Boston’s bright young Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra of forty players, will be presenting, at its second concert of its fourth season on November 6 at Sanders Theatre, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite; Julian Anderson’s new Khorovod; Copland’s Clarinet Concerto with Boston Symphony Principal Clarinet William R. Hudgins; and Haydn’s Symphony No. 90. The programming bears the stamp of Discovery’s charismatic music director, Courtney Lewis, whose peripatetic existence also includes positions as Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Associate Conductor with the Minnesota Orchestra. BMInt recently interviewed him by phone.
Lee Eiseman: What would you like to tell readers about the concert on November 6?
Courtney Lewis: I think this will be a concert that the audience members will leave with smiles on their faces. There’s a lot to discover and enjoy: new sounds and color, jazz, several excellent musical jokes, and of course everyone loves Mother Goose. I’m looking forward to hearing Discovery Ensemble — a chamber orchestra with eight first violins — play Ravel. Mother Goose isn’t a part of the usual chamber orchestra repertoire. I’m excited to see if we can find unusual timbres and balances and textures in a piece which is so familiar.
Am I being a Philistine or ignoramus in assuming that because your bio begins in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that you somehow grew up in relative poverty and had benefited in your youth from something like the El Sistema approach that you now so enthusiastically espouse?
Well, yes! I come from a middle-class family. My mother is a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and my father is a barrister. So I did not experience music education in an El Sistema model. Alongside lessons, I had an incredibly inspirational high school music teacher who opened the door to everything that came later. It’s very easy for a student to spend years making music — I was a pianist, a clarinetist and a chorister — without developing a habit of listening to music. That’s a separate interest. Thankfully, when I was twelve I was encouraged to listen to as much as possible by my high school music teacher. That’s when I began to be really excited about music. I spent every afternoon after school listening and reading scores at Belfast Central Library. Stravinsky and Bach were my gods! Because I was so interested in twentieth-century music, I began to compose. Later, I went to study at Cambridge because the composition faculty there taught practically every major British composer over the last two hundred years, apart from Benjamin Britten!
When I went up to Cambridge I began to conduct. The student orchestras there are conducted by students — they don’t bring in professionals. With a little experience, and if you audition well, you can have several symphony orchestras at your disposal. This was my privilege for three years. I was able to conduct all the time and I realized it was something I wanted to do much more. In terms of composing, I realized that I much preferred making music with other people than being by myself. Also, I preferred to spend my time with great music rather than what I was composing, which I wasn’t always so happy with!
It’ll be up to others to decide whether this is false modesty.
They’re never going to get the chance. No one’s ever going to hear anything I wrote!
After Cambridge, what prompted you to become a Zander Fellow? Tell us about that experience and how it tied in with the El Sistema program that you experienced.
I spent an extra year there studying the late music of Ligeti and conducting a lot. Since Ligeti died in the middle of that year, the project had to take a different turn. Then I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where I studied conducting with Sir Mark Elder, conductor of the Halle Orchestra; he’s a frequent guest conductor of the Boston Symphony.
When I finished at the RNCM I was still quite young and without much experience conducting professional orchestras. The Zander Fellowship seemed like a great position in which I could grow, spend time thinking about music and conducting in a semi-professional environment, without the pressures of an actual assistant conductor’s job. One of the great things about that time was the trip to Venezuela with Ben Zander. He conducted the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Mahler 1 and 2 over a couple of weeks. I was able to spend a lot of time with El Sistema, going into many núcleos, which are the centers where all the music education takes place. Many of these are in barrios, not very great areas of Caracas. It was moving to see how this system was able to transform children’s lives — children who didn’t have much else going on. I’d walk into a shopping center in some really bad area where you’d see people shooting up drugs all around you. Bodyguards with guns accompanied us. Then we’d go into a basement room where an orchestra of 15-year-olds was playing Don Juan. Experiencing the immediacy and passion with which these kids related to music was absolutely incredible.
Continuing with your description of what you took away from the Zander Fellowship. Did you get any actual coaching in conducting from Ben?
