I could not be more excited for the critically acclaimed Discovery Ensemble’s upcoming program: Three Faces of Romanticism: Music of Wagner, Schreker and Schumann. I recently sat down with the ever-charming Courtney Lewis, Conductor and Founding Music Director, and he dishes about his history, the ensemble, traveling, and the future of classical music in the Americas.
The performance is this Thursday, March 17, at 7:30pm at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard. For more information, go here, or call 617-496-2222. And thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Discovery Ensemble is able to offer up to 500 free tickets to college students with valid ID!
Courtney Lewis, the 26-year old Irish transplant, is a rising new talent, and it’s his sharp, keen and passionate interpretation of the music he selects that presents his greatest point of promise: a fresh injection of much-needed energy into the contemporary classical music scene.
Full interview, after the JUMP
CHRISTINA KIM: You just flew into Boston yesterday! Extensive traveling is an obvious requirement of being a young conductor, but how has your travel influenced and shaped you, both at a personal and a professional level? And where exactly is home for you then? Minnesota?
COURTNEY LEWIS: Well, traveling is an exhausting, and yet an adventurous, fun side of being a musician. It allows for me to get a perspective on how different orchestras work. I grew up in Belfast; London is a place close to my heart, because my friends, colleagues and siblings all live there. Boston is home in many ways with many of my friends and the Discovery Ensemble being here. But at the moment, my apartment is in Minneapolis —
KIM: Firmly grounded and planted?
LEWIS: Yeah, for the moment – but it’s fun to be moving around.
KIM: Do you see the Discovery Ensemble traveling across the states?
LEWIS: We want to do a NYC concert really soon, and a tour, hopefully. Going on a tour would be really fun – it will be our time to bond and grow closer.
KIM: How do you see American orchestras evolving in the near future, and how does that compare with the European orchestras?
LEWIS: A lot of American orchestras consist of big groups of students who come from the same circle of conservatories, in which, certain manner of their playing are quite similar and uniform… Whereas you can hear the subtle, different ways and sounds people play in, more distinctively in the groups I’ve come across in working with, in Europe. But everybody faces the same challenges. One of the things we’ve tried to do in Discovery Ensemble, is to break away from just playing concerts all the time, because that’s what big orchestras have done for a long time. And a lot of them are changing their ways, because it simply isn’t enough anymore. We do as many things as we can, and try to envision new ways to interact with our audiences aside from our regular concert sessions. In the case of Berlin Philharmonic, for example, technology is used as an alternative platform to launch what’s called the ‘Digital Concert Hall’, whereby with an annual membership, subscribers get all-access to the orchestra’s concert series for the entire season, streamed live on the Internet. How to expand such idea to the American audience – is the question.
KIM: What do you look for in candidates during auditioning [for Discovery Ensemble]?
LEWIS: Every season, at the beginning of September for a week, we hold auditions. Discovery Ensemble mainly consists of young players; even if they are professionals, the turnover rate is high – we’ve had 20 newcomers out of the 50 placements in the group. Technicality and talent are most certainly expected, first and foremost. But more than that, we are looking for individuals who are able to communicate well, so that the kids could respond to them, and also to have an orchestra a certain way where it communicates with me or with and among each other – chemistry is key.
KIM: Do you have a different style of conducting and communicating, whether you are in Minnesota or in Boston?
LEWIS: That’s a really interesting question. I do conduct in Minnesota more frequently. With the Minnesota Orchestra, I don’t rehearse with them for long periods of time – we are ready to go. With Discovery Ensemble, we have intense rehearsal sessions for an entire week. Even though there has been a big turnover [at the Ensemble], there is a core group of people who’ve been there the whole time, and we read each other very well. With the history of our last performances hanging around, over time, as the group gets more used to what I am looking and asking for, they can be really receptive. One of the things I love about the Discovery Ensemble is that by the time we get around to week 2, the group becomes so nuanced and tight-knit, I can draw out the immediate response from the Ensemble. That the intimacy of the chamber orchestra allows for such interaction is exciting for me to watch, hear and witness as a conductor, sometimes even without being directly involved in the process.
KIM: How did you make the transition from being a clarinetist to a conductor?
