Born in Post to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "Belfast, Northern Ireland", Lewis graduated from the University of Cambridge, where he studied composition with Robin Holloway and clarinet with Dame Thea King. He has already established himself as one of his generation’s most talented conductors, as he is also assistant director of the much-lauded New York Philharmonic. Despite the heft of his background, even at the ripe age of 30, you can’t detect a hint of arrogance when speaking with Lewis. He is just the sort of approachable and personable conductor that the JSO needs in order to establish a younger fan base, a demographic that will be crucial for the orchestra’s sustainability in the coming years.
The symphony setting is often stereotyped as a rich man’s pleasure to be appreciated only by the classiest and most affluent of patrons. Considering that most of the classical pieces were not composed by the wealthy—in fact, quite the contrary, the subject matter oftentimes romanticizes the hopelessness and frustration of poverty—I’ve often wondered why Joe Lunch Pail has never been more drawn to symphonic music. Lewis says that this is largely an American concept and that the make-up of the audience is quite more diverse overseas.
“That’s not the way it is in Europe,” says Lewis. “It’s an unfortunate thing that that’s what people think here. At the Jacksonville Symphony, we’re working very hard to get rid of that impression. Music is something for everybody. It’s an extremely powerful and emotional experience that releases us from everyday life. The composers weren’t wealthy, they were people expressing their innermost feelings in a powerful way, and it’s incredibly exciting to tap into that experience. So, I would say to people, ‘come and try it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised,’ particularly because we have such a great orchestra. It’s pretty unusual for a city this size to have an orchestra this good, and that’s something that people should find exciting to go to.”
Since, at least on the surface, everything about a symphony seems so meticulously put together, I asked him if, like jazz, there are any improvisational elements to symphony, to which Courtney replied, “It’s like a play. If you imagine you were doing a play 50 times, yes, it’s all scripted, but every performance is still different. It’s even more free than that, because I can be creative within the re-creative process. I can make something faster or slower without changing the whole structure of the thing. You can emphasize different things.” Something that certainly stood out in Lewis’ inaugural performance was the presence of humor. The JSO was playful with the audience as well as amongst themselves, to be sure. This was most evident during Lewis’ first turn as conductor in September, when they performed the world premier of Hijinx!—a fun composition by American composer Judith Cloud for the JSO that called for 20 percussion instruments, including the didgeridoo, motor horn, steel drum, and even a toy squeaker, to name a few. “(In Hijinx!), I felt like I didn’t know the inside joke,” says Lewis. “I thought, well, there must be some joke that the composer intended here. That can be funny sometimes.”
Another notable aspect of the symphony is the physical endurance and intensity of the players. Many people wouldn’t think athlete when thinking of symphony players, but, in the truest sense of the word, that is precisely what they are. Says Lewis: “There’s a very straight combination of physical and emotional intensity, I don’t know, I doubt that athletes have quite the same emotional intensity. You can switch your brain off when you’re running, and that’s why many people enjoy physical exertion. When you’re a symphony musician, it can be very physically strenuous as well as emotionally strenuous.”
There were certainly some emotionally moving moments in Lewis’ opening performance, particularly in such pieces as French composer Hector Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ where “a young musician of unhealthily sensitive nature and endowed with vivid imagination has poisoned himself with opium in a paroxysm of lovesick despair.” Especially after reading a disheartening background tale such as this, you can easily find yourself tearing up a little as you listen to the ebbs and flows. As you imagine yourself in their position so long ago, you realize that, though they are gone, their feelings at that time live on in this intricate, breathtaking music.
There are several upcoming opportunities to attend a symphony performance. For a calendar of upcoming JSO performances, go to www.jaxsymphony.org.