A dear friend of music and of all of us, J. Reilly Lewis, passed away unexpectedly on June 9th. We celebrate Reilly’s life on Choral Showcase on September 18th with performances by the ensemble he founded—The Washington Bach Consort. And here, we invite you to re-experience Reilly’s infectious enthusiasm; these are the Classical Conversations we recorded with Reilly over the years.
Reilly headed up the Washington Bach Consort (which he founded in 1977) and the Cathedral Choral Society (since 1985). In chatting with Reilly, both in the studio and otherwise, what always stood out, even above his knowledge and wit, was his passion. We talked after the 2011 earthquake about the damage to his beloved space—Washington National Cathedral. He adored the Cathedral, beginning when he was an 8-year-old member of its junior choir. He loved its organ, and savored the “vast acoustic,” as he liked to say. He was proud to be able to rehearse his Cathedral Choral Society there each week, and told me once, in preparing Handel’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, how happy he was that Handel had included strategic rests so they could fully capitalize on the thrill of cathedral acoustics.
Washington is one of the best choral towns anywhere, and Reilly luxuriated in the richness. He spoke about how ensembles of every shape and dimension give us a stimulating variety of different approaches to singing. He loved the unsurpassed caