A Young Maestro's Noble Experiment: Classical Music For All

Maestro Courtney Lewis (Courtesy of Discovery Ensemble)
Maestro Courtney Lewis (Courtesy of Discovery Ensemble)

A young Maestro takes his ambitious mission to the podium Sunday in Cambridge.

Courtney Lewis, 25, directs the Discovery Ensemble, a 40-member orchestra that plays free concerts for inner-city school children.

"Many schools in Greater Boston have no music programs," Lewis said, "and lots of students have no exposure to music of any kind. We want to change that, because we believe that classical music has a unique power to enrich the lives of young people."

How do the kids respond? "They go crazy!" Just this week, Lewis said, 100 Roslindale school children "screamed and shouted with excitement when they heard Prokofiev's Classical Symphony."

"The response reminds us that classical music is not elitist," he said. "It isn't only for wealthy or middle-aged people. It speaks to everyone with the same power if it is presented in a relevant way."

Lewiss said he is addressing what he calls the biggest problem facing classical music today: attracting new audiences.

"Artistic organizations need to think of new ways to involve the communities in which they play," he said, adding: "We tend to apologize for our music instead of telling everyone how much we love it. When we do that, new audiences suddenly appear."

The ensemble's second goal is to present high-level concert programs for the general public, often featuring unfamiliar repertoire rarely heard in the Boston area.

The 40 musicians in the Discovery Ensemble aren't much older than the school kids they play to. They are the conductor's peers — all highly skilled and under 30.

But Boston Phoenix classical music reviewer Lloyd Schwartz referred to their public concerts as "passionately adult." And he described Courtney Lewis as one of Boston's "best kept secrets."

"As a conductor, Courtney Lewis has a clear, readable beat — nothing over-the-top," Schwartz explained in an e-mail message. "No 'acting out' but very expressive, very musical, because he has a profound gift for finding the most expressive rhythm of a phrase, so he always seems inside the music, never just laying it on thick because of some concept or theory about a piece."

Schwartz called Lewis' mission to bring classical music to young, under-served audiences a "noble experiment."

Lewis learned his craft from one of the best. Before founding the Discovery Ensemble in 2008, he assisted Boston Philharmonic Director Benjamin Zander.

Now Lewis' talents and beliefs are spreading beyond Boston. He recently landed the job of assistant conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra and splits his time between Minneapolis and Boston.

"It's not so difficult," he said, referring to all the shuttling back and forth. He also insisted there is no chance he'll be leaving Boston or his orchestra any time soon.

"There is still so much to do with Discovery Ensemble," Lewis said. "In terms of reaching out to new people, and in developing the orchestra's sound, style and repertoire."

Event Details:

  • Sunday, January 17, 3 p.m.
  • Sanders Theatre, 45 Quincy St., Cambridge
  • $20 general admission;
  • $10 for students, seniors
  • (617) 496-2222 or

This program aired on January 16, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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