Jax symphony names new music director

Courtney Lewis to conduct JSO in September, take helm of orchestra in 2015

Courtney Lewis conducting the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in March.
Courtney Lewis conducting the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in March.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After a two-year search and selection process, Courtney Lewis was named Wednesday as the new music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

Lewis, one of eight guest conductors brought in for audition concerts over the past season, is considered a rising star on the national scene. The Belfast-born Lewis is currently assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and is co-founder and music director of Boston's acclaimed Discovery Ensemble chamber orchestra.

Lewis will conduct the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra's opening concerts this Sept. 26 and 27, and again on May 14 and 15, 2015. His first full season of conducting the Jacksonville orchestra begins in 2015-16.

"This begins an exciting new era for Jacksonville, both in enhancing the orchestra's artistic excellence and bringing music into the community in ways that extend far beyond the concert hall," said Martin Connor, chairman and CEO of the Jacksonville Symphony Association.

Lewis, who turns 30 on Thursday, made his major American orchestral debut in 2008 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and has led orchestras throughout North America and abroad to wide acclaim.

"I thank the wonderful musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony for entrusting me with their artistic leadership," said Lewis. "I have thought about our concerts together every day since my visit in March and I know that we will inspire each other to new heights. I'm also delighted to be here in spectacular Jacoby Symphony Hall, which will now be my home in which to make music with this great orchestra."

For his concerts in the upcoming season, Lewis has programmed two blockbuster works that showcase the depth and power of the orchestra. He will conduct Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" in September and Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" in May.  Plans for the 2015-16 season are already underway.

"I'm incredibly excited about planning our first full season together in 2015-16 and can't wait to share many masterpieces with you, both new and familiar," said Lewis.

Lewis said that his role with the Jacksonville symphony will be to build on the achievements of outgoing music director Fabio Mechetti by continuing to bring the orchestra to new levels of artistic and technical excellence, and to broaden the orchestra's repertoire. He said he also looks forward to leading the development of new connections between the orchestra and the Jacksonville community, by continuing to enrich the lives of concert-goers and finding new ways of introducing the power and passion of classical music to newcomers.

A passionate advocate of music education and community participation, Lewis's arrival will be a catalyst in broadening Jacksonville's cultural landscape.

"My decision to come to Jacksonville is as much about the community as it is about the orchestra, which can only exist with a strong community behind it," Lewis said.

In Boston, Lewis leads the youthful and dynamic Discovery Ensemble, dedicated to concerts at the highest level of musical excellence, and bringing live music into the least privileged parts of Boston with workshops in local schools. He has served as associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and was a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The symphony's music director selection process began more than two years ago, headed by a nine-member search committee that reviewed more than 200 resumes and coordinated the guest-conductor program over the last nine months.

"This process would not be possible without the audience, patrons, the arts and business community, and city leadership. Above all we thank the musicians of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Looking back on each concert, this has been a season of incredible music. I urge everyone to join in the excitement and subscribe to the upcoming season," said David Pierson, president of the Jacksonville Symphony Association.

Lewis succeeds Fabio Mechetti, whose tenure with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra began in 1999. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, Lewis is the eighth music director to lead the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in its 65-year history.

Jacksonville's symphony, like many in the nation, faces financial challenges. Pierson said the new music director will bring new ideas that will help not only musically, but in engaging the community to help build a solid future of the symphony.

"I think after 14 or 15 years we're beginning to look at new ways to approach the product we produce. Community engagement and bringing on a new director will help us reframe our thinking as to how we approach classical music and presenting it and music to the broader of our community, and staying engaged in the city of Jacksonville."

One of those outreach efforts is the return of the Starry Nights at Metropolitan Park concert series.  This Saturday night Chicago performs with the symphony and the following Friday, Christopher Cross is the guest artist.