News Column

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra names Courtney Lewis as its next music director and principal conductor

May 28, 2014

By Charlie Patton, The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

May 28--On Sunday, April 27, the day after the last of the eight Masterworks concerts that amounted to a tryout for the role of music director and principal conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Lewis got the call.

James Jenkins and Mary Carr Patton, co-chairs of the search committee, told Lewis he was the unanimous choice of the nine committee members, four of them orchestra members. Lewis was thrilled.

"I really wanted the job," said Lewis, who conducted the Jacksonville Symphony OrchestraMarch 13-15 in a concert highlighted by Rachmaninoff's challenging Piano Concerto No. 3. "I had thought about it every single day. I really felt like it was the right place to be for me. I felt thrilled and over the moon."

"He had a clearly articulated vision of where he wants to take the orchestra," said Jenkins, the orchestra's principal tuba player.

"I thought he made the orchestra sound better," said Peter Wright, the orchestra's principal clarinetist and the president of the local musician's union. "He seemed to command the respect of the orchestra."

"He knows everything about what it takes to run an organization," said Patton, a symphony board member, citing Lewis' experience as founder of the Discovery Ensemble in Boston.

Lewis' appointment as music director and principal conductor was announced by Martin F. Connor, chair and CEO of Jacksonville Symphony Associaiton, and David L. Pierson, president of the association, in a press conference Wednesday, the day before Lewis's 30th birthday.

Lewis said three major factors made Jacksonville attractive to him. The first was the quality of the orchestra.

"The orchestra is great," Lewis said. "I had a wonderful experience with them. They are a group of passionate and talented musicians."

The second great attraction was the Jacoby Symphony Hall in The Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.

"It's such a fantastic space with great acoustics," Lewis said.

The third thing he liked about Jacksonville was that community leaders seemed to him committed "to help build an orchestra and take it to the next level."

"There seemed to be broad community support for the orchestra and a great desire that it would grow," he said. "People want the orchestra to be a focal point for Jacksonville."

Lewis, who grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said one of his major goals as music director and principal conductor is expanding "the diversity of the music" the orchestra plays. In particular he wants to play more music from the late 20th and the early 21st centuries as well as from the 18th century.

That approach will be on display in next season's closing Masterworks concert, which will pair Mozart's Symphony No. 39, composed in 1788, with Thomas AdÈs "Three Studies after Couperin," composed in 2010, which is a modern take on the work of French Baroque composer FranÇois Couperin, who died in 1733. That concert will also include Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1944.

The goal is to pair unfamiliar pieces with beloved pieces "in a way that isn't frightening to audiences," Lewis said.

He also wants to "increase the kinds of programs that we offer," he said. "I want us to be offering different concert experiences than coming and sitting for two hours at 8 p.m. in Jacoby hall."

Lewis also will conduct the first Masterworks concert next season Sept. 26-27. That concert will feature several solos by Wright on the clarinet, an instrument Lewis once played, as well as Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique." Lewis said he will also spend time in Jacksonville planning for the 2015-2016 season, which will be his first full season as musical director and principal conductor.

He will continue as music director of the Discovery Ensemble, an acclaimed chamber orchestra that does educational outreach in Boston, which he cofounded in 2008.

"What's most striking in the rehearsals is the rapport between Lewis and the players," the Boston Globe reported in 2013. "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."

Lewis will also spend the next two years as an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic, considered a highly prestigious appointment. But he is ending his association with the Minnesota Orchestra, for which he has been an associate conductor since 2011.

Lewis is the orchestra's eighth music director. He succeeds Fabio Mechetti, whose tenure began in 1999.

Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413


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Source: Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, FL)

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