I learnt a lot from watching Ben talking to concert audiences. He’s great at that, and it’s something I’ve been called upon to do an enormous amount in Minnesota But I was very lucky. During my two years as Zander Fellow, NEC hadn’t yet set up a conducting course. Nowadays, every time a guest conductor comes in, the conducting students have prepared the orchestras, but a few years ago not only were there no conducting students, but there wasn’t a large enough conducting staff to do all the preparation. So I was asked to prepare many of the orchestras for illustrious guest conductors, including Hugh Wolf and Gustavo Dudamel. I conducted a huge amount of repertoire. No Zander Fellow before or since has done that, so I was lucky. That’s how I met all the people involved when I went on to found Discovery Ensemble with [musicologist] David St. George.
But it wasn’t just about the musicians, the concert audiences and me. When David and I were thinking about how to begin an orchestra in Boston, we agreed that education had to be a very large part of it. In a small way we are imitating El Sistema by bringing Discovery Ensemble into under-privileged areas of Boston and exposing kids to classical music. This was our brief when we founded the orchestra, hence the name Discovery. Beethoven’s Eroica is certainly a discovery for kids in Dorchester!
The discovery of music by kids is matched by the discovery of new music by existing concert audiences. The idea was that we would play unusual repertoire, providing opportunities for sophisticated audiences to make discoveries as well.
Do you have any theories of thematic programming or do you simply select pieces that interest you and hope it all goes together?
Last season all of our programs had titles. This year we have put together programs of pieces that speak to each other in a particular way. But we always have programming guidelines. There is always a piece that’s appropriate to bring to our workshops in schools. Then we tend to have a classical symphony (we’ve played a lot of Beethoven!), and we always want to have a piece that the regular concert audience is not familiar with. The program that we’re offering on November 6 is classic Discovery Ensemble. It includes a piece that is reasonably well known, Haydn’s Symphony No. 90. Then we will take Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite into the schools. It’s perfect for kids who haven’t heard classical music before. Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is a fantastic piece with many interesting turns that fit in so well with the wit of the Haydn. Julian Anderson’s Khorovod, written in 1995, is for fifteen soloists: percussion, winds and strings. A khorovod is a Russian dance: there’s one in Stravinsky’s Firebird. Anderson’s piece is all about dance, and it’s full of color, wit and frequent changes of direction. Not many people will know the composer, even though he was for a time a resident at Harvard. Every piece on the program, even Mother Goose, has a certain lightness of touch, of wit, of a winking eye. That vague idea, that type of deft wit, ties the program together.
When you’re only giving three (or the season after this, six) programs in a single season, you don’t really have space to give a whole concert one idea. There are so many pieces we want to play, so you have to sit and wonder whether these pieces relate to each other in some way that binds them together, even if there isn’t a discernable theme. If you have a twenty concert season then maybe some can be thematic.
You’re such a globetrotter with commitments in Minneapolis and LA and also elsewhere. Tell us for instance, was LA a shock after Cambridge University?
I know southern California very well because my father lived there between his eleventh and eighteenth years. I have two aunts and an uncle and many cousins who live in San Diego. I had been to LA many times before I went there professionally. I love LA! It’s one of my favorite places. It’s very different from Cambridge [UK], yes, and very different from Boston and Minnesota, but it has tremendous energy. It’s especially exciting to be in LA as a guest of the LA Philharmonic because their hospitality is absolutely breathtaking. The city is such fun and that orchestra has the resources to do absolutely anything, like the BSO. They have incredibly interesting programming ideas and an astonishingly brilliant staff, both administrators and creative artists.
I’ll be conducting the LA Phil in two sets of Neighborhood Subscription Concerts. These are programs that the orchestra takes into poorer neighborhoods during which the conductor spends some time talking to the audience. First up is an all-Dvorak program in December. I’ll return in March for Beethoven 1 and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
I have just started my third season with the Minnesota Orchestra. We have a big subscription season, much like the BSO, for over thirty weeks a year. We also have Summerfest, which, though not as extensive as Tanglewood, presents a month of events in the summer. We also have an extensive program of young peoples’ concerts, all of which I program and conduct. We do six programs a year, each of which is each given six times. So, thousands of kids hear the Minnesota Orchestra every year. We also do tours to underserved parts of the state. In April, I conducted an extensive tour to rural parts of the state. This is why, since the 1970s, the orchestra has been called the Minnesota Orchestra instead of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. I’m also very excited about conducting regular subscription concerts for the first time this season, beginning with a fully-staged production of Hansel and Gretel at Thanksgiving. In February I have a regular subscription concert. It will be nice to conduct subscription concerts after having put so much time into education work.