DANBURY, CONN. — For more than 40 years as a member of the Manhattan String Quartet, Western Connecticut State University Professor of Music Eric Lewis has taken an extraordinary odyssey spanning thousands of miles and centuries of chamber music works by some of the world’s greatest composers. Now his tenure as the quartet’s first violinist is nearing its end — the prelude to a new musical journey of Promethean possibilities in the years to come.
This summer Lewis will bid farewell to the MSQ when the quartet returns to Bosnia and Herzegovina — where the quartet undertook a landmark cultural mission in May 2010 — to perform in the inaugural Sarajevo Chamber Music Festival. But Lewis, who turned 65 in February, has no thought of setting down his bow. Rather, his departure from the rigorous demands of MSQ rehearsal and performance will offer the liberating opportunity to pursue a rejuvenating diversity of fresh musical challenges.
Even as he prepares for his final tour with the MSQ, Lewis has begun to explore fresh opportunities for musical performance and education with the chamber music ensemble Prometheus and chamber music orchestra Elysium. While his association with Prometheus dates back to its founding as a piano quartet in 1995, Lewis said he will expand his commitment as the group embarks on an ambitious schedule for 2011. Elysium, formed in the 1990s as the Camerata Strings, is in the process of reorganizing and soon will provide another outlet for his robust creative energies.
Prometheus will reunite him in performance with his brother Roy on violin, along with Norman Carey on piano, Stephen Stalker on cello, and Ronald Gorevic on viola. With Elysium, Lewis welcomes the opportunity for more joint performances with his wife, Katherine Dorn Lewis, also an accomplished violinist and his partner as featured soloists.
“I have a sense of renewal and regeneration, the spirit that the Greek gods revered in Prometheus,” he said. “I’m just enjoying a rebirth of energy and interest at the prospect of playing again with venerable friends, some of whom I’ve been playing with since the age of 12.”
Lewis and his colleagues in Prometheus will share their passion for chamber music with the WCSU and Greater Danbury communities during a special daylong program this spring. The university will celebrate “A Day of Chamber Music with Prometheus” on Sunday, April 17, that will feature the quintet in concert, as well as a master class for student instrumentalists and a public seminar on artistic creativity.
Prometheus will perform a concert of chamber music works by Beethoven, Shostakovich and Brahms at 3 p.m. in Ives Concert Hall in White Hall on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury. The performance will be open to the public. Admission fees are $20, $15 for seniors, and free for students with I.D.
The public also is invited to attend a “Seminar on the Creative/Re-creative Process for New Solutions” at 5 p.m., also in Ives Concert Hall. The panel discussion will explore a wide range of themes including “the chamber music principle,” the artistic process, creative innovation and inspiration, primitive telepathy, and the role of empathy and compassion in the arts. Dr. John Briggs, Connecticut State University System professor of writing, linguistics and the creative process, will moderate the seminar. Also participating in the panel will be Dr. David Clampitt, Ohio State University associate professor of music theory; Dr. Peter Elbow, University of Massachusetts professor emeritus; as well as Lewis and other members of Prometheus. Admission fees are $20, $15 for seniors, and free for students with I.D.
Prometheus members will begin the WCSU program by offering a master class reserved exclusively for Western students, including solo instrumentalists and members of chamber music groups.
Future performance plans for Elysium offer the promise of another important musical event at Western with the U.S. premiere of the Mozart Triple Concerto discovered by the celebrated Viennese violinist Eduard Melkus, who completed the unfinished work for violin, viola and cello. In May 2010, Lewis performed the solo violin part for the world premiere of the concerto at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He anticipates that Elysium will present the first U.S. performances of the work at WCSU and in New York.
His farewell tour with the MSQ in July will mark a return to Sarajevo after the quartet last year became the first American music group to conduct a cultural mission to Bosnia, under U.S. State Department sponsorship, since the 1995 Dayton Accords ended more than three years of ethnic warfare. Lewis observed the quartet has helped the Sarajevo Academy of Music to organize a festival program that will attract chamber music groups from North America and Europe. The MSQ will be featured in five performances over 10 days of the complete cycle of Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s 15 quartets — a fitting capstone for Lewis’s tenure with the MSQ, whose signature concert performances of the Shostakovich cycle have earned international acclaim.
“Forty-five years with the Manhattan String Quartet have been an exhilarating, tremendous experience for me — I grew up with the quartet,” he observed. “But a string quartet is like a marriage: Quartet life is very focused on the repertoire we rehearse and perform.” After so many years of intensive rehearsal and concert travel, he said, “it’s time to take a different direction and explore other things.” With the recent arrival of his second grandson, Jaxon, he looks forward to spending more time with his family.
Lewis still draws creative inspiration from his formation as a violinist in New York under the guidance of some of the foremost musicians of the mid-20th century. Throughout his career as a performing artist and professor of music for more than 30 years at Western, he has never forgotten the lessons learned during studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
“What they taught is that, for the great artist, performance is a kind of open confession,” he said. “You have to play what’s in your marrow, in the deepest part of your being. We’re not just playing pretty music — we live through chamber music.
“You’ve got to be uncomfortable,” he added. “If you get on stage and you’re comfortable, you’re not really doing it. All these years later, I finally get it. You have to get out of your own skin and relate with compassion with your colleagues and audience.”
As a longtime music educator, mentor to string instrumentalists over several generations, and organizer of more than a thousand young people’s concerts, Lewis believes that an appreciation for the art of chamber music offers an important lesson in life. “I believe very strongly that it’s a principle of life,” he observed. “It teaches that we have to work together as part of a community.”
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