Conductor Courtney Lewis invigorates Boston’s classical music scene

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Courtney Lewis

"Classical music needs to have an audience in the future. This is not an elitist art. It is something that everybody needs, like air," said conductor Courtney Lewis in a recent interview with WGBH’s Jared Bowen.

That passion led to Lewis to create the Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra formed in 2008
with a two-fold mission: to bring musical education to public schools and to offer invigorating programs to the public.

It’s proved to be a smart idea - in just a short time Lewis and the Discovery Ensemble were getting a palpable buzz in the media. Boston Phoenix music critic Lloyd Schwartz wrote "In the past couple of years, they’ve presented some of the best concerts around, though they still haven’t found the audience they deserve." He then went onto praise Lewis’s conducting of Beethoven’s Eroica as "one of the most exciting and moving" he had ever heard. Schwartz then called the ensemble an "ongoing discovery" in his list of the Top 10 Classical Music Stories of 2010: "The group has a noble mission of going into inner-city schools and exposing the kids, most of them for the first time, to classical music. Large adult audiences are only beginning to discover Discovery Ensemble’s grown-up delights."

They will have an opportunity to do just that this Thursday night when the group returns to Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre for a program entitled Three Faces of Romanticism. As they have in the past, they will mix the familiar with the less-known, in this case repertory favorites Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, "the Rhenish" and Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll will be played with Franz Schreker’s largely unknown Chamber Symphony. A pre-concert talk will begin at 6:30 with Lewis and David St. George, the ensemble’s co-founder and artistic director.

The lanky, good-looking Lewis admirably fills the bill of the dashing young conductor and his passion for music education brings to mind a pioneer in this area - Leonard Bernstein. A native of Belfast, Ireland the 26-year old came to Boston as a Zander Fellow with the Boston Philharmonic. It was on a 2007 trip to Venezuela with the orchestra that he witnessed that country’s successful musical education program known as El Sistema and thought of bringing it to this country. With that and offering an outlet for Boston’s wealth of young, freelance musicians, the Discovery Ensemble was born.

Speaking to Lewis, who divides his time between Boston and Minneapolis where last year he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, his passion for conducting is immediately apparent, as his commitment to bringing fresh audiences through educational programs and the orchestra’s concerts. He began the interview by laughing when asked how he likes called one of classical music’s most notable up-and-coming talents.

Courtney Lewis conducting the Discovery Ensemble

A boy with his band

Courtney Lewis: I guess it’s par for the course. I don’t know. I don’t mind it actually, to be in my position.

EDGE: Still it must have been a daunting task to start an ensemble like this. Was it difficult to find the musicians that shared your enthusiasm?

Courtney Lewis: Because Boston has so many brilliant freelance musicians in their 20s, finding the musicians was the easy part. Plus with there are so many younger musicians who are very keen in playing in an orchestra with a slightly different agenda than the other existing ensembles. So playing new music, trying to reach different kinds of audiences and our outreach to schools, has made it very easy to find enthusiastic musicians. The more challenging part is persuading the public to come hear the music because there are so many ensembles in Boston. That is something we are gradually doing, but that is a huge challenge.

EDGE: Did putting the ensemble together come from your interest in bringing music to public schools?

Courtney Lewis: Yes, but the ensemble is equally a music education program and a chamber orchestra that strives to be the best of its kind. If a city such as Boston doesn’t have good musical education in the public schools, then classical music isn’t going to grow, which it needs to do. Also this city didn’t have a world-class chamber orchestra to rival the work of the symphony orchestras we have, so we saw the opportunity to build one.

EDGE: How did you get involved in music?

Courtney Lewis: I was a chorister in a choir since I was five, so music was always there. I didn’t come from a musical family, but music was always a part of my life. By the time I was in high school, I was playing the clarinet. But it was a really wonderful high school music teacher who inspired me to look beyond just playing in an orchestra. He prompted my interest in composition and conducting. I had a really wonderful high school music teacher who inspired me to pursue a musical career. That is part of the reason why I get upset when I see schools don’t have good musical education programs, because music is such an important part of life. When I think of my own experience, if my school didn’t have a music program, I wouldn’t be here today.

Read More of Courtney Lewis'Interview

Watch Courtney Lewis conduct the Discovery Ensemble in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony:

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