Henry Lewis: A Conductor Who Broke the Racial Barriers in the U.S. Orchestras

1 Posted by - October 7, 2022 - Black History, BLACK MUSIC, History, LATEST POSTS, MUSIC


Henry Lewis was a Black American orchestral conductor and double-bassist. At a teenage age of 16 years, Lewis joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, thereby becoming the first African-American instrumentalist in the major orchestral symphony.

Henry broke the racial barriers in the world of music as the first black music director and conductor of a major American orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and as the first black to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Born on 16th October, 1932, in Los Angeles, California, Lewis Henry attended the University of Southern California. At the age of 16 years old, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic, entering the historical records as the first black instrumentalist in a major symphony orchestra. After about six years of serving as a double-bassist with the Lost Angeles’ Philharmonic Orchestra. Henry played the double-bass besides conducting the Seventh Army Symphony in Berlin, Germany, and later in the Netherlands between 1955 and 1956 while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Upon his return to the United States, Lewis established the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and travelled with his orchestral team to Europe in 1963, at the invitation of the State Department. Henry gained the national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed the assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, under Zubin Mehta. He held this post from 1961 to 1965.

Later, in 1968, Lewis became the conductor and music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, a role that allowed him to transform the group from a small community group into a nationally recognized and acknowledged orchestra. Therefore, he became the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra. In 1972, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut, and after his retirement from the New Jersey Symphony in 1976, he toured as a guest conductor in all of the major opera houses. From 1989 to 1991, when Bakels Kees succeeded Keeshim, he was the principal conductor of the Netherlands Radio Symphony.

Regardless of his painful suffering from lung cancer towards his last years of service, Henry continued to serve as musical director of the Opera-Music Theater Institute, in New Jersey, alongside the Netherlands Radio Orchestra. He was a very frequent guest conductor for opera companies and symphony orchestras in both Europe and throughout the entire American continent.

Henry Lewis died from a heart attack at the age of 63 years in 1996.

Read more of the story from: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/29/nyregion/henry-lewis-conductor-who-broke-racial-barriers-of-us-orchestrasis-dead-at-63.html


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