responded with two rewarding performances.
The ginger-haired conductor has always struck me as a musician-friendly leader, what with the clarity of his rhythms, cuing and communication of the emotional tenor he seeks. And his confidence contributed to the Puts symphony's success, for it's unlikely that any of the musicians had previously performed the 7-year-old piece.
A firm hand at the helm surely helped bring out such an arresting sound. I've been impressed with Puts' richly textured, complex and emotionally evocative orchestrations for a few years now, most memorably during Minnesota Opera's premiere of "Silent Night" (which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize). His Fourth Symphony is inspired by the almost-lost music of an ancient indigenous tribe in California. After a spare, sorrowful opening, it becomes a playful folk dance that's eventually overpowered by a march-like hymn. But the traditional feel survives, the woodwinds starting a "Healing Song" that emanates outward and becomes an almost cinematic epic of majesty and loss.
I have never seen Lewis unleash such physical fury as on the first movement of Mahler's Fifth, which the orchestra made a gripping elegy. The symphony is full of flux, anxiety giving way to sadness, sighs to gallops. The conflicted central Scherzo was rooted in smooth yet assertive French horn solos by Herbert Winslow, while the Adagietto was a thing of rare beauty, a sonic salve that paved the way to a thrilling climax.