Challenge Your Expectations - 10 Questions with Courtney Lewis, Musical Director of the Jacksonville Symphony
32 year old Courtney Lewis is the Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony. Lewis, who was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, joined the Jacksonville Symphony in 2014. Prior to joining the Jacksonville Symphony, Lewis served the roles of Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Music Director of Boston's acclaimed Discovery Ensemble, a group which Lewis co-founded. The Jacksonville Symphony's recruitment of Lewis represents the organization's dedication to bringing world class talent to Jacksonville.
Lewis's major US orchestral debut was with the Saint Louis Symphony in 2008. Since then, Lewis has appeared with ensembles from around the world, including Atlanta Symphony, Washington National Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Houston Symphony, RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Milwaukee Symphony, Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, and Ulster Orchestra, among others.
Lewis attended grammar school at The Royal Belfast Academic Institution, an institution that aims to develop students' maximum academic potential and stimulate them to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge. Lewis credits his former teacher for opening his ears to the richness of classical music. Lewis later graduated with honors from the University of Cambridge, where he studied composition and the clarinet. After completing his Master's Degree, Lewis continued his formal education at the Royal Northern College of Music.
The mission of the Jacksonville Symphony is to enrich the human spirit through symphonic music. The organization offers a variety of programming, including their popular Film with Orchestra series, which has presented the music of films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to West Side Story; Symphony in 60, which offers a unique take on happy hour; and family-friendly events such as Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. The Jacksonville Symphony performs in the Jacoby Symphony Hall at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. The acoustically superb 1,800 person capacity hall was designed specifically with symphonic music in mind, making it the ideal venue for the Jacksonville Symphony.
10 questions with courtney lewis
You described yourself as feeling intoxicated after your teacher played "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, "Eroica" by Beethoven, and "Brandenburg Concerto No. 1" by Bach. What is the most recent composition you've listened to, whether classical or contemporary, that moved you emotionally?
Two pieces come to mind. I spent the summer assisting Thomas Adès, the most brilliant and complete musician I've ever met, on the premiere of his new opera, "The Exterminating Angel" at the Salzburg Festival. The opera concerns a group of aristocrats who find they cannot leave a dinner party for no reason other than their own psychological inertia. Weeks pass, and a kind of survival of the fittest scenario occurs. The story is terrifying and the music creates a sense of claustrophobia that only magnifies that terror.
In March, the Jacksonville Symphony will perform "Unstuck" by American composer Andrew Norman. Written in 2008, the piece consists of brilliant ideas piled on top of each other. Norman's ideas are so unusual and different from most of his contemporaries that I was really shaken on hearing it for the first time.
Have the movements or leadership of any Conductors directly inspired you as you developed your skills and career?
Yes, Sir Simon Rattle. As I've said many times, he has been a role model for me since I was a teenager, especially in terms of leading an orchestra. His focus on audience-building through a curating standard and contemporary repertoire, his belief that the orchestra should be a source of education and joy for everyone in the community, and his brilliant communication skills are all things that have become things I've tried to emulate.
How would you describe the Jacksonville Symphony's identity, and how do you see that identify evolving under your leadership as Musical Director?
I think we can all feel it changing rapidly from an orchestra with a bumpy past into a group of musicians, staff, and Board who are passionate about classical music and ambitious about putting our orchestra at the center of progress in Jacksonville, and the classical music industry nationwide.
In terms of how we actually play, I can hear a sense of our sound beginning to develop, especially when we perform classical repertoire. That's certainly a reflection of my own tastes; there's a degree of truth to the saying that music directors recreate orchestras in their own image.
You're chatting with someone, and during the conversation you discover that they've never experience the Jacksonville Symphony. What do you say to encourage them to consider experiencing the Symphony live?
We have a great orchestra here in Jacksonville. Most of the associations people have about an orchestra are out of date. There are few things in Jacksonville that can compete with the thrill and joy our orchestra can create. Challenge your expectations and come and hear us. I guarantee you'll be back.
Are there any attributes to Jacksonville that you feel make the city a unique market as it relates to art and culture?
The arts and culture scene is healthy with our museums, theatres, and orchestra. The thing I like about Jacksonville, in comparison with other cities in Florida with orchestras, is that we have a younger demographic which allows us to be more adventurous with programming. There is also the wealth to support a thriving arts scene.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
You've accomplished a great deal by the age of 30. Do you feel heightened levels of pressure or expectations as a result of reaching certain levels of success at an early age?
I'm 32 now, but no-one ever expects as much of me as I expect of myself, so the pressure level is pretty constant!
You dedicate a portion of your free time to working out when you're not on stage rehearsing or performing with the Symphony. What do you listen to while working out?
House music. DJs I've heard in concert during Pride in Tel Aviv like Offer Nissim and Sagi Kariv, or during the year in clubs in New York like DJ ThiagoOliveria or DJ Dawson. I know a lot of people find this kind of music really repetitive and off-putting, but I love it. It reminds me of great times with friends and I find the repetitive nature of it strangely relaxing. Also the way these DJs can build the structure of a set lasting 90 minutes, with a beginning, a middle and an end takes a lot of skill and I find it really cool.
What role has community played during the development of your career?
A large one. In Boston my chamber orchestra, Discovery Ensemble, worked with after school clubs, community centers, and public schools to introduce people to classical music. Introducing new audiences, young and old, is also a big part of our mission at the Jacksonville Symphony. It's important for me to live here too and be a real part of our city, not just someone who jets in to conduct concerts and then spends his "real" life somewhere else.
From 2014-2016 you worked as the Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic while also working as the Musical Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. What are you most looking forward to now that you're not splitting your time between two cities?
I loved my time at the New York Philharmonic. I learned an enormous amount and met many great artists. But the pressure of doing the two jobs at the same time was pretty unbearable. It was also very difficult to shift gears from being music director one week, making big decisions, and then going back to being assistant the next week, listening to someone else conduct, no matter how great they were. My work/life balance is so much better this season; I have time to do more of the things I love, like traveling, cooking, working out, and playing the piano.