Courtney Lewis has signed a new three-year contract that will keep him the music director of the Jacksonville Symphony through the 2020-21 season.
Lewis, who is currently in the third year of the contract he signed when he was hired in May 2014, said he never considered leaving.
“None of us are anywhere near our goals yet,” Lewis said of the strategic plan that he, symphony president and CEO Robert Massey and the board of directors established. “… There is so much great music that we haven’t played together.”
“Courtney Lewis has had a remarkable impact on this orchestra,” said David Strickland, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors. “…I believe we can become the finest symphony in the Southeast. Courtney has the skill, energy and intelligence to achieve the goals we need to get there.”
Strickland added that the board was unanimous in its commitment to signing Lewis to a second three-year contract. “There was no hesitation,” he said.
Lewis said he has become increasingly happy to be in Jacksonville since he moved here at the beginning of his second season as music director in September 2016 after buying a house in Avondale. He had lived primarily in New York City where he was assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, during his year as music director designate and his first year as Jacksonville’s music director.
“The quality of life here is so high,” he said.
As for the orchestra quality, “This is the first year the orchestra is demonstrating its full strength,” Lewis said. “It has become much more versatile.”
Lewis noted that the new-five year contract for orchestra members, which was agreed to in January and went into effect at the start of this season, makes the Jacksonville Symphony more attractive to musicians. It provided significant pay raises and increased the base salary by 37 percent over five years.
But Massey, who started as CEO in January 2015, during the season Lewis spent as music director designate, said he believes Lewis’ growing reputation and that of the orchestra has played a major role in attracting new musicians.
During Lewis’ first season as music director, when the orchestra had about eight positions to fill, a series of auditions ended with no job offers because those auditioning weren’t up to the orchestra’s standards, Massey said.
When auditions were announced for open positions for this season, the openings attracted so much interest that many candidates were turned away on the basis of their resumes without an audition. Seven new musicians have joined the orchestra this season with two more are scheduled to begin next month.
“It’s exciting to see how our musicians adjust to the new blood,” Lewis said. “It has always been my dream to take a great orchestra to the next level and to see and hear that happening here is thrilling.”
Massey called Lewis “a tremendous partner.”
He credited Lewis with two innovations that are helping the symphony attract a new, younger audience. One is his Symphony in 60 initiative, a relatively short concert that Lewis opens with a detailed explanation of what the audience is about to hear. The concert is preceded by a reception and followed by an opportunity for audience members to go onstage and mingle with Lewis and the musicians. The other initiative has been taking the orchestra out into the community, to venues like the Seawalk Pavilion, Hemming Park and Unity Plaza, for free concerts.
The symphony has also become the only symphony in America to partner with a major sports franchise, Massey said. That partnership will result in three more concerts at Daily’s Place, the amphitheater connected to EverBank Field, after the symphony drew 4,400 people to a “Harry Potter” concert last Saturday.
Lewis said he is excited about this season, which will feature “one masterpiece after another,” including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica,” which will be part of this weekend’s “German Giants” concert.
Lewis has received some criticism about his occasional introduction of relatively new and avant garde pieces like Thomas Ades’ 1997 orchestral composition “Asyla,” which caused grumbling when it was part of the final Masterworks concert of the 2015-2016 season.
“These things tend to be exaggerated,” Lewis said. “I would hold this season up as what it ought to be. But a season can’t reflect any one person’s taste too much. We’re not here to entertain people. We’re here to challenge people and lift their souls through great symphonic music.”
Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413