THE CULT OF COURTNEY LEWIS, THE NEW JACKSONVILLE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA MUSICAL DIRECTOR
A young rising star wants to breathe new life into the JSO
Nobody likes moving. Moving sucks. Something is going to get broken. Something is going to go missing. Everything will be boxed up, shipped out, unpacked, then put away once again.
Moving is where we find the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s newest musical director, Courtney Lewis. The 30-year-old Belfast native and Cambridge grad is settling into his new Jacksonville digs, keeping a watchful eye on the movers.
“I need to make sure they don’t scratch up the table,” he muses.
Along with his personal possessions, Lewis brings quite an impressive résumé with him, his youth notwithstanding. Born in Northern Ireland, Lewis studied music at the University of Cambridge before globetrotting, crafting his skills as an orchestra conductor and then, later, a musical director. Most recently the associate conductor of the world-famous New York Philharmonic — apparently still holding that position, according to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra website — Lewis has also spent time as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and worked with symphonic orchestras from Alabama to Ulster. He speaks with a modulated, calm voice and looks more like a soap opera star — a young one — than some frazzle-haired, strident, stereotypical mad conductor.
Growing up in Britain, Lewis was more Mozart than Morrissey. “I've always liked popular music,” he says, “but I've been involved with classical music since I was a kid. I studied piano and clarinet, and I started writing music at a young age.” It was at Cambridge that he found his focus shift ever so slightly, from composing to conducting.
“Composing is a very lonely practice,“ Lewis says. “I found that I wanted to spend my time working with other musicians. Conducting is the most social musical experience there is. It's very addicting.”
As the JSO’s new musical director, Lewis will offer more than just his vision and programming talents. “A musical director would be considered the principal conductor,” he says. But there’s more to the role than showing up in a tux and waving a baton around. “An orchestra can really hone a specific identity from a good musical director.”
Along with auditioning musicians and helping define the music and themes to be performed in the upcoming seasons, Lewis will be the public face of the orchestra, a role he embraces with aplomb. “Symphonies have a hard time marketing themselves,” he says, “because it's hard to put a face with the experience. I am happy to have the chance to fund-raise and bring audiences out to hear music they may have not heard this orchestra play.”
In a genre in which the most popular numbers are more than 200 years old, there are still fresh avenues for JSO to travel. Lewis, whose first work here will be presenting Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on Sept. 26 and 27, is eager to expand his orchestra’s — and his audience’s — horizons. “While you always want to play off the strengths of your orchestra, it is also important to give the audience something they enjoy,” Lewis says. “Music is like food; you have to have a varied diet. I want to delve into some 17th- and 18th-century compositions they haven’t played in a while. There are some living composers and soloists we want to look at and work with. It's important to create a binding connection between seasons. I think you will see a real shift in ’15-’16.”
Lewis effuses confidence and seems to have a solid grasp on what he wants to accomplish. But he doesn’t fit the stereotype of what most people think a conductor should look or act like, and not just because of his youth. “Historically, conductors have been tyrannical figures,” he says. “They have always sort of been revered and feared. We don’t need to be that way anymore. In the States, for some reason, there's still this cultish reverence for musical directors, but I don’t feel like I need to operate that way to be successful.”
Speak softly and carry a big fiberglass baton, if you will. (He has a guy in Ohio who makes them especially for him since he breaks so many.) But for all of his confidence — and for all of the unbridled fervor with which the JSO announced his hiring back in May (“an exciting new era in artistic leadership,” the press release gushed), following a year-long Hunger Games-ish “guest director” audition process, of which he was a part — you’d be forgiven for wondering why someone who has achieved such acclaim so early in his career would move down the Eastern Seaboard to Jacksonville, a city that doesn’t necessarily share the cultural legitimacy of, say, Paris or New York. Lewis says he sees directing the JSO as his chance to build something special, an “opportunity for a young conductor like me to try new directions and see which ideas work, which theories work.”
He also sees an ideal environment in which to nurture his vision. “From a symphony perspective, you have a world-class hall that only a small number of orchestras in the States has,” Lewis says. “I like the Downtown vision, and JSO can be central to what is going on at the moment.”
At 30, Lewis is often one of the youngest people in the room, whether in the performance hall or JSO offices. But he doesn’t see that as a disadvantage.
“I wouldn’t say necessarily that it is tougher being younger,” he says. “I've learned a lot from my previous time in Boston, Minnesota and of course New York, so I know that what is going to be asked of me, I am capable of doing. I think sometimes as the musical director, people may be afraid to share their honest opinion and tell me exactly what they think, so I wonder sometimes if that's my age or the role.”
As the movers started bringing in the heavy furniture, I warned Lewis that as he acclimates to his new home, he’s much likelier to run into aficionados of Bizkit and not Berlioz, Skynyrd and not Chopan.
“I want to change that,” he responds adamantly. “We have a good opportunity with everything that's going on Downtown. We need people to think about the orchestra in Jacksonville.”