Orchestral Maneuvers

It’s season number 73 for the Jacksonville Symphony 

Words by Shelton Hull


The Jacksonville Symphony’s opening gala, scheduled for Sept. 30, was postponed because of Hurricane Ian. It’s rare for them to miss a concert, even at the height of the pandemic a couple of years ago. They were among less than a dozen such outfits to work a full season during that period, but remarkably, in that time, there were <zero> COVID-19 cases among the musicians, which seems all but impossible, statistically. That’s been the Symphony’s story for the last three years, though.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The organization unveiled its new season and its new personnel during a press conference at the Jacksonville Center for the Performing Arts last month. About 40 or 50 people attended, which is not bad at all for a Tuesday afternoon, right before the city shut down for Ian for two days. Unfortunately, they were mostly symphony staffers and patrons with only two media outlets represented from what I could tell. This should come as no surprise since Jacksonville media outlets are generally unable to cover local arts and music in the way they once did, even something as fundamental to our culture as the Jacksonville Symphony. (Shout out to Tori Fusinaz and Nichole Vanderpool in their marketing department for inviting us!)


Actually, there was one more media representative there: Melissa Ross, the legendary host of “First Coast Connect” on WJCT. Resplendent in purple, Ross was not there to cover the event, however, but moderate it. After an introduction by Jacksonville Symphony President and CEO Steven Libman, Ross introduced the symphony’s new concertmaster, Adelya Nartadjieva. The internationally-acclaimed violinist, artistic director and educator also co-founded Chime for Children, an organization dedicated to using “the power of music to bring communities together and to bring light into the lives of children.” Nartadjieva’s selection came after a six-year search, but after hearing her accolades and  being “greeted” attendees with an adagio, played solo on violin, it was obvious, the search committee made the right choice.


Ross then brought another legend on stage: Courtney Lewis, Jacksonville Symphony Music Director and Conductor since 2014. Lewis, who continues to challenge the musicians and audiences with his musical selections, comes off an especially impressive summer that included serving as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—at the iconic Hollywood Bowl, no less— on August 25. Lewis then introduced Kevin Fitzgerald, the Symphony’s new associate conductor. With Lewis taking up a teaching gig at UNF this year, Fitzgerald is slated to conduct more concerts this season than Lewis himself, which is a substantial step up for the 2021 Tanglewood Conducting Fellow. 


Fitzgerald is also the new music director for the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra. Founded in 1993, the JSYO currently serves over 35,000 young musicians, ages 7 to 21, in four school districts across Northeast Florida. The Youth Orchestra is a great thing to have in a city like Jacksonville, which has an abundance of music education institutions, from LaVilla and Douglas Anderson to UNF and JU, and so many more (including Girls Rock Jax), covering virtually the full range of professional opportunities available. 


The 2022-2023 season features works by the usual composers you would expect of any symphony orchestra around the country: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Aaron Copland, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, all the fundamentals of classical repertoire—and then some. But if there’s one thing that Jacksonville Symphony audiences have been conditioned to expect over the years, it is the unexpected. A big part of the symphony’s success in recent years has been a direct result of their efforts to make the music accessible to the general audience.


These include a series of Pops concerts that pay tribute to music legends, starting with Paul Simon (Nov. 4-5) and followed by Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn (Jan. 13-14); Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers(Feb. 3-4); Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin (Feb. 24-25); and The Beatles (June 2-3). The holiday season kicks off with Holiday Pops concerts (Dec. 8-11), followed by Handel’s “Messiah” (Dec. 17-18), and the always-popular “The Nutcracker” (Dec. 16-18). Another highlight is Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. They’re doing that April 28 & 30, in collaboration with the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus and the North Florida School of Music.


There’s also their popular Symphony Night at the Movies series, where patrons can watch films while the orchestra plays the soundtrack live, always a great entry to their brand. This season’s features include <Rocky> (Nov. 18-19); <Jurassic Park>  (Jan. 20-21); and <Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix> (May 12-13.)


“I’m really looking forward to playing Harry Potter!” Nartadjieva exclaimed at the event, almost too loud.


As introductions to the organization go, nothing quite beats their Symphony In 60 series. Now in its third year, which provides a happy hour networking opportunity, followed by a capsule concert by the orchestra, all of which gets attendees out onto the streets by 8pm. These will occur on selected Thursday afternoons: Oct. 27, Feb. 9, March 9, Apr. 13 and May 25. If you want your concert experience even earlier in the day, try their Coffee Series, short but sweet sets, featuring highlights from that weekend’s Pops performances, starting at 11 a.m. on the following Fridays: Nov. 4, Dec. 9, Jan. 13, Feb. 10, March 10, March 24, May 5 and May 26.


From the start of Lewis’ tenure here, the Jacksonville Symphony has placed special emphasis on spotlighting promising young talent, and this season is no exception. In addition to new personnel, they’re also bringing in four guest conductors: Nathan Aspinall (Dec. 2-3), Carlos Miguel Prieto (Jan. 6-7), Chloe van Soeterstède (Feb. 17-18), and Giordano Bellincampi (March 31 and April 1). They’re also in the second year of the Jacksonville Symphony Commissions series, and this year features Sean Shepherd, a rising star composer based out New York City.


New additions to the Symphony experience aren’t limited only to musicians and their repertoire. For the first time, they’re opening up the Choir Loft, which includes about 75 seats, set up directly behind the orchestra, facing out onto the audience. These seats are being pitched to groups, particularly charitable organizations and their many corporate sponsors. Seats are just $35 per concert, or you can buy a block of 50 seats and get the rest of the Choir Loft for free. This is especially useful for premium events like “The Nutcracker”, allowing attendees to not only see, but to also be seen. (There’s also a brand new piano, which will get plenty of work, as well as nine late-period Picasso prints upstairs, which certainly will not.)


According to Lewis, there are “at least 100” symphony orchestras in the country, and the Jacksonville Symphony ranks 17th, in terms of their operating budget. With at least 42 office staff, three dozen unpaid directors and a core of about 65 musicians on the payroll, the pressure never relents. Thankfully, neither do they. This 73rd season of the Jacksonville Symphony continues the organization’s upward trajectory within their industry, while pointing the way toward a luminously bright future. Attracting more than 113,000 patrons last season alone, the Jacksonville Symphony can expect thousands more locals to get their very first symphony experience this season. One can also expect it will not be their last. 


Nor will it be the last for esteemed Music Director Courtney Lewis whose contract was just extended through June 30, 2027.

About Shelton Hull

Shelton Hull has been writing for Folio Weekly since 1997, but his resume goes back even further. He has written for almost every newspaper, magazine and zine in Northeast Florida, as well as publications like Orlando Weekly, Narrow GNV, Creative Loafing Tampa, Charleston City Paper, Ink19 and The Atlantic. He currently writes the "Folio Weed" column, which he created in 2018; he remains one of the widest-read and most influential cannabis writers in the world today. He also compiles material for "Weird Wild Stuff" column, and he previously wrote the legendary "Money Jungle" column for Folio Weekly from 1999 to 2009. He is a regular contributor to "First Coast Connect" on WJCT, as well as the Jacksonville Music Experience. He is a co-host of "The Contrast Project" and the "Bold City Civics" podcast. He is also a co-founder of the record label Bold City Music Productions. He can be reached at [email protected].