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New Jacksonville Symphony music director Courtney Lewis working to raise his and the orchestra's profile

By Charlie Patton, The Florida Times-Union
September 25, 2014
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On the same weekend that Blake Bortles will make his first start as the future of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the future of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra will conduct his first concert as music director designate of the symphony. Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra music director Courtney Lewis conducts the orchestra during a rehearsal Wednesday.

At the moment Courtney Lewis, 30, lives in New York, where he will be assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic for the next two seasons. But Lewis, who said he’ll move to Jacksonville in the summer of 2016, plans to spend extended periods in Jacksonville over the next two seasons.

His current visit began last Sunday and will continue through Saturday, Oct. 11. Once this weekend’s concert, which will feature Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” Lewis will turn his attention to helping market the orchestra and raise his profile in the community. He’ll be making a series of public appearances including conducting the orchestra’s brass section as it performs the National Anthem before the Jaguars Oct. 5 home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra music director Courtney Lewis conducts the orchestra during a rehearsal Wednesday.

This week, his concentration primarily has been on preparing the orchestra to play “Symphonie Fantastique” as well as Rossini’s “Introduction, Theme and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra” and the world preview of Judith Cloud’s “HiJinx! for Clarinet and Orchestra,” both of which will feature clarinet solos by Peter Wright, the orchestra’s principal clarinetist.

“Symphonie Fantastique, which Lewis called the “most original symphony ever written,” is the work of Hector Berlioz, a 19th century French composer, who Lewis called “the ultimate romantic composer.”

“I wanted us to start with something that put the orchestra center stage,” Lewis said. “I wanted to play a big piece.”

[ Read more: Courtney Lewis' blog, Conducting Electricity ]

Beyond preparing the orchestra for the performance, Lewis has been making changes. While he considers the Jacoby Symphony Hall “one of the best in America” acoustically, Lewis said the stage may be too large, making it “very difficult for the musicians to hear each other on stage.”

So he’s been moving the musicians around, trying various configurations. He planned at one point to draw an outline on the Jacoby stage of the stage at the Vienna Musik Vereim, a hall he considers “acoustically perfect.”

Though it makes for some long days, Lewis also has been trying to be publicly visible this week. Wednesday night he was at Jacksonville’s Main Library for the first of a planned series of “Chats with Courtney.”

One of the questions he got during that session came from someone who observed that most of the people who go the concerts are middle aged or older. How, he was asked, would he attract younger audiences?

“It’s a really important question, one that’s not unique to Jacksonville,” he said. “I often feel like I’m the youngest person in the concert hall.”

[ Read more: Clarinetist Peter Wright celebrates 40th season with two clarinet solos ] Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra music director Courtney Lewis conducts the orchestra during a rehearsal Wednesday.

One approach he has taken is being active in social media. He’s got a Facebook page on which regularly posts, though finding the right page can be tricky since there are three Courtney Lewis Facebook pages with his picture. One is his private page, which he restricts to personal friends, and one is a page apparently set up by someone else. Lewis has also begun blogging for

Asked Wednesday who his favorite conductors are, Lewis named three. The late Sir Colin Davis of the London Symphony was “the greatest Berlioz conductor ever.” The late Claudio Abbado was the master of stick technique. The third conductor he mentioned is Simon Rattle, principal conductor of one of the world’s great orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic.

Beginning in 1980, when he was 25, Rattle spent 18 years as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, England. Despite opportunities to move to a larger, more prestigious orchestra, he stayed in Birmingham, creating a series of concerts of 20th century music titled “Towards the Millennium,” teaching his audience to expand their horizons beyond the familiar classics, something that Lewis has said he wants to do here.

Rattle, Lewis said, “is the model of what I want to do with my career.”

Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413

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