LEWIS: At [the University of]Cambridge, my principal study was clarinet. I’ve become bored with playing in an orchestra (awful thing to say!), stopping and waiting to play again. I was lucky! At Cambridge, there were lots of orchestras where they had students as conductors. By the time I went off to a conducting college, I’ve already had experience under my belt.
KIM: You like to take charge!
LEWIS: (laughs) … Not so much as taking charge – but being able to having the means to express music the way you think about an orchestral piece of music, being able to have …
KIM: …a more comprehensive take on the music.
LEWIS: That’s a good word. Comprehensive! And also conducting is so much fun. SO much fun! It’s such an exciting job, because you hope to inspire people emotionally, you have to be able to technically do things. The whole psychology of it all is very fascinating. It’s a lot of fun to move!
KIM: Speaking of moves, do you have a signature move you do?
LEWIS: (laughs) I hope not, hope not. But you’d have to ask my players, not me!
KIM: Your next upcoming performance in Boston is scheduled to be on March 17th at the Sanders Theatre?
LEWIS: That’s right. I like [Sanders] – it’s got a lot of space, the sound we make on the stage – it’s the right size for us and the audience – it’s intimate. The chamber orchestra fills up the space and it doesn’t feel too big. It’s a great venue.
KIM: How did you decide the program?
LEWIS: We always try to have a symphony that everyone knows, and add a new approach to it. In the upcoming program we have – Wagner ‘s Siegfried Idyll, which is played a LOT. A beautiful piece! Then we pick a piece we can use in schools and workshops, which will also be featured in the concert. This time, it will be Schumann’s Symphony No.3. We also like to include something that nobody usually knows, and is rarely played. On the 17th, We are gonna be performing a piece composed by Schreker, called Chamber Symphony, which is a stunning masterpiece. So exciting! We love the idea of reaching out to kids who don’t know about music, but also reaching out to audiences who do know music but there are pieces they haven’t heard before.
KIM: As a ‘challenge’?
LEWIS: Yeah, as a way for the audience to ‘discover’ new music.
KIM: And to backtrack a little, how did you conceive of the notion of Discovery Ensemble?
LEWIS: Well, we [David St.George and I] both worked at the Boston Phil together – David still does as the artistic advisor. We felt that there was a need for a good chamber orchestra in the city with equally matching caliber of its counterparts, such as the BSO and the BPO and many more. What Boston does have, is a strong number of freelance performers, who are really, really good. Not many American cities have that [luxury of talent]. NYC, Boston, LA –with a different emphasis – in film. We saw a lot of reasons for building a chamber orchestra that would inspire to be world-class, but that we could also give a different angle by equally emphasizing the education work.
KIM: This would be a no-brainer. But how do you feel about the budget cuts for the music and the arts programs at schools?
LEWIS: Incredibly short-sighted… (pauses) Music is so important. It’s not a luxury. It’s something that everybody needs, just like they need math, science and English. The problem is here; the orchestra has been so blasé about educating the audience. There is a whole generation of middle-aged people who don’t know what they’re missing. Shamefully, Boston public schools don’t really have any music. It’s so bad, meaning it’s really appalling. And when those people make decisions about the arts education and the future generation, you’re already sunk, because they didn’t know about it in the first place. So there is a horrible knock-on [domino] effect. There is nothing inaccessible or elitist about [classical] music! It’s just that the institutions we’ve built around it are obsolete. It’s a major challenge facing the classical music and orchestras today – how to overcome that problem – how do we fix that and reconnect with young people.
KIM: What kind of challenges do you think classical music currently faces in the age of the Gagas, the Beyonces, the proliferation of Pop Princesses? How do kids respond to their music versus what you bring to them? How do you approach the subject?
LEWIS: I love Beyonce and Lady Gaga!
KIM: I think Lady Gaga is actually performing tomorrow in Boston!
LEWIS: (sitting up straight) Is she?!
KIM: At the TD Bank Garden!
