In any great artist’s life there is typically a moment of epiphany, usually in their youth,  when something inside of them is ignited by an art form, whether it be connecting with a masterpiece on canvas or experiencing a performance in a concert hall. According to Conductor Courtney Lewis, The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s new Music Director, the key to inspiring future professional artists is giving them the opportunity to engage with the arts.

One of Lewis’s objectives in his new role as Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra is to create programs that introduce more young people and students to symphonic music. Lewis points out that if kids never hear it, they’ll never know if they like it.

“Exposure to the art form is essential,” he says. “People don’t go into music if they have never heard it. Kids need to know that this music is for them.”

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, one of the nation’s top regional orchestras, is undergoing its own transformational moment this year with Lewis beginning his first full season as Music Director, along with the installment of a new President and CEO, Robert Massey. This change of tide in the organization is certain to infuse the symphony with fresh energy and innovative ideas.

We sat down with Lewis, Massey and two Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra musicians to describe their own career paths, and the pivotal moment in their lives when they became inspired to pursue the music profession.

Julian Kaplan
Principal Trumpet

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“As soon as I started playing trumpet, I knew.”

Kaplan can attest to the idea that if you never hear it, you’ll never have that “aha” moment. He says he didn’t have many opportunities to hear symphonic music before his sister, Meggan, began playing the flute. “I grew up in farm country, and I wasn’t really exposed to anything.” But when his sister began to play, he found himself wanting to compete with her, so he picked up the trumpet at age twelve.

At the time, his other love was NASCAR racing, and in terms of a career, “it was either that or playing the trumpet,” he says. But the trumpet won out fairly early, when Kaplan was in the seventh grade. He remembers asking his dad who was the best trumpet player in the world. His dad named Wynton Marsalis. “I went to Barnes and Noble and bought every Wynton Marsalis album that they had. I would go to sleep every single night listening to Wynton for years,” he says.

In high school, Kaplan was in the marching band and concert band, and he took lessons with the Principal Trumpet player from the Charlotte Symphony at the time—Mike Miller.

“I started playing with the UNC [University of North Carolina] wind ensemble and trumpet ensemble when I was still in high school,” he says. After graduation, he went to the University of Kentucky and majored in trumpet performance; there he studied with Mark Clodfelter and Vince DiMartino. The year before he graduated, he won his first job with the Lexington Philharmonic. After a season and a half, he joined the symphony in Jacksonville. This is his third season as principal trumpet player, and his fifth year with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

Marci Gurnow
Clarinet and Bass Clarinet

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“I just set my sights on becoming a professional musician from that point on.”

Like Kaplan, Gurnow has a clear memory of her epiphany moment as a musician. “It was kind of a build up to a moment, but I knew in my sophomore year in high school,” she says.

Before joining the band in middle school, Gurnow had already been playing piano and singing in the church choir. She remembers a guest conductor visiting her high school in Marietta, Georgia. “I just set my sights on becoming a professional musician from that point on,” she says. She also got some good advice from a trusted mentor.

“When I decided to go into music, my high school clarinet teacher, Laura Ardan, Principal Clarinet with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, said to me, ‘If you can imagine yourself doing anything other than music, don’t go into music.’ ” Gurnow had her sights set on being a musician, and she couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Gurnow attended Southern Methodist University where she earned a degree in clarinet performance, and then went on to earn her master’s from Northwestern. She has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, National Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony and Milwaukee Symphony. She joined the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in 2006.

Robert Massey
President and CEO

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“From that moment on, I knew that’s what I was going to do.”

As a child, Massey remembers finding his father’s old trumpet in the closet. He says his dad was a career Marine, so the family moved around a lot, but the introduction of music into his life kept him grounded. His father had been a trumpet player too.

“I talked him into teaching me to play. It was this great foundation. No matter where we moved, I had that. It was the first real thing in my life that I was passionate about…that I was really good at,” he says.

Massey remembers two distinct moments of revelation in his career. As a teenager, he worked at a grocery store bagging groceries. He would save up his tips, and every few weeks he had enough to purchase a trumpet lesson with the principal trumpet player in the Memphis Symphony.

“I’m sure he didn’t appreciate getting paid in quarters,” Massey says, chuckling, “but he was very, very generous. He would give me these three-hour lessons.” He remembers the moment of realization when his teacher revealed that he was a professional trumpet player. “That exists?” Massey remembers thinking to himself, “That’s what I want to do!”

His second epiphany came later, when he was working as the marketing and development director for a performing arts center in Memphis. Out of necessity he always had one foot in the performing world and one foot in the arts management – “to pay the bills” – and it was during this time that Memphis had launched a new orchestra.

“I remember when I looked at the musicians on stage, about 60 of them, and I looked out into the sold out audience of about 1,200 people, and I thought ‘wow, I did this!’” He found his calling. “I love playing symphonic music, but what I love even more is sharing symphonic music with other people,” he says. That’s when he made the conscious decision that he would run an orchestra one day. He describes the transformative experience from artist to audience. “It’s magic,” he says. “From that moment on, I knew that’s what I was going to do.”

Courtney Lewis
Conductor and Music Director

Courtney Lewis Casual in Hall

“I was just blown away by the music, and I realized I wanted to spend my life with it.”

Lewis’s passion for music started early. He began singing in the choir as a small child and started playing the piano when he was eight years old. It wasn’t until several years later, however, that he experienced a clear revelation about his musical calling. “When I was 13, my high school teacher played us a recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and that really was a key moment. I was just blown away by the music, and I realized I wanted to spend my life with it,” he says.

Lewis is looking forward to the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming season, and he’s very excited to be in Jacksonville. He says he didn’t know anything about the city before coming here about a year ago. He was quite impressed by what he experienced.

“Everybody in the orchestra and everyone in the city wants the organization to grow. I felt a huge amount of welcome from everybody, and things just clicked with the orchestra…how the musicians responded and the acoustics of Jacoby Hall.” He also likes the emphasis that is being placed on downtown and the arts. “The city is on the cusp of discovering itself,” he says. He is happy that the orchestra will be able to play a big role in the city’s art scene’s own awakening. “I’ve always wanted to build something,” he says. “We want the orchestra to be seen nationwide for being innovative in terms of programming.”

Check out some of our region’s rising stars in the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestra!