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Meet Courtney Lewis, new music director for Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

September 16, 2014
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Photo courtesy of Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra
Courtney Lewis

Dear readers,

My name is Courtney Lewis. I’m a conductor.

Later this month, I start working with the Jacksonville Symphony as Music Director Designate. As we speak, I’m preparing for our first concerts together on Sept. 26 and 27. This is the first entry of a new blog I’m going to post each month to keep you up to date with what’s going on with our wonderful orchestra.

So first of all, let me introduce myself. I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As I’m sure you know, Belfast has a chequered history due to the many different identities locals ascribe to. I call myself Northern Irish or British. My father was a barrister (lawyer) and my mother is a professor at Queen’s University, Belfast. I also have a sister, Cara, and a brother, Adam, who are both doctors in London.

Thankfully, “The Troubles” (the colloquial euphemism for the violent terrorism that scarred Northern Ireland from the 1960s until the late 1990s) didn’t play much of a role in my childhood, which was spent singing in choirs, learning the piano and clarinet, playing in youth orchestras, writing music, running, rowing, acting and cooking. At school I loved literature, politics and debating but was absolutely useless at anything vaguely scientific or mathematical. In the summers, my parents often took us to France — usually to find as many good restaurants as possible — or to California, where much of my father’s family lives.

Music was the most important part of my childhood. I had a fantastic teacher at high school who opened my ears to the richness of classical music. He taught me to listen to as much as possible (a habit surprisingly few classical musicians develop), from the Renaissance to living composers. I will never forget the first time he played the class “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, Beethoven’s “Eroica” and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. I was intoxicated by the sheer power, joy and passion of this music, and knew I had to spend my life with it.

After high school, I went to university at Cambridge. The plan was to study composition, but I soon realised I didn’t want to spend all my time alone with whatever rubbish I was writing. There were many opportunities to conduct since students, not professors, conducted all the student orchestras.

After bribing my friends to play for me with pizza and beer, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and auditioned to conduct the university orchestra. Somehow it went well and I found myself preparing Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 with 100 eager, but frighteningly accomplished, musicians. Nothing prepares you for the first time you stand in front of a symphony orchestra and realise that everyone is staring straight at you! Terrifying, but thrilling. Simon Rattle once described conducting as “an un-kickable habit.” I was an addict from day one.

After four years at Cambridge, I went “Up North” to Manchester to study conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music. From there I went to Boston for my first job with the Boston Philharmonic. During that time, my friends and I founded Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that played 18th- and 21st-century music, and also spent a lot of time going into schools in Boston that didn’t have any music education programs. It was incredibly rewarding to see kids’ faces light up when we introduced them to Beethoven and Ligeti.

As I write, I’m propped up against a wall in an empty apartment in Minneapolis with a very confused Dachshund who doesn’t understand where his favourite armchair has gone. I’ve just finished five years as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Nobody could ask for a more supportive and brilliant group of colleagues with which to work. I’m going to miss them. But September sees the start of two wonderful new chapters: life in Manhattan as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and in your vibrant city as music director of the Jacksonville Symphony, the first orchestra to trust me with its artistic leadership. It’s going to be an exciting journey, and I hope you’ll join us at Jacoby Hall on Sept. 26 and 27 as we begin.

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