New programs, expanded repertoire boost Jacksonville Symphony attendance


An expanded repertoire, high-quality guest artists and a commitment to making classical music accessible to everyone are just a few of the factors that have boosted attendance at the Jacksonville Symphony in the past year, Music Director Courtney Lewis says.

Lewis – who begins his second season as music director this week – addressed members of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach Sept. 22, sharing his vision for what the Jacksonville Symphony is and what it can become.

“The symphony is much better than people think it is,” said Lewis, who joined the orchestra after stints in Boston, New York, Minnesota and Los Angeles. “When we plan a season, we try to give everybody something they’ll enjoy.”

Lewis has implemented a number of programs aimed at making the symphony more accessible and more relevant to contemporary audiences.

“When I joined the symphony,” he said, “the orchestra was in a need of a more varied diet.”

In addition to adding pieces by such legendary composers as Mozart and Haydn and what Lewis calls the “big, juicy romantic repertoire” of 19th century composers, the symphony’s upcoming season will feature pops performances ranging from Disney songs and Bugs Bunny to the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The symphony will also offer several of its popular movie nights, whereby a popular feature film is screened as the orchestra performs the film’s score live. This season’s film screenings will include “West Side Story.”

Broadening the appeal

To attract new audiences, the Jacksonville Symphony has developed new programs that aim to accommodate busy lives. Through its “Symphony in 60” program, for example, people who work downtown can arrive at 6 p.m. on a weeknight, have cocktails and then enjoy a one-hour concert. During the performance, HD cameras give the audience a new perspective on what the musicians are doing during the concert. Following the performance, the audience is invited up on stage to meet the musicians.

“We hear so much that classical music is an art form that’s dying and this proves that’s not the case,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to explode that sense.”

Lewis is also committed to bringing high-caliber musicians to perform with the symphony, drawing on the best musical talent in the world

“We’re seriously upgrading the quality of guest artists,” he said. “As we try and build the Jacksonville Symphony, it’s really important for us to work with the best people.”

A series of free community concerts and a presentation of the child-friendly opera “Hansel and Gretel,” meanwhile, will offer additional opportunities for local residents to experience the symphony.

Challenging expectations

The 2016-2017 Jacksonville Symphony season begins Sept. 30 with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” a piece that was highly controversial when it first debuted in 1913.

“When it first premiered, there were fist fights and people threw tomatoes at the stage,” Lewis said. “We hope that doesn’t happen this time.”

Yet the response to the now-classic “Rite of Spring” does illustrate a fundamental question regarding art forms like the symphony, Lewis observed.

“Should (artistic performances) just comfort and entertain us,” he asked, “or actually challenge us to think about who we are as a society?”

To that end, Lewis wants to introduce more contemporary classical music to the Jacksonville Symphony’s repertoire.

“For some reason, when we hear about new classical music, we run for the hills,” he said. “We’re working very hard to change that.”