A Crazy January!

Courtney Lewis, Conducting ElectricityLeave a Comment

There’s always one period in my season that ends up being slightly more travel and work than any sane individual should undertake, and this year it’s been January. In the weeks since the Jacksonville Symphony opened the year with Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony (about which I wrote last month), I’ve guest-conducted with the Asheville and Dallas symphonies and the Minnesota Orchestra. Here’s a snapshot of those weeks away from home.

Sunday, Jan. 8: Recover from a very intense week with Jacksonville. Sibelius’ Seventh was one of those fiendishly difficult but rewarding projects that only come along a few times a year. In the afternoon I talk to the Jacksonville Jewish Community Alliance about the various projects we have going on.

Tuesday, Jan. 10: Fly to Asheville, N.C. Asheville has a small but very ambitious orchestra. They don’t usually have guest conductors so I can feel a lot more excitement than usual at the first rehearsal. We’re performing a German program of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn and Schumann’s Third Symphony, the Rhenish. These are both pieces I’ve conducted many times, and it’s nice to refine my interpretations rather than build them from scratch as with Sibelius last week. The orchestra works incredibly hard and the concert is great fun. Several Jacksonville Symphony Board members have summer homes here and I’ve been given a list of restaurant recommendations. There are just enough nights in the week to make it through them all. Quite by chance our ex-principal bassoonist and his wife are on vacation and staying in my hotel so we have some excellent tapas together.

Sunday, Jan. 15: Back to Jacksonville. While I was away, something very exciting happened; I bought a new piano in December and it has finally been delivered. I had to sell my previous instrument when I moved to New York, so having the space for a real, 6-foot grand is one of the joys of living here. The Steinway technician arrives and spends the whole day working. He installs a dehumidifier and places a special woolen cloth over the strings to prevent them from rusting. I had no idea pianos needed so much TLC to cope with Florida’s humid climate. Spend the next day bashing through Beethoven sonatas rather appalled at the decay that has set into my technique.

Tuesday, Jan. 17: Fly to Dallas. I have long admired the Dallas Symphony and their music director, Jaap van Zweden, who will succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic the year after next. It’s my first time conducting Dallas and I’m really looking forward to it. We’re presenting a concert format that’s very similar to the Jacksonville Symphony’s Symphony in 60: an hour of music with no intermission and a more casual atmosphere than regular concerts. The program contains a piece by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke written in 1982, “Concerto Grosso No. 2.” It’s an enormous and sprawling work for solo violin and cello (originally written for the great duo — and husband and wife — Oleg Kagan and Natalia Gutman). During the piece the soloists repeatedly try to say something profound and meaningful, searching for the sublime. But the orchestra has other ideas and attempts to crush them with an endless onslaught of cheap and trivial music. They burst in with noisy American rock, trashy pop, saccharine Viennese waltzes and propagandized Russian marches, stopping the soloists dead in their tracks. Schnittke wanted to portray a sense of the individual being silenced by the crassness of popular culture and the dishonesty of political discourse. It turns out to be a terrifying piece to perform the week of the presidential inauguration.

Sunday, Jan. 22: I return to Jacksonville for less than 24 hours. I play with my dog, Alfie, who reduces my stress level 100 percent in 10 seconds. I’m just able to catch the Symphony Sunday matinee, which features my friend, the esteemed conductor Hugh Wolff, and the wonderful young cellist Joshua Roman. Listening to the orchestra while sitting in the hall is very different from on the podium, and it’s great to get a sense of the big picture and what we need to work on.

Monday, Jan. 23: Fly to Minneapolis to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra. This city and orchestra have a very, very special place in my heart. As a conductor, I grew up here from 2009-14. The first day of rehearsals is, for me at least, wonderful and artistically vindicating. Wonderful because the orchestra is like family and there are many friends to catch up with, and because the level of playing here is astonishing. Vindicating because almost everything I spend my life asking for both in Jacksonville and as a guest conductor happens automatically. It’s part of the playing culture. This is what I dream of for the Jacksonville Symphony, because it means artistically, the sky is the limit. All the rather mundane matters of playing together, listening, leading — the “dental hygiene” of orchestral playing, as Simon Rattle calls them — are taken care of, so we get to the meat of interpretation straight away. The concerts were originally to be conducted by Sir Neville Mariner, the famous English conductor universally known for many wonderful recordings with his chamber orchestra, The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He was music director of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1979 to 1986. Sadly, Sir Neville died in October at the august age of 92. I’m honored to take his place briefly, conducting his original program. It’s a beautiful and strangely English offering: Mendelssohn’s watery depiction of the Scottish Highlands, The Hebrides, Beethoven’s First Symphony, and Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, which we wrote for the British publisher Novello. We end the concerts with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, accompanied by a slideshow of photos from Sir Neville’s time with the orchestra. It’s as sincere and moving a tribute as any conductor could wish for.

Saturday, Jan. 28: Fly to Jacksonville. The last leg of my marathon is a thrilling set of concerts, “Revel in Ravel” with the home team. We’re presenting two of Ravel’s most beloved works, the Piano Concerto in G major, and his elegant but sinister deconstruction of Vienna, La Valse. These follow Berlioz’s high-octane Roman Carnival and Henri Dutilleux’s smoky and sophisticated Métaboles (Metamorphoses). I’m especially looking forward to welcoming fellow Belfast-man, pianist Michael McHale. We’re the same age and grew up a few streets apart. This concerto is Michael’s favorite — he’s described the second movement as the only music he’d need were he left on a desert island. I hope you’ll join us in Jacoby Symphony Hall on Feb. 2, 3 and 4.


Reprinted with kind permission of The Florida-Times Union.

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