Courtney Lewis’ eyes reflect the emotions of the music.
The love, the intensity, the despair.
His body also plays out those feelings.
His motions are balletic, powerful, frenetic.
Lewis began rehearsals this week with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, preparing for his weekend debut as music director designate.
He chose Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” an epic story of a love-struck artist who overdoses on opium as the featured piece.
“I think it’s very important for me and the orchestra to do a big, difficult piece at the beginning of our relationship,” Lewis said recently.
The work, he said, puts the orchestra at the center of the audience’s attention.
Lewis and the musicians spent hours rehearsing Wednesday in Jacoby Symphony Hall at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts.
The British conductor was a constant stream of communication.
“I don’t want everybody lopping in to make the transition happen.”
“It mustn’t feel rushed — bop, bop, bop, bop.”
“Play those off-the-string notes a little more clearly.”
It’s the work he’s been anxious to begin since he was hired in May. “It feels like we’ve been talking about this forever,” he said.
Developing a sound
Lewis, 30, will lead the first and final concerts of this season, hence the “designate” title. He starts full time as music director next year.
He’s also the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the next two years.
Every orchestra has its own sound, Lewis said.
For Philadelphia, it’s the lush, seamless strings. In Cleveland, it’s the perfection of clarity and delicate phrasing.
Lewis is not sure how Jacksonville’s sound will develop.
“Part of the excitement for taking this job is to discover what that could be,” he said.
Another part of that excitement is being able to play in Jacoby Symphony Hall, which is modeled after the iconic Wiener Musikverein in Vienna, Austria.
The Jacksonville hall is one of the best in the country, he said. “It’s just incredible.”
But it’s hard for musicians to hear each other on stage, which creates myriad problems.
On Wednesday, Lewis began experimenting with different seating arrangements.
His favorite was when he separated the first and second violinists — normally seated together — on opposite sides of the
“You can hear the conversation between the violins,” he said.
He left the podium for a few minutes during that experiment Wednesday and sat in the middle of the hall.
On the podium, he said, a conductor doesn’t really get a picture of the sound. Sitting where the audience does gives him a sense of what’s working.
“When the violins were split,” Lewis said, “it was great to hear the stereo aspect.”
No decision has been made on which of the four arrangements will be used, he said.
Lewis has received early praise from the musicians.
Concertmaster Philip Pan was on the committee that selected Lewis. “He’s really who we need here, both on and off the podium,” Pan said. “He’s going to pull together support like no other conductor.”