The perfect cadence

After 25 years at the podium with the USC Symphony, director Daniel Lewis takes his final bow.
by Christine E. Shade
Daniel Lewis leads the USC Symphony for the last time as music director April 22, in a performance of Mahler's Sixth.

Photo by Irene Fertik
When Daniel Lewis lifts his hand, 212 eyes follow with intense concentration. When he drops it, 106 instruments ring out. For the next 90 minutes, the world fades - all that exists is the conductor, his young musicians and the glorious strains of Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

Lewis' baton might as well be a magic wand, so deftly does he use it to caress and punctuate the musical line, to turn separate parts into a whole. But it's not magic that makes the USC Symphony go: it's talent. Talent fueled by Lewis' coaxing and cajoling, dashed with sternness, mixed with respect.

"This piece is so incredibly difficult technically," said Lewis. Yet he is certain his orchestra is up to it. After 25 years, he knows how to bring out the best in each of its members - the cellists, the trumpeters, the timpanists.

And after 25 years, Lewis is rehearsing his final concert with the USC Symphony.

Lewis takes his 106-piece symphony orchestra on stage for the last time as music director Saturday, April 22. They will be performing a Mahler work that has been called both personal and prophetic.

The "Tragic" symphony is charged with dark promise. As one young violinist describes it, "for 10 bars, it will be glorious and breezing. You ride it like the wind. Then, two bars later, it's wrenching. It's physically exhausting to play."

The Bohemian-born composer wrote the symphony during one of the happiest periods of his life. Yet it is filled with somber passages that seem to foretell doom. In its original version, the work climaxed with three crashing hammer blows - a fateful prophecy that bore bitter fruit for Mahler. The year after the work premiered in 1906, his young daughter died, he was forced to resign the directorship of the Vienna Opera and he learned he had a serious heart disease. Within four years, the condition would prove fatal.

Some conductors have left off the third hammer blow "lest they be felled." Lewis, too, will omit the last blow - not because of supersition, but because that's how Mahler revised the score's last edition.

When Lewis learned the School of Music wanted to honor him by staging his "Farewell Concert" at the prestigious Ambassador Auditorium, in Pasadena, he knew he wanted to program "something different than the normal fare, something where the musicians could get their souls involved."

Lewis has never had qualms about putting his orchestra on display outside its home in Bovard Auditorium.

"We have talent that's every bit the equal of Juilliard," he said.

He has led his musicians to the Ambassador three times - most recently in 1989, for the world premiere of a cello concerto by Karel Husa. Two years later, he escorted them to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., where they performed a revised version of the work with soloist Lynn Harrell. They have also performed at the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts.

Lewis described the trip to Washington as "the most extended and probably most high-profile" tour of his tenure, yet he insists the highlight of his career has simply been the everyday interaction with his students.

A special memory is a 1992 Bovard performance of John Corigliano's First Symphony, written as an ode to friends who had died of AIDS.

Lewis said he sent a tape of that performance to the composer, not expecting a reply. A month later, he received a letter, which he posted for his musicians to see.

"One of the most successful composers in America today singled [the USC Symphony] out," said Lewis with pride. "He wrote, 'any orchestra can play the loud parts, but what was remarkable about the USC performance is the great musicality and introspection that came in the soft passages.'"

Many significant musicians conducted at USC before Lewis arrived in 1970, and more will follow. But the last quarter century has brought artistic growth and fine-tuning that have earned the orchestra and the School of Music wide acclaim.

"USC's symphony is the envy of virtually every school in the country," said dean of music Larry Livingston. "As a conductor myself, I have a deep personal appreciation for the combination of Dan Lewis' artistry, his teaching and his absolute insistence on the highest standards."

Violinist Cynthia Phelps, now a member of the New York Philharmonic, credits Lewis' lessons in orchestral playing with catapulting her career.

"He demands a kind of intensity with his orchestra," said Phelps, who last year was named the school's Alumna of the Year. "With Daniel Lewis, it was an event just to go to rehearsal. He has a genuine love for music and the ability to transfer those feelings in a way that inspires those who are making the sounds."

Some students have lingered at USC just to train longer under Lewis' baton.

"He's the reason I'm still here," said Amy Sims, principal violinist of the symphony, who graduated in 1993 but has stayed to pursue advanced training. After playing under Lewis, she said, musicians are ready for whatever the professional world demands.

"He instills a discipline in his students. You're either ready or you're out," she said.

Students who think he's too hard a taskmaster miss the point. "I'm not trying to create a battle or victory over them," Lewis said. "I just want them to live up to what their potential is."

The Ambassador concert is unusual, said Lewis, in that four alumni will be joining the symphony - a violist, two violinists and a double-bassist.

The double-bassist is Mary Reale, now the public information officer for the School of Music. Lewis gave Reale her first professional job - in 1978, with the Pasadena Symphony - and he was "the reason I came to USC in 1983 as a 35-year-old freshman," she said. "This was my last orchestra requirement for my degree, and I wanted to finish the way I started." With Lewis.

The four movements of Mahler's Sixth will be performed, without intermission, beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Tickets for the Saturday evening concert are available through the Ambassador Ticket Office, 300 W. Green St., Pasadena, (800) 266-2378. Tickets are half-price for USC faculty, staff and students. For additional information, call 740-3233.

Cherished days of daniel lewis

"I've never felt that conducting and making music is a job," said Daniel Lewis. "It's been an opportunity."

After 25 years, Lewis retires from the USC podium at the end of this semester.

He is not stowing away his baton, though. After a brief respite, he'll seriously review the many offers he's already received to guest-conduct university orchestras and participate in various symphony organizations.

Lewis is the reason many music students were drawn to USC, and they in turn are what kept Lewis around so long - declining all other academic and professional opportunities. "We have some absolutely stupendous talent here," he said.

He's considered a tough taskmaster, a kind of musical Knute Rockne who will wring the very utmost out of each of his players. And just as student athletes are devoted to their sport, Lewis said, his students are devoted to music. Only musicians have the advantage of knowing that "they can play until they're 80."

Lewis is well known in the music world of Southern California, combining illustrious academic and professional careers. As director of conducting studies at the School of Music since 1970, he has helped make the USC Symphony one of the most respected conservatory ensembles in the nation.

In 1984, Lewis was named University Professor, the first music faculty member to be so honored.

From 1971 to 1982, he directed the Pasadena Symphony, leading that orchestra to local prominence second only to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Lewis has also kept up a vigorous guest conducting schedule with such orchestras as the Louisville Symphony, the Seattle Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as several European ensembles. Since his 1974 debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he has conducted that orchestra in more than 30 concerts at the Music Center and the Hollywood Bowl. With Leonard Bernstein, he served in 1982 as artistic co-director of the first season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, and he was twice director of the Ojai Festival. He has also served as musical advisor to the Glendale Symphony.

A violinist, Lewis studied at the Claremont Graduate School; the Hochschule fuer Musik, in Munich; and with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Before joining USC, he taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, UC San Diego and Cal State Fullerton.

Lewis always tells his students that he expects "their very best." Even if that best is not as good as the next person's best, he said, "if they're giving everything that they can give, they're cherishable."

For years to come, when they record a CD with a world-famous orchestra, gather informally to play string quartets or mold a child's tiny hand, for the first time, around a bow, these musicians will also cherish what Daniel Lewis nurtured in them - the ability to make superb music.

"It's the greatest that mankind has to offer - imagination and the arts, creativity," he said. "It surpasses almost any other endeavor, certainly that of the generals and that of the politicians."