LEWIS: I’m not diminishing the artistry of Lady Gaga – she’s incredible. But it’s a different type of function. Different types of music do different things. People watch soap operas and also read great novels. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I don’t see them as competing with each other. They do compete with young people, because a lot of them have endless exposure to pop music – it’s always there, while the classical isn’t out there in the public sphere, because it’s not as immediately appealing to the media. But, when we bring classical music to into schools, the response we get from kids is not, “oh, this isn’t for me.” It’s always “wow, I love this!” And the reactions are instant, and physical, meaning you can see it [in their faces].
LEWIS: Yeah! And that’s what we hope to get to in Discovery Ensemble.
KIM: What are some of the magical ingredients to making a successful orchestra – what are the essential qualities to ‘making it work’?
LEWIS: Well, it takes great musicians to start off with – it has to have people who want to play together, like playing ensemble music, which is different from being a soloist. You also need support from the community in terms of having a strong a board and funding. Most of all, you have to play new music, so that the art isn’t a museum piece, but something that’s living, connected to living composers and relatable. One of the relationships we really enjoy at the Discovery Ensemble is with John Harbison, a Pulitzer prize-winning composer living in Boston. It’s real. And you have to record, and be able to get your music out to the world. I would encourage your readers to look us up on YouTube! You can see all the live concerts and segments from WGBH features!
KIM: How do you interpret the music as a conductor?
LEWIS: Conductors aren’t involved in [the creative] process [of writing the music] at all. I start by having my score, and the piece is finished. I study it, think about what I want to bring to it. How I want the orchestra to play it. What I want to draw out of it. What speaks to me most. The only reason why we keep playing Beethoven is that every generation has to discover him for themselves. And as a conductor, that’s what I wrestle with – what can I bring to make it fresh? And that’s what I love to do! For new pieces being performed for the first time, conductors step back a little bit, and isn’t quite as creative, because you really want to represent the composer’s voice –
KIM: To establish the definition of what the composer is trying to convey –
KIM: Is there such thing as a signature Courtney Lewis’ program? Or do you keep your audiences guessing?
LEWIS: I’m young, so I haven’t had a chance to do everything… But the repertoire we’ve had at the Discovery Ensemble has been great! A lot of Beethoven, and a lot of Stravinsky, especially neoclassical music. And now we are moving into a bigger repertoire, like Schumann’s symphony. I would hope that our signature Discovery Ensemble concert would have an element of something new and exciting, where we can showcase our re-interpretation of the masterpieces.
KIM: Any upcoming endeavors in Boston in the future, besides the March 17 concert?
LEWIS: Future concert plans will soon be announced – so stay tuned as we plan to expand our concert series in the seasons to come!
KIM: What is your measure of “success”? And what would you consider to be your biggest achievement so far?
LEWIS: (A long pause) When an orchestra comes together and plays as ‘one person’ – in one voice. You feel a real interaction between everyone –
KIM: Coming together.
LEWIS: Yes, and that happens quite often in the Discovery Ensemble. I felt that our last performance in October was really strong – we’ve got a great critical response, but most of all, I really felt we did exactly what we had set out to do.
KIM: Exactly what you had hoped to achieve – stunning reviews! Kudos on the tremendous effort and progress you’ve made –
LEWIS: (a nod) Thanks! But on other side, I think giving great performances like that, reaching out to new audiences ,investing in the future generations – feeling like you are making a difference in people’s lives, and seeing your audience size growing because of what you’re doing… That’s a lot of hard work. And I’m going to keep going with it! Also in Boston, because there are so many groups, there is sometimes, certain reluctance to new things. Boston’s got great tradition and strength, but the rigidity can be hard to crack. In Boston’s terms, 3 years is nothing – we are still just babies, but we’re working at it – I guarantee, that anybody who comes to the Discovery Ensemble concerts that they will come back. So challenge your readers to come to our concert and enjoy it!
KIM: Very exciting for sure! I’m really looking forward to it!
LEWIS: I’m glad you can come!
KIM: Courtney’s next concert with the Discovery Ensemble is on March 17, at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard. For more information and inquiries, visit their website at: http://www.discoveryensemble.com/
LEWIS: At 7:30pm! So before you go and get trashed, come to Discovery Ensemble! And then go out!
KIM: We’ll make a note of that! And thank you for your time…
LEWIS: My pleasure.