Courtney Lewis on his new gigs - and what he'll miss about Minnesota

by Matt Beckmann, Special to MPR
June 12, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — On June 12 and 14, Courtney Lewis will conduct his final subscription concerts as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra. In the fall, Lewis will join the New York Philharmonic as assistant conductor, and he was recently appointed music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Recently I had the chance to ask him about education, conducting, and leaving Minnesota for New York.

In addition to your work with the Minnesota Orchestra and Discovery Ensemble — a chamber orchestra in Boston with a significant focus on education — you also have worked closely with Gustavo Dudamel through the Los Angeles Philharmonic. What do you think is the role of the symphony orchestra in music education at large, and how can a large ensemble have an impact with children especially?

A symphony has an absolutely huge role to play in a city's education. What was really exciting with my time at the L.A. Phil was watching how successful they are at dealing with the problem of the lack of consistent arts education across L.A., and how they have plugged that gap with their own youth orchestra.

In Boston, we made that a priority with Discovery Ensemble in a slightly different way. We didn't have the resources to teach the kids instruments, but we did have the ability to take the orchestra to schools and expose them to the music.

And it's not just for kids! It's also for people around my age, late twenties and early thirties, who also may have not had a good music education and don't really understand the symphony's role and what they're missing. There is a huge amount of retroactive education taking place there to help people realize this is something they need to have in their lives that will give them great joy.

When people have a first-hand immersive experience in the arts, they really get it. When you present an educational program, many audience members will be having their first experience with classical music. How do you tailor a program to educate those people and get them excited about music?

I think tailoring is the key word there; it's about very quickly developing a relationship with the audience. This is something they can relate to, something they already have experience with. Everybody who is alive today who has any engagement with popular culture knows the sounds of the symphony orchestra! They've heard the sounds, they've heard the music, but they haven't made the connection — they don't realize they already have a relationship with the symphony.

Speaking of new relationships, what excites you about your new position in New York?

There are a few reasons why i'm very interested in this position. I'm excited to be working with Alan Gilbert. I've really admired what he's done with the New York Philharmonic; their programming has changed beyond recognition. They are playing more contemporary music, and they are working with really interesting guest artists. The fact that he's taken on an institution of that weight and size and has been able to maneuver it in a different direction is really fascinating, and I want to see how he's doing that up close. There are a lot of things that I think I'll want to apply to other places that I work.

This weekend's performances are your last subscription performances with the Minnesota Orchestra. How have these past five years shaped you artistically?

I don't think a young conductor could ask for a better job. From the very beginning there's been an incredibly supportive atmosphere, and the amount of repertoire I was able to conduct — and the fact that all of that learning has been with an orchestra that's one of the best in the country — is amazing.

When I got the job in Minnesota, I had only conducted a professional orchestra a handful of times; it was a huge amount to learn, and 90% of everything I know about conducting a professional orchestra I learned with them. And then also the relationship with Osmo has been great, being able to watch him build an orchestra. Watching how he works with them and the kind of relationship he has with them has been great. So it's been an absolutely enormous part of my life and professional development. There is a very big part of me that's sad about leaving.

What will you miss the most about Minnesota?

It's a very special place. It's completely unique, especially in America. I love the civic pride that people have in Minneapolis, and the fact that the arts matter. Despite the unpleasantness of the last couple of years, there has never been any doubt that people here care about the performing arts. It's an important part of life here.

The orchestra does reflect Minnesota values in some way; there's a serious work ethic that's very much behind the way they rehearse. They always want to work really hard, to be excellent, and I think that's a reflection of values that Minnesotans are proud to say they have themselves.

Matt Beckmann is a freelance cellist based in the New York City area.


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