A Young Conductor Leads A Noble Experiment

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Courtney Lewis works with students at the Cathedral Grammar School in the South End. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Courtney Lewis works with students at the Cathedral Grammar School in the South End. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Courtney Lewis is not your typical conductor. For starters, he's only 25-years-old.

Lewis heads up a chamber orchestra of his peers — mostly 20-somethings — and Discovery Ensemble is bringing classical music to Boston schoolchildren.

This week the 40-member ensemble set up shop in the gym at Cathedral Grammar School in the South End. At the beginning, Lewis briefly introduced himself and his chamber orchestra.

“That’s an orchestra that’s a little bit smaller than a regular orchestra," he explained to the room full of kids. "Today we’re going to play you some music, but just in case you don’t know all the instruments in front of you, we’re going to introduce them to you one by one."

Then the young conductor sat down, and the orchestra’s young musicians got up for a demonstration. They wore jeans and black T-shirts.

Instead of using music by Beethoven or Bach, Violist Matt Davies played The Simpsons theme song. The kids — of course — recognized it immediately.

WBUR Video: Discovery Ensemble

Then they went on to de-mystify Bartok’s rhythmic Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with the kids. Then the ensemble wrapped up the workshop by playing the full piece.

From the podium, Lewis bounced lightly on his toes, occasionally crouching down a bit to elicit a hushed, almost sneaky feeling in the music. The kids in the audience mimicked his movements. Afterward, the musicians called attention to the ensemble’s conductor and founder. By then, the kids knew him by name.

"Courtney!" they screamed, laughing. He got up and explained his job.

"So what a conductor does is, every body can play really well by themselves, but sometimes it’s difficult when the music changes, how many beats there are, and this did that all the time," he said.

Lewis is pretty well-seasoned for 25. He began conducting at the University of Cambridge in England. His first job was with the Boston Philharmonic. Last September, Lewis was hired to be assistant conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra. And, of course, he has Discovery Ensemble. He founded it with Artistic Director David St. George. A life-long musician himself, St. George has high praise for the maestro.

"His interpretive ideas are extremely subtle, and he has an uncanny power of conveying the subtlest things, what he hears internally, to players," he said.

St. George added this prediction about Lewis’s future.

"He’s going to go on to be one of the great conductors, there’s no question, there’s no question people will know his name around the world."

Maestro Courtney Lewis (Courtesy photo)
Maestro Courtney Lewis (Courtesy photo)

St. George could be accused of bias. He and the rest of the ensemble gush when they talk about the young conductor. But what about a music critic’s opinion?

"He’s a really superb musician," said Lloyd Schwartz, Classical Music Editor at the Boston Phoenix, who called Lewis one of Boston’s “best kept secrets.”

"I mean he’s someone who gets inside of a piece of music and makes you in the audience, hear what he is hearing. Not every conductor does that." He added, "I mean, it doesn’t hurt that he’s a good looking young man."

Who also moves well, according to Schwartz.

At a recent rehearsal, Lewis danced quietly on the platform, leading his peers with a mixture of joy and restraint. Not extroverted, but still visually engaging and active.

"I move a lot," he said, laughing. "I always sweat an enormous amount when I conduct. Some people don’t and that’s probably good distinction of style."

Lewis would much rather talk about his musicians and his mission than himself. One thing he wants to make very clear, though, is that Discovery Ensemble isn’t just for kids. The young musicians produce public concerts for adults as well, with programming rarely heard in Boston.

"My favorite moments in performance with Discovery Ensemble is when I can stand back and really let them play," he said, "that’s when the music really takes flight."

This program aired on April 9, 2010.

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



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