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Courtney Lewis’s code of conduct for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

Getting the best out of an orchestra is a challenge, but the young Belfast conductor proves he can handle it with performances of Prokofiev, Borodin and Shostakovich

By Michael Dervan, The Irish Times
December 10, 2014
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Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis stands out as someone who is prepared to go that extra mile in shaping the nuance and colour of the orchestra’s playing. Photograph: Travis Anderson

Irish conductors have not been to the fore in getting the best out of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. It’s as if they feel constrained about being demanding enough. I’m not suggesting that’s actually the case, but it is how the performances sound. And it often sounds that way when the orchestra is in the hands of guests from abroad, too.

Belfast conductor Courtney Lewis (30) conducted the orchestra last Friday, and he stands out from his Irish colleagues as someone who is prepared to go that extra mile in shaping the nuance and colour of the orchestra’s playing.

What was most impressive was his handling of the orchestra in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. This youthful jeu d’esprit is a firecracker of a piece, a young man’s thumbing of his nose at the world of the romantic piano concerto. Although Prokofiev does not eschew some touches of romantic colouring, his music is characterised by an angular metallic glint and a spiky rhythmic energy.

Michael McHale was a wonderfully incisive soloist, and Lewis made sure that the orchestra gave him full-bodied, richly stranded support, but in a way that still kept the spotlight on the piano. This was exactly the sort of headlong, exciting adventure that Prokofiev intended it to be.

Shostakovich’s populist Fifth Symphony – an extraordinary step back from the bleak Fourth, which would remain unperformed for more than two decades – was imposingly urgent, splendid in sonority and gripping all the way.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, which opened the programme, were notable for their restraint, with Lewis steadfastly refusing to milk the big tunes, an approach that made them all the more effective.

The 11 young players of the National Symphony Orchestra’s mentoring scheme who took part in the concert were blessed to have such a stimulating concert as their collective debut.

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