A Conversation with Courtney Lewis: The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s Season Ahead

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Lewis, EU Jacksonville, Performing Arts Guide, Classical Music
Courtney Lewis, photo by Travis Anderson

Classical music is a delicate balance of old and new with a respected history of great composers sharing the stage with exciting new artists. Now entering his third complete season as Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Courtney Lewis strives to create a cohesive calendar that honors both the past and the present.

“I personally want to introduce some new music that people don’t know because I think it’s very important for us to play the music of today as well as the past.”

“We want to provide as rich a range of music as we can. Many different people in our audiences have different tastes and different things that they enjoy at the symphony,” Lewis says. “We spend a lot of time trying to bring the best to Jacksonville,” says Lewis. “When you combine all those things with the artists we want to work with, you’d be surprised how little room there is left. It’s just a question of where everything can go.” It’s a daunting task balancing the old with the new. Lewis is thoughtful in his approach to developing a season’s orchestral calendar. He’s mindful of creating a symphonic experience suitable for all audiences. Lewis assembles each season with familiar compositions that audiences know and love while opening windows to fresh, new music and those pieces never before performed in Jacksonville.

“We always want to have at the very center of everything we do a range music that people already know and love. This coming season, we’re featuring a range of fifth symphonies that are very well known. We have Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Sibelius, Shostakovich, all their fifth symphonies. I personally want to introduce some new music that people don’t know because I think it’s very important for us to play the music of today as well as the past,” says Lewis.

The 2017-2018 season opens with Fanfare, a one-night only opening concert September 16 led by Lewis and featuring violinist Charlie Siem and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The year will include 12 Florida Blue Masterworks Series concerts, 12 Fidelity National Financial Series Pops concerts, a diverse collection of special presentations, the return of former conductor Fabio Mechetti to lead the orchestra in Faure’s Requiem and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and an opening gala with world renowned soprano Renee Fleming.

“We’ve got to be connected to the society that we’re in, not just reflecting the societies of the past.”

“Of course, it’s not just me conducting the orchestra. We also have a range of guest conductors. Fabio Mechetti, the previous music director, returns and we have two wonderful up and coming young conductors. They are both bringing programs that they are excited about performing. I’m really excited about bringing pianist Jonathan Biss and violinist Anthony Marwood.”

Opening September 22, the Pops season opens with The Mambo Kings and a celebration of Hispanic Heritage month with exciting Afro-Cuban-Latin rhythms. The season also features the screening of the blockbuster films Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on October 14-15 and Raiders of the Lost Ark with a live score presented by the symphony orchestra. “The thing I am most encouraged by is the number of younger audience members who really enjoy new pieces of music. That balances out the ranges of traditional, well-loved pieces that we perform. When you add that to our Pops season and the fact that both the classical and the Pops season have expanded from 10 to 12 weeks, there really is something for everybody at the Jacksonville Symphony.”

Other Pops highlights include the favorite hits of the 50’s and 60’s with The Doo Wop Project in November, a medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics conducted by Steven Reineke and vocalist N’Kenge with Associate Conductor Nathan Aspinall providing the music for the program Legends: Diana Ross, Billie Holiday, Beyoncé, and more. “It’s absolutely the most important thing. If you go to an art gallery, you would not think a gallery was very good if it only had paintings from the 19th Century. Yet for some reason, when it comes to classical music, the more conservative orchestras think that’s fine to only play music from the 19th Century, and I could not disagree with that more. Playing the music of today tells us more about ourselves and the society that we live in,” he says.

Music Director Courtney Lewis, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra
Music Director Courtney Lewis with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

“But of course, every classical musician is trained in the classics. It’s the absolute center of our education, so it’s not a choice between these things. It’s just important for us to provide a whole range of music, but also to provide a living and breathing organization that reflects what is happening in the artistic world today. We’ve got to be connected to the society that we’re in, not just reflecting the societies of the past.” Lewis keeps his eyes and ears open for new music, soliciting recommendations from his peers in the industry. He also subscribes to various classical music publishing houses that send him scores of pieces he reviews to determine if they would be the right fit for the Jacksonville market. “I’ve always been a bit of a new music geek, so it’s something that I’m always thinking about and listening to,” he says. “The difficulty is finding what not to play. It’s never a lack of being able to find the right piece.”

“The process of finding how pieces work together in a single concert and how all the concerts can work together in a season and even beyond that, how one season can relate to the next is very exciting.”

Among the new music in the 2017-2018 season , the brand new commission of composer Lowell Lieberman’s cello concerto. Conductor Kazem Abdullah will present American Landscapes May 28-30 with Julian Schwartz performing Lieberman’s concerto as well as Duke Ellington’s Three Black Kings and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront.

“Then there is music that is in the repertoire that isn’t new but maybe hasn’t been played in Jacksonville before. There are a number of pieces like that that we will be playing, pieces by Janoschek, Schoenberg, Elgar and Nielsen,” says Lewis. “And then there is an opera.”

Lewis is excited about bringing a brand new, full staged production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni  specially designed for Jacoby Symphony Hall and the cast. The symphony offered three, well-attended performances of the opera Hansel and Gretel this year, but the production was only semi-staged. “I do think there is a market for opera here on the First Coast. There are no other companies anywhere within hundreds of miles that are presenting opera,” Lewis says. “For many years, a fully staged opera by the Jacksonville Symphony was one of the highlights of the season. It’s very exciting for the orchestra to play outside their usual, symphonic repertoire as well.”

The season also spotlights singers with three international vocalists adding yet another dimension to the eclectic calendar. Christine Brewer and Jay Hunter Morris will perform a large portion of Wagner’s opera Twilight of the Gods. The symphony gala features a performance by “the queen of American sorprano” Renee Fleming.

“It’s one of the most exciting aspects of the job is piecing together the season. Certain pieces work well with each other and seem to speak each other in concert while others don’t. The process of finding how pieces work together in a single concert and how all the concerts can work together in a season and even beyond that, how one season can relate to the next is very exciting.”

When asked if showcasing a variety fifth symphonies by design or chance, Lewis admits that it was a “complete coincidence” that he’d only discovered just two hours earlier but that he planned to use it as a marketing tool moving forward. “There is something about fifth symphonies, probably because of Beethoven’s Fifth. I think composers tend to think of their fifth symphonies as having to be an especially powerful statement. The same thing with ninth symphonies, again because of Beethoven’s model,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that composers wrote sort of crowd-pleasing fifth symphonies. But it is a coincidence that we programmed them all.”

Enjoy an old favorite or discover something new with the Jacksonville Symphony this season. Check them out at www.jaxsymphony.org.

About Liza Mitchell