With his fourth season as the eighth Musical Director of the Jacksonville Symphony fast approaching, Courtney Lewis is hastily packing for a trip to New York. He lived there before taking over for Fabio Mechetti in 2015, and he still returns several times a year to meet with friends and family, as well as his manager. It's the proverbial calm before the storm, his last few days before plunging headlong into a hectic schedule of rehearsals leading into opening night this Saturday.
“There’s been so much change, we tend to think of it as almost a new orchestra,” Lewis says. “I think the profile in the community is higher; we’ve seen a broader range of people coming to our concerts. Ultimately, there’s been a change in perception about who can come to the symphony. In the past, we were perceived as being only for a certain type of person. We’re still happy to welcome those people, who’ve been loyal supporters for generations, but we’re also seeing a much broader demographic discovering symphonic music, and that’s been very rewarding to see.”
The Symphony’s 69th season opens with Fanfare!, a program centered around saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a first-ballot hall-of-famer whose creative interests go far beyond the jazz music for which he’s best known. It kicks off with the Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict by Hector Berlioz, and ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F-minor, Op. 36. Sandwiched in between are two composition that feature Marsalis, the Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone & Orchestra by Heitor Villa-Lobos, followed by John Williams’ Escapades for Saxophone & Orchestra. The source material for the latter tune is Williams’ score for the 2002 Leo DiCaprio/Tom Hanks hit movie, Catch Me If You Can.
Born in Belfast in May 1984, Lewis was hired on the basis of his youth and charisma, as well as his growing reputation in classical circles, coming off a five-year run as Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. Lewis brought with him a bold vision for the organization’s future, and that future is now officially upon us. Their efforts have received increasing recognition on the national level, with the Jax Symphony just recently selected as one of only four orchestras invited to participate in Shift: A Festival of American Orchestras, to be held at the Kennedy Center in 2020.
Since making his American debut in St. Louis in 2008, Lewis has logged thousands of miles in transit to some of the most prestigious classical outfits in the world, putting in work for bands based in Atlanta, Birmingham, Boston (where he founded the acclaimed Discovery Ensemble), Denver, Dublin, Edmonton, Houston, Lausanne, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Rochester, Vancouver, Washington, D.C. and, of course, Manhattan, where he spent two years as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. Just this summer, Lewis conducted the Australian Youth Orchestra, and toured three countries with the Ulster Youth Orchestra. Later this year, he returns to his stomping grounds as he conducts Silent Night with the Minnesota Opera.
Under Lewis, the Symphony has continued to make accessibility a priority by presenting music that can appeal to more mainstream audiences. This season's offerings include two tributes to Williams’ work in the Star Trek series, as well as tributes to The Who, Harry Potter and The Wizard of Oz. “What audiences want to enjoy is obviously front-and-center,” he says. "Then I want to think about what the orchestra needs to play to grow. It might be areas that we haven’t played much recently, or that I think will help the orchestra develop a particular skill or style of playing.”
The Symphony has 60 full-time members, and another 20 (mostly locals) are part of the bigger concerts at Jacoby Hall, which was designed specifically to maximize the impact of the ensemble's sound. They’re halfway to the goal of raising $50 million to ensure the orchestra’s future, and these shows are designed, in part, with that goal in mind. “It’s like planning a menu for a dinner party,” Lewis says. “You want there to be things that are enjoyable for everybody, but particularly a variety and, um, high nutritional content.” This season features some 56 performances in a variety of settings and formats, ending with two performances of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in early June.
But it begins with Branford Marsalis, undisputed icon of the jazz business who holds down a spot near the top of any objective listing of the greatest tenor saxophone players of the post-Coltrane era. “He’s a very charismatic performer,” says Lewis. His brother Wynton guested with this orchestra many years ago, and both share the ability to seamlessly shift among genres.
“It’s different mental preparation,” Marsalis says. “The tone is different, the technical approach is different. The placement of the rhythm is different. But the musical intent is pretty much the same. Some people who play jazz, they play structure, they play data; for those guys, I guess it would be different. But what I’m always doing is trying to play the song and recognize the emotional intent, so if you’re doing that, then it’s the same, but the delivery is very different.”
Marsalis, who just finished a new album, due out soon, will hold two practice sessions with the orchestra before show time, though he’s rehearsed the material extensively on his own. “Classical music is classical music,” he says. “The goal is pretty much the same. The better the orchestra, the bigger the challenge for me, so I expect to be playing with a lot of really good players.” The Jacksonville Symphony’s reputation clearly precedes them—and it follows them, as well.
Fanfare! Opening Night of the Jax Symphony, with Branford Marsalis, 8-10 p.m. Sept. 15, Jacoby Hall, Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, $51-$129