Courtney Lewis, associate conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra.
, Star Tribune
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
What: Minnesota Orchestra playing Strauss ("Don Juan"), Ravel ("Mother Goose Suite"), Barber ("Adagio for Strings"), Elgar ("Enigma Variations"). Courtney Lewis conducting.
When: 8 p.m. Sat., 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22.
Where: Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium, 1301 2nd Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $25. 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org.
A new conductor takes to a new stage
- Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE
- Star Tribune
- February 13, 2012 - 3:27 PM
Saturday will be a twofer for curious and attentive fans of the Minnesota Orchestra. The ensemble will play for the first time in the Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium, which will be the orchestra's home away from home during the 2012-13 season. And Courtney Lewis, the associate conductor, takes the podium to conduct Strauss, Ravel, Barber and Elgar.
Lewis, 27, made his subscription-series debut with "Hansel and Gretel" last November, but this is the first time audiences will get a chance to see him without singers prancing around in front of him. He also has the baton the following weekend for the Schumann piano concerto, more Elgar and William Walton's symphony No. 1.
Lewis, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is in his third year in Minnesota. He is also music director of a chamber orchestra in Boston and one of four conductors chosen to be Dudamel Fellows with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this season.
Charming, handsome and so properly British, Lewis invited a guest into his downtown Minneapolis loft recently for afternoon tea and lemon cake. His airy rooms are spare, the living area dominated by a grand piano.
"I'm strictly a domestic player now," he said.
Lewis crisply articulates the duties of an associate conductor. He listens, observes, stands prepared like a stage understudy, ready to fill in at a moment's notice if needed. He asks questions and soaks up experience. For example, he'll ask Music Director Osmo Vänskä, "why you conduct in certain ways," such as gestures or physical movements. "What was he trying to accomplish with that?"
The two discuss Vänskä's vision for a piece of music and then Lewis listens in rehearsal for balance and whether Vänskä has achieved his goals.
"Osmo's concerned if what he's trying to do is coming across aurally," he said.
Another key part of the job is dealing with personalities. The orchestra is filled with diverse egos, all talented and opinionated, as in any business or profession.
"Everything is dependent on your relationship with the musicians," Lewis said. "It's a fun orchestra, and very proud of how it plays."
Home in British Isles
The son of a barrister and a university professor, Lewis identifies more with British than Irish sensibilities.
"A person is defined by what art they relate to, in education, literature, music," he said. "And for me, it's England, not Ireland. It's not a political point, it's just where my sensibilities lie."
He studied musical composition and clarinet at Cambridge and went to graduate school at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. He moved to Boston, where he got involved with Discovery Ensemble, a 40-person chamber group of which he is music director.
"I like that it's my orchestra and I can shape it," he said.
In Minnesota, he works with a sound that is the product of many years in the making. Asked to describe that sound, he says it is transparent -- meaning the many textures from around the orchestra can be heard even when the band is playing very loudly. That's a contrast to some ensembles where the sound is thickly dense, blacker.
"Transparent playing is a perfect match for the music of Scandinavia, especially Sibelius," he said.
The Dudamel fellowship puts Lewis in Los Angeles, a nice change in midwinter. Gustavo Dudamel is the young music director of the L.A. Phil and a bonafide media darling with an irresistible narrative. Lewis said the hype is spot-on, and Dudamel is a thoughtful, considerate musician with remarkable charisma.
"He has complete understanding of the instruments, and his memorization skills are extraordinary," Lewis said. "He's brilliant personally and technically."
The next chapter
Lewis won't talk about where he will end up in the long term for fear of jinxing anything. He does, though, believe he will stay in the United States.
"I got my green card, and it surprises me how much I like living in America," he said. "I do miss working in England, and at some point I'd like to get more balance in working in Europe."
He knew nothing of the Midwest before moving here in August 2009, but has grown to love the arts and culture, the restaurants and the pride of people who live here. He specifically mentioned the "arts feature" in the state budget (Legacy Amendment funding) and said that even people who might not attend Minnesota Orchestra concerts at least realize it is something to be treasured. Plus, there is space and a slower pace, he said, looking out his window on the quiet sidewalks below. Only on Minnesota Vikings game days, when purple-clad armies march past, is his end of downtown heavily populated. He's never tempted to join them.
"It's not who I am," he said.
Does he, though, ever bring out his clarinet, as his mentor Vänskä often does?
"Noooooo. No, no," he said. "I sold my clarinet a couple of years ago."
Now that he is a conductor, he finds enough to stimulate him musically and instrumentally.
"I came here relatively inexperienced and by the middle of the first season, I felt at home," Lewis said.
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