Review: Courtney Lewis leads the Jacksonville Symphony in a rousing Symphonie Fantastique

September 30, 2014
Courtney Lewis
Courtney Lewis
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

On Friday, Sept. 26, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra opened its 2014-2015 season with their new music director designate, Courtney Lewis — formerly of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The event, entitled Welcome, Courtney Lewis!, was the first of the season's Florida Blue Masterworks series featuring a wide range of classical repertoire. With pieces by American, French, and Italian composers, the program also featured the orchestra's principal clarinet, Peter Wright, who is celebrating his 40th season with the orchestra.

The concert began in patriotic spirit with Dudley Buck's Festival Overture on the American National Air (The Star-Spangled Banner). With its conservative dynamics and familiar melody, the Overture was far from exciting — only achieving a level of mystery when the national anthem was rendered in a minor key. As the orchestra played the final iteration of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the audience rose to its feet, singing with the sturdy accompaniment and suggesting that musicality alone cannot dictate music's effect.

From patriotic to playful, the program moved into Rossini's Introduction, Theme, and Variations for Clarinet and Orchestra, the first of two pieces designed to showcase principal clarinetist Peter Wright. Following the decorous rhythms of the previous piece, Wright's tripping embellishments and extensive emotional nuance were a delight. Wright's performance on the fourth movement was especially stunning, each languorous note seamlessly delivered.

After Rossini came Peter Wright's second feature: the world premiere of HiJinx! Written by American educator, composer, and vocalist Judith Cloud and commissioned especially for Wright's 40th anniversary, HiJinx! borrowed snatches from classical clarinet repertoire, opera, and popular songs, each tune lasting only a handful of seconds. In this piece, clarinet and orchestra were joined by an unconventional and dynamic percussion section — featuring slide whistles, bicycle bells and horns, and miscellaneous squeaks, taps, and shouts. This piece owed its charm to a structure of musical surprises.

The last half of the evening was devoted to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, the musical journey of a lovelorn artist. In these five movements, the artist travels through love, anxiety, joy, and shock as he pursues his beloved, faces the guillotine, and witnesses a witches' dance. Any artist would be roused by the dangerous truths of this musical narrative: the mortal hold of obsession and the transformative power of dreams.

Perhaps this recognition influenced Lewis and his musicians, for their rendering of Symphonie Fantastique was incredible, each movement unveiling new emotional territory. The first movement — where we meet the anxious artist and his fleeing idee fixe — established the trancelike power of this piece. Between movements, the silence delivered a jarring wakefulness, forcing listeners into an all-too-real world of creaking theater seats and rustling program pages. The third movement presented a fascinating contrast of timbre: the poignant melodies in winds and strings with the "rolling thunder" of timpani.

Even the misty shepherd-calls of the third movement were surpassed by the opening chords of the fourth movement, where the artist is led to the guillotine. The initial trumpet notes, delivered quietly and deliberately, produced a sinister edge that cast doubt on the seemingly victorious major tonality of the subsequent march section. Between bursts of garish triumph, precise string rhythms carried the motion of hurried footfalls, recalling the anxiety and obsession of the first movement. The last sweet incarnation of the idee fixe offered a moment of elusive beauty before the crashing chords of the artist's death.

The fifth movement, the "Witches' Sabbath," blends funeral bells, chantlike brass passages, and rustic dances as the artist discovered his beloved — and her melody — transformed by dark circumstances. More evocative than the sprightly witches' dance in the woodwinds, the weight and timbre of the low brass added a sense of finality: the last pulses of fantasy disintegrating into madness.

In May, Courtney Lewis will return to conduct the Jacksonville Symphony's performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. He will assume his full responsibilities as music director for the 2015-2016 season. Until then, Jacksonville symphony-goers must be content to relive memories of this first transformation.

Emily Michael is a writer, musician, and English instructor living in Jacksonville, Florida. When she's not involved in academic pursuits, she works with blind and visually impaired people and their families, teaching self-advocacy and independent living skills.

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