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Frank Denton: The young visionary who wants to bring you music

By FRANK DENTON, The Florida Times-Union
June 30, 2014
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Among all the gray heads in Jacoby Symphony Hall, the blond guy on the podium will stand out.

Well, of course he will — he’ll be the conductor, wielding the baton and leading the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra into its new season.

But at age 30, he also may be the youngest person in the auditorium, or at least one of them — and that bodes well for our orchestra and our town.

When Courtney Lewis takes over as music director of the orchestra in September, he’ll be the latest of a new generation of cultural leaders challenged with leading our traditional arts organizations to evolve, quickly, into greater relevance — and inspiration — for the new Jacksonville.

Lewis has the classic credentials. Trained in his native Britain, he has guest-conducted orchestras across the United States, Canada and Europe. Finding some roots, he has been associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2011, and he will be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the next two years.

He will conduct our orchestra’s season-opening concerts Sept. 26-27 and the closing concerts in May, then will conduct the full season beginning in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, his head is full of ideas about how to energize — or even save — an art form that many people fear is dying as its audience ages and isn’t replaced by younger people. The audience really is primarily gray.

When he was named last month, Lewis told our Charlie Patton he was “thrilled and over the moon” for three reasons: the “passionate and talented musicians,” Jacoby hall with its great acoustics and the apparent commitment of community leaders “to help build an orchestra and take it to the next level.”

That will require more than the traditional come-at-8-o’clock-and-sit-and-listen-for-two-hours concerts.

“There’s no reason all concerts have to be the same length and the same time,” Lewis said. “Maybe we try to informalize some of the concerts. Maybe earlier in the evening, at 6 or 7, so people who work downtown can stay for the concert, have drinks and bring them into the hall. After an hour-long concert, the audience comes on stage, and the musicians do too, and they bring the bar on. Demystify the orchestra. Collaborate with businesses and restaurants downtown to make the concert a social event for young professionals, where people go to meet other people.”

Broadening the repertoire can broaden the audience too, he said. “More 20th and 21st century music. Something that will be a discovery for everybody.”

Unlike some conductors who jump in and out of town, Lewis says he will live here and be part of the community. “My decision to come to Jacksonville is as much about the community as it is about the orchestra, which can only exist with a strong community behind it,” he said in a statement when he was named.

“A main way of being involved is figuring out how the orchestra can collaborate with other arts organizations in town,” he told me, naming a number of arts and cultural leaders he already has met. “I want to figure out how we can collaborate more with these other organizations, so we can be seen as part of the community, not just performing concerts in Jacoby Hall. The perception of the orchestra will be very different, and our profile will change.”

As an example, he pointed to St. Louis, where the orchestra collaborated with the art museum. “The orchestra set up a series of chamber music performances in the galleries. So, say, there’s an exhibit of Egon Schiele or Max Beckmann, and a group of 10-15 musicians play a chamber piece from the same period as the art. People wouldn’t sit down but would wander by and see the paintings and hear the music. Two effects: Maybe they’ll come and hear the orchestra at the concert hall, but also the orchestra would be seen as engaging with other things outside the hall.”

Lewis also would take fine music into the schools. He was co-founder and still is music director of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble, which takes quality performances into low-income communities, especially schools.

After attending some Discovery concerts and rehearsals, Joan Wickersham, a Boston Globe columnist, effused: “Energy, charisma, talent, nuanced musical understanding, an exceptional conductor, and a sense of social responsibility — this group shows us what the future of classical music, widely supposed to be precarious, will look like.”

Wickersham gave us an insight into the maestro’s style: “What’s most striking in the rehearsals is the rapport between Lewis and the players. 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. Of a passage in Stravinsky, he says, ‘It needs to have a little impropriety here. Not sleazy — just a little bit suggestive.’ Rehearsing Rossini, he tells the violins at one point, ‘Just throw it away.’ The next time through, when they come to that point in the music, he looks at them and shrugs, and they throw it away.”

His rapport with the musicians was evident here in his guest-conducting experience. Four of the nine members of the search committee were orchestra members, and one told me Lewis was “overwhelmingly the favorite” among the players.

Violist Susan Pardue said Lewis is “a good choice because he is an excellent musician who also seems like a good person. When we played with him, there was a sincerity to his music-making and personality that I really appreciated. I am not sure if his youth and image will attract a younger audience, but I think that his high level of music-making and passion for the music will attract a great audience of all ages.”

Lewis already is advocating for the orchestra. I assured him the Times-Union would maintain its coverage of the important community institution, and he’s agreed to write regular columns for us.

I asked him what he would say to a music lover deciding whether to subscribe to the symphony. “You have one of the great orchestras in your backyard, and we are planning a season that has huge breadth in terms of excitement in the music. It will be a great season that contains a great deal of passion and conveys every conceivable emotion, a season that will take you on a vast emotional journey week by week.”

“My hope is that, as the Jacksonville Symphony moves forward, everybody will be aligned in a shared vision, that music is an essential thing, not a luxury," he said. "Everyone needs music, and we will present it at the highest artistic level.

“I’m very excited about the future of the orchestra. The city is on the cusp of something great, and when someone thinks about Jacksonville, I want the orchestra to be one of the first things that comes to mind.”

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