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Superconductor makes Discovery

01.17.10
Courtney Lewis
Boston Herald

By Keith Powers

n most professions, being young, well-educated, telegenic and articulate is considered a blessing.

Not in the conducting world.

There, credentials are looked at warily unless accompanied by gray hair and decades of experience.

Courtney Lewis is the 25-year-old leader and founder of Discovery Ensemble, a new orchestra that is making a splash on the Boston music scene. He faces an unusual set of obstacles in his career path, but he’s up to the challenge.

Discovery Ensemble, which performs a program of Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev this afternoon at 3 at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, grew out of the connections Lewis made while studying at New England Conservatory and serving as the Zander Fellow in Conducting with the Boston Philharmonic. Founded in 2006, the Ensemble has made educational outreach central to its mission, hence its motto: “Bringing classical music to kids.”

In addition to main-stage performances, the Ensemble holds workshops in Boston-area schools during the week leading up to a performance.

A native of Northern Ireland who graduated from the University of Cambridge, Lewis was named the assistant conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra in September. He says that despite his youth, “I’ve never found the orchestras to be innately hostile.”

“A huge part of conducting is being aware of what’s going on around you,” Lewis said by phone from his new home in Minneapolis. “You have to figure out a way to make your musical intentions very clear, and most of the time I feel like I get my point across.”

His position in Minnesota offers Lewis a chance to work with one of America’s most respected regional orchestras and its dynamic leader, Osmo Vanska.

“One reason that I haven’t had to deal with age discrimination too much,” Lewis said, “is that in America there is a widespread practice of hiring assistant conductors. For me, it’s a chance to experiment with large-scale symphonic works. This orchestra plays at such a high level. For me, it’s a great opportunity.”

But Lewis has no intention of giving up on Boston after founding the Discovery Ensemble.

“At first I thought, ‘What’s the point of having another orchestra in Boston?’ ” Lewis said. “But we do something unusual. With our education work, where we integrate our programs with the schools, I think we’ve found the right approach.

“After working at NEC and with the Boston Philharmonic, I knew which players I wanted. There really wasn’t any orchestra making use of them. We’ve had a good start and I think we can grow this into a world-class organization.”