The Catholic University of America

Feb. 14, 2013

Music Student to Conduct Mormon Tabernacle Choir

  9/11 service day

In Justin Lewis's video contest entry, a number of locations around Washington, D.C., are used as backdrops.

On Feb. 17, Justin Lewis, a D.M.A. student in cello performance at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, will step onto a stage in Salt Lake City, raise his arms, and conduct one of the most famous choruses in the world — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“It’s going to be quite a memory,” he says excitedly of his guest-conducting opportunity, which is the prize for a video contest held by the choir on its Facebook page last year. At 30, Lewis says he may be the youngest person to conduct the 360-voice choir in 100 years.

The choir will sing Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from Christ on the Mount of Olives. Lewis’s wife, Jennifer, a violist with the U.S. Army, will accompany him on the trip. Lewis rehearses with the choir on Feb. 14. “It’s a really well known classical work, and so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

In another still photograph from the video, here is Justin Lewis conducting in front of a Navy ship.  

The choir posted a 30-day conducting contest on Facebook last year. Entrants submitted videos of themselves conducting music. Facebook members voted and the top 10 videos then went to choir members for their own votes, with the winner being invited to guest-conduct.

“I had given my wife a video camera for her birthday and this seemed like a really fun way to use the camera,” he says. Using music recorded on an iPhone in his pocket, “we taped me conducting in locations all over Washington, D.C.,” including in front of a battleship. Lewis says his video went “viral” and received almost 9,000 votes.

An Air Force 2nd lieutenant, flight commander, and the associate conductor of the U.S. Air Force Heritage of America Band at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Lewis has been a CUA doctoral student since 2010. He is studying cello as well as conducting for his degree.

Conducting the band for the Air Force is Lewis’ “dream job.” He auditioned for conductor a few years ago, was offered the position, and then was sent to the recruiter to complete his sign-up. “I signed up for four years, but I’ll probably stay longer, because it’s a really fun job.”

Lewis attributes much of his interest in music to CUA and a legacy of music created by his parents, who both earned their master’s degrees at the music school. He says he’s been a musician since he was a small child and picked up his mother’s cello.

  His interest in the cello began as a small child.

“They both had a marvelous experience,” he recalls. “I have memories from when I was a little kid coming with my parents to their recitals and meeting their professors. So, when it came time for me to go to grad school, it seemed a good fit.”

He credits studies at CUA with helping him develop the conducting style he now uses. “I’ve had a memorable experience being in the orchestra these past two years,” he says. “They have some fantastic conductors at the school. David Searle rehearses his orchestra very effectively.”

Searle, one of Lewis’ professors, is an assistant professor and director of orchestral activities and conducting studies. “Justin is a talented cellist and passionate conductor,” he says. “This opportunity with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is only the beginning of what I am sure will be a diverse and exciting career.”

Leo Nestor, Justine Bayard Ward Professor and director of choral studies and the Institute of Sacred Music, is another professor whose style Lewis says influenced his own.

“I did a concert with him a year and a half ago and he does wonderful things with his choir — how he gets them to shape what they are singing and how he gets them to sing so perfectly together,” says Lewis. “I like to think that some of that rubbed off on me.”

“We are delighted that one of our students has been chosen from such a large pool to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with its amazing, historic tradition,” notes Grayson Wagstaff, music school dean. “The faculty and students of the music school wish Justin all the best for this performance.”

Lewis’s conducting performance will be taped, but it will not be broadcast.

“The building where they perform seats about 7,000 people and they are expecting a full house,” says Lewis.

He says he loves the fact that the stage is “acoustically perfect,” that a voice can be heard throughout the auditorium without amplification.

“They say it’s a great place to perform, so I’m just excited to hear the choir in that environment.”


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