Lewis, Henry 1932–1996
Henry Lewis 1932–1996
Henry Lewis, the former music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first African Americans to rise to a position of prominence inside classical-music circles. A double-bassist by profession who worked under Zubin Mehta early in his career, Lewis led the Newark-based symphony until 1976. He also conducted at the podium of nearly every important orchestra or philharmonic in North America and Europe, but never again found permanent employment, though New York Times writer Robert D. McFadden described him as “musically brilliant and a commanding figure with the baton” in Lewis’s 1996 obituary.
A Los Angeles native, Lewis was born in 1932 to an automobile-dealer father and a mother who was a registered nurse. He proved musically adept from an early age, beginning piano studies at the age of five. He tried several other instruments before settling on the double bass. As a teen, he performed in solo recitals and conducted both his junior and senior high school orchestras for graduation ceremonies.
Yet Lewis was an anomaly, for in the late 1940s there were few classical musicians of color. His father tried to discourage him from pursuing music as a profession, but Lewis was determined to break barriers on his own. He started private bass lessons with Herman Reinshagen, a former New York Philharmonic member who was then playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At the age of 16, in 1948, Lewis rented the Wiltshire-Eben Theatre for a solo recital. The director of the L.A. Philharmonic, Alfred Wallenstein, attended at Reinshagen’s urging. Impressed by Lewis’s abilities, Wallenstein invited the teen to audition, and Lewis won a spot in the group. At the time, he was the youngest player in the history of the Philharmonic, and its first African-American member as well.
Lewis’s talent and post with the Philharmonic helped win him a full scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC). Uninterested in studying music education—the only degree program available within the school’s music department at the time—he did not graduate, though he earned more than enough credits. In 1954 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and secured a coveted posting with the Seventh Army Symphony as a bass player. He soon advanced to the post of music director for the Stuttgart, Germany-based group of U.S. service personnel, which was attached to the general’s office and enjoyed a corresponding level of prestige. Lewis’s time in West Germany was enhanced further by a burgeoning romance with a young mezzo-soprano he had met while a student at USC, Marilyn Home, who settled in Germany as well after landing a contract with an opera house there.
Lewis was discharged from the army in 1957, and returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic with the aid of Eduard van Beinum, whom he had met overseas. Van Beinum, the former music director of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra, was serving as the L.A. Philharmonic’s guest conductor, and helped Lewis win a spot as assistant conductor under the group’s esteemed music director, Zubin Mehta. He also remained
At a Glance…
Born Henry Jay Lewis Jr., on October 16, 1932 in Los Angeles, CA; died on January 26, 1996, in New York, NY; son of Henry Sr. (a car dealer and real estate salesperson) and Mary Josephine (a registered nurse) Lewis; married Marilyn Home (a professional opera singer), 1960 (divorced, 1979); children: Angela. Education: Studied music at the University of Southern California, early 1950s. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1954-57; served with the Stuttgart, Germany-based Seventh Army, as conductor of its Symphony Orchestra.
Career: Musician, conductor and music director. Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles, CA, double bassist, 1948-54, double bassist and assistant conductor under Zubin Mehta, 1957-61, and associate conductor, 1961-65; New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Newark, music director, 1968-76. Made guest performances as conductor with several renowned orchestras and opera companies; founder of the String Society of Los Angeles (later the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra), 1959.
its double bass player during this era. On February 9, 1961, Lewis became the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra when he took the L.A. Philharmonic’s podium after the scheduled guest conductor fell ill. He led the group through a program that included Dvorak’s Fourth Symphony, and Home, whom he had married the year before, performed arias from Verdi and Beethoven.
Lewis was made an associate conductor with the Philharmonic and gave up his bass seat. He was also involved with the String Society of Los Angeles, which he founded in 1959, and in 1963 the group toured Europe under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. By the mid-1960s, race relations were undergoing dramatic changes in the United States, aided by a new black consciousness and the passage of historic federal civil-rights legislation, and Lewis found himself one of the front-runners for the post of music director for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in 1968. He beat out 150 other candidates for the job, and again broke an important color barrier in professional classical music. His hiring, noted McFadden in the New York Times, “was a landmark event in music, for few blacks had even made it into the orchestra pit, let alone onto the podium. It made national headlines.”
At the time of his hire, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was but a part-time group that delivered less than two dozen performances a year. Lewis worked diligently to turn the group into an accomplished body of professional musicians, winning an impressive increase in budget funding and upping the performance schedule to some 125 events per season. He recruited top musicians to join, and world-renowned soloists to make guest appearances. In a move that was far ahead of his time, Lewis also took the Symphony into some of Newark’s rougher neighborhoods, playing at schools and at community centers. Such venues did not always provide the best acoustic showcase for the group, but Lewis felt such gestures were important. “It’s a question of building an audience,” he was quoted as saying by McFadden in the New York Times. “I’m not a believer in the old-fashioned attitude of a conductor and orchestra playing for themselves and letting the audience listen as a kind of favor.” As music director, he also ensured that affordable tickets were made available at its home venue, Newark’s Symphony Hall, for those who wished to attend but could not afford its pricier events.
