Conductor Courtney Lewis: ‘I didn’t want the lonely existence of staring at a blank page’

The Belfast man studied at Cambridge with the goal of becoming a composer, but the lure of conducting led him to a rewarding career in the US

Conductor Courtney Lewis might have spent most of his working life in the US, but he still talks with one of those soft Northern Irish accents in which almost any sentence can be tilted up at the end to sound like a question.

That style of inflection neatly encapsulates the fact that he has an exceptionally inquiring mind. A concern about figuring things out runs through his conversation like a leitmotif.

His path has taken him from childhood in Belfast to the music directorship of the Jacksonville Symphony in Florida, a journey he makes sound like a mixture of the inevitable and the accidental.

He was born into a musical family, and was taken to jazz concerts long before he ever got to hear an orchestra. As a child he sang in choirs, was diligent about piano practice and became “a really decent clarinettist”.


In secondary school he met music teacher Philip Bolton at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. "The best advice he gave me was to listen to things. I used to go Belfast City Library after school, before the bus came, which was 45 minutes every day, and I would read scores and get CDs out. I did that from when I was 12."

Lewis insists he was no prodigy, even though he was reading scores at such a young age. "I was a complete nerd. I knew everything that Stravinsky had written by the time I was 15. Beethoven and Stravinsky were the two lights; The Rite of Spring and the Eroica are still for me really important pieces. And I played most of the Beethoven sonatas on the piano, too."

He had also started composing, and went to the University of Cambridge with the goal of becoming a composer. His music, he says, sounded “like a cross between Britten, Vaughan Williams and Bartók”, later embracing influences from Lutoslawski and Debussy, “just a big mash of everything”.

He had also taken to conducting, and had realised that it was “what I wanted to spend my life with: other people’s great music. I didn’t want this lonely existence of staring at a blank page, of trying to find something out of nothing. I wanted to spend time with music that I already loved.”

My own orchestra

He hoovered up Cambridge’s plentiful opportunities for student conductors. “By my third year I was conducting the opera society, all three of the symphony orchestras, and I had my own orchestra. I was conducting every night of the week by then. It was really, really exciting. Loads of major repertoire.”

He then chose to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where the attraction was Mark Elder, principal conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, a real-life conductor rather than someone whose background was primarily academic.

Out of college, but still "really, really green", he began auditioning, with sometimes disastrous results. His first success was a fellowship with the Boston Philharmonic under Benjamin Zander, and while in Boston he had a lucky break.

"Mark Elder was conducting the Boston Symphony one week, and I'd applied to audition for the St Louis Symphony assistant conductor. But you never get anywhere when you apply for these things. They're very closed: the administrators always know who they want already. Mark was going to St Louis the following week, and I asked him if he would put in a good word, and he did, and they invited me. I was the runner-up for that audition. David Robertson, the orchestra's music director, who's also been a great advocate, gave me lots of concerts with the orchestra. I did two sets of young person's concerts, and those were my first professional engagements."

The success brought him to a new level. “I got invited to audition in Dallas and Cleveland and Minnesota, and Minnesota was the job that I got. It was the perfect job. Because the orchestra is absolutely as good as any orchestra in the UK. That’s not a debatable point. That’s the level that they play at. And I did 60 concerts a year with them for five years.”

Working in Minneapolis, “in the middle of nowhere”, was an advantage. “There’s a sophisticated level of musicianship and culture there. But it’s also very far away. So there’s a degree of privacy. I was able to make mistakes without anybody really noticing. And the orchestra was extremely supportive.”

He didn’t really want another assistant job. He wanted to work as a freelance and see if he could land a music directorship. But “the New York Philharmonic contacted my manager and asked if I’d be interested in auditioning. The one thing that Minnesota didn’t give me was the guest conductors. I didn’t see all the people I wanted to see. There were some great people each season, but there was a whole range of A-listers who just weren’t there.”

The New York assistantship was the mirror of the Minnesota one. “Very little podium time, actually, but everything you do is reviewed and noticed by everybody. It’s a very different kind of stage. But the assistant stuff is great; it’s working with everybody you can imagine. That’s been a really wonderful, final period of learning.”

Now, as he puts it, “I’m going to be on my own for the rest of my life.”

He is now in his first full season in Jacksonville, where “the biggest thing that we have to do is to figure out a style of playing and a sound. There are areas of repertoire, predictable areas, that the orchestra has neglected in the past, that conductors haven’t been interested in doing.

"It's a lot of Haydn and Mozart, and even some Beethoven. For me that repertoire is absolutely the heart of an orchestra becoming great. I can't wait to bring Haydn 92 to the RTÉ NSO. They haven't played it for a while."

Grand ambitions

His ambitions in Jacksonville are rather grand. “The orchestra really want to develop. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. The community, the city, has a lot of untapped funding resources. The hall is already amazing, a 1990s replica of Vienna’s Musikverein, not in architectural detail, but the shape and size . . . And there’s a real desire in the city for the arts in general to play a more central part. A lot of museums and institutions are upping their game. It’s a really exciting place to be right now.

“I’ve always wanted to have a career where the first part was building a regional orchestra to a great place. So much of what I’ve been talking about already is lifted verbatim from what Rattle did in Birmingham. That’s because he was such a huge role model for me as a teenager and as a young conductor and still as an interpretative musician. Music education and new music at the middle of everything an institution does; the sense of an orchestra’s social responsibility to the city: that’s very much what we’re trying to do in Jacksonville.”

In rehearsal, his style of working is “very, very detailed. Sometimes to a fault. [But] you leave all that alone in the performance and do something else. Your job in a performance is to create an arc and a journey through the piece. That’s something that you can’t really rehearse with the orchestra. That’s your job. That’s the most important part, getting out of the trees and seeing the forest.”

  • Courtney Lewis conducts the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Haydn, Raymond Deane and Rachmaninov at the NCH on January 22nd.