Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony
The summer months are some of my favorites of the year. Ironically, time away from the Symphony gives me the opportunity to learn new music and absorb all the scores for the coming season. What the audience hears at a concert is like the tip of the iceberg: most of the preparation is unseen, just like the bulk of the iceberg lurking underwater.
The first time you conduct a piece requires an intensive preparation period, especially if it’s an opera. It’s fascinating learning the text, often in a foreign language, along with the music and dramatic elements, slowly feeling the work come into focus. This coming season, I’m conducting two operas for the first time. In April, the Jacksonville Symphony will present what many consider the most famous opera of all: Georges Bizet’s Carmen. This will be staged in Jacoby Symphony Hall in the tradition we’ve established over the last few years with Don Giovanni, La Bohème and The Magic Flute. I’m astonished by the variety of Bizet’s music: its wit, charm and brilliant Spanish flavor evoke bull fights, lively street music and seduction in vivid colors. Right before that, in March, I’ll be returning to the Paris Opera to conduct Thomas Adès’ masterpiece from 2016, The Exterminating Angel. An adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film by the same name, this strange and haunting work tells the story of a group of aristocrats who discover that, for no discernable reason, they are unable to leave the dining room after dinner, remaining trapped for weeks. Already performed by opera houses around the world, it’s very exciting to be involved with a new piece that has established itself firmly in the repertoire.
Of course, the summer is also a time to enjoy other genres of music. People are often surprised and amused to learn what a big fan I am of electronic dance music (EDM), and especially its oldest subgenre, House. Created by African American DJs in Chicago in the 1980s, house music has a hypnotically repetitive beat that often has both an energizing and therapeutic quality. It also has a special place in gay and queer culture, played in our clubs and discos. My fiancé and I frequently travel to festivals around the country to hear the most interesting new DJs. Last year, one of my favorite artists, Beyonce, released an album based entirely on house music, entitled Renaissance. The album has been called a history lesson in dance music, each song celebrating a different side of house. Its lead single “Break My Soul” is a homage to 1990s dance, featuring a sample of Robyn S.’s “Show Me Love,” while the disco-inspired “Summer Renaissance” samples Donna Summer’s 1976 hit, “I Feel Love.” Most of all, it’s a celebration of the queer, Black musical culture Beyonce learned from her uncle, whom she describes as “the most fabulous gay man I’d ever met, who lived his truth and was brave and unapologetic during a time when this country wasn’t as accepting.” The album has been my off-work soundtrack for the last year, and especially over the past few weeks, since Beyonce is on a Renaissance-themed world tour. Tickets are like gold dust, and even more expensive, but I was able to attend vicariously last week when my fiancé travelled to Chicago for a show that the New York Times described as simply “dazzling.” If you haven’t heard Renaissance, stream it now. It will make you happy.
In just a few weeks, we’ll be opening the Jacksonville Symphony’s new season. Ending with what is perhaps my favorite symphony, Robert Schumann’s Second, the program features a brand-new Organ Concerto by the American composer Lowell Liebermann. We’re very lucky that Jacoby Symphony Hall contains an incredible instrument, the Bryan Concert Organ. Unfortunately, there is relatively little music for organ and orchestra, so we’ve made it our mission to change that through commissions. I’m delighted we’ll be opening the season with this new piece, which is thrilling, powerful and immediately likeable. Liebermann’s music is lyrical, joyful and full of color, and I have a feeling our audience will immediately take it to heart. Lots of Lowell’s music is available on streaming platforms. Have a listen to the charming flute concerto, recorded by James Galway, for an introduction to his musical world.
I wish you all the best for the last weeks of summer and can’t wait to see you in September in Jacoby Symphony Hall.