A symphony season takes shape through the dedication and guidance of a few key people. Together, they plan, they negotiate, they tweak. And ultimately they arrive at a performance series that’s balanced, exciting and artistically optimized.
It’s a little like planning a meal, according to Jacksonville Symphony President and CEO Robert Massey: “Maybe there’s an exciting new dish you’ve always wanted to try, sitting next to comfort food, like meat loaf, on the plate. You have to balance the palate.” And, musically, the palette.
The Big Picture
With a coordinated and cordial working relationship, Massey, Music Director Courtney Lewis, and Tony Nickle, director of artistic operations, are largely responsible for the initial big-picture planning that dictates what we hear – what’s on the menu – for Masterworks this season. “We start with what the music director wants, with his vision,” Massey says. “Tony and I step back at first. We try to nail down specific concert dates, avoiding events like the Florida-Georgia game. Then we look for ways to expand on Courtney’s vision, to identify anything that’s missing. Maybe it’s a work by a major Russian composer or a piece featuring a certain instrument.”
For Courtney Lewis this season is all about continuity and growth. “It’s a continuation of the artistic vision I talked about last year,” he says. Expect liberal use of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and vocal soloists taking center stage. And expect a mix of music people already know and love, along with new pieces the orchestra hasn’t played in the past. That last part includes works that are either relatively recent – like György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto (completed in 1988) – or new to Jacksonville audiences, like Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, composed in 1900 but never before performed locally.
Lewis has a particular fondness for Gerontius, which is based on a poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890). “The work says something deeply personal for me,” he explains. “It’s a work of great passion and also humility. It makes you want to be a better human being.”
Balancing established works with new ones is the goal. “It’s very important to play music of today as well as the past,” Lewis says. “Pushing the repertoire will help the orchestra grow. And it tells us something about ourselves.” For example, Asyla, written by Thomas Adès in 1997 and performed here last season, “generated a tremendous amount of dialog. It was exciting to see the community grappling with it: Some people loved it, some hated it. But they were talking about it.” He added that reaction to modern music should parallel the way people view modern art. “Do we not look at artwork of today?” By the same reasoning, he wants audiences to be open to experiencing newer music.
It’s no accident that the current season starts and ends with two monumental and well-known works: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Mahler’s Symphony #2 (“Resurrection”), respectively. “Bookends,” Massey calls them.
Selecting the repertoire isn’t all about Lewis’s preferences. Massey notes there’s a formal artistic advisory committee that makes recommendations.
Article written by Richard A. Salkin