During his time in Newark, Lewis also continued to serve as guest conductor elsewhere, especially for opera productions. In October of 1972, on his fortieth birthday, he became the first African American to conduct New York’s Metropolitan Opera in a production of La Bohème. Horne credited him with guiding her into the bel canto repertoire for which she became known, and he conducted a number of recitals and other performances with her during his career. He debuted at the podium of the esteemed La Scala opera house in Milan in 1965, and was on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera of New York until 1977.
In his eight years with the New Jersey Symphony, Lewis turned what had been a somewhat moribund community group into an esteemed professional organization that played in both New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Despite these achievements, however, there was tension. “While the New Jersey orchestra’s reputation and his career as a conductor were soaring,” the New York Times’s McFadden wrote, “an economic slump was hurting many of the nation’s best musical ensembles, and Mr. Lewis’s relationship with his members grew increasingly strained as he pressed hard to maintain a grueling schedule and high-level performances.” There were also battles with symphony management, and some of the players were said to have balked at Lewis’s overly rigorous style during rehearsals. “He was a volatile person, but the volatility allowed him to be a great musician,” a former violinist with New Jersey Symphony during this era, Debra Biderman-Mintz, told Bergen County Record writer Jim Becker-man. Yet the musician also recalled that after one Carnegie Hall performance, Lewis “invited the entire orchestra to the tavern next door, and he paid for everything—whatever you wanted to buy,” Biderman-Mintz said. “He was really one of the guys.”
Finally, after a three-week strike by musicians in 1976—not long after they attempted to add a codicil to their contract that Lewis was forbidden to frown during rehearsals—Lewis quit the post. He remained involved in classical music until his death twenty years later, gracing the podiums of a long list of esteemed professional organizations, including the Chicago Symphony, the San Francisco Orchestra, and several other top American musical bodies. He was known as an adept interpreter of the nineteenth-century German Romantic canon, especially the works of composers Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Robert Schumann. Associated for a number of years with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra, which he led through recording sessions, he also continued to work in opera, conducting the Royal Opera at London’s Covent Garden, the Hamburg Opera, and several other noted European companies. He recorded with Leontyne Price and the London Philharmonic, and the resulting Prima Donna, Volume 5: Great Soprano Arias From Handel To Britten won Price the 1980 Grammy Award for best classical performance by a solo vocalist. In 1990 Lewis worked with director Simon Callow on a production of the opera Carmen Jones at London’s Old Vic Theater, which won the Laurence Olivier Award for best musical the following year.
Lewis, despite his record of achievements, was unable to win another permanent post with a major symphony orchestra. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he died of a heart attack in his Manhattan home on January 26, 1996. Though he and Horne divorced in 1979, they remained on good terms and even performed together occasionally. “The music world has lost somebody very special,” Horne said of her former spouse in an interview with Los Angeles Times obituary writer Larry Gordon. He was survived by his daughter with Home, Angela Lewis.
Marilyn Home Sings Bach and Handel, London, 1969.
Beethoven: Symphony no. 6, in F major, op. 68, London, 1969.
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder, London, 1970.
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, London, 1970.
Meyerbeer: Le prophète, MRF, 1970.
Massenet: La Navarraise, RCA, 1975.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Guardian (London, England), February 12, 1996, p. 13.
Jet, October 21, 1996, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times, January 28, 1996, p. 1.
New York Times, January 29, 1996.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 30, 1996, p. E6.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), January 29, 1996, p. 33A.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 30, 1996, p. 4B.
Lewis, Henry, black American conductor; b. Los Angeles, Oct. 16,1932; d. N.Y., Jan. 26,1996. He learned to play piano and string instruments as a child, and at the age of 16 he was engaged as a double-bass player in the Los Angeles Phil. From 1955 to 1959 he played double bass in the 7th Army Sym. Orch. overseas, and also conducted it in Germany and the Netherlands. Returning to the U.S., he founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orch.; in 1963, traveled with it in Europe under the auspices of the State Dept. From 1968 to 1976 he was music director of the N.J. Sym. Orch. in Newark; subsequently conducted opera and orch. guest engagements. From 1989 to 1991 he was chief conductor of the Radio Sym. Orch. in Hilversum. He married Marilyn Home in 1960, but they were separated in 1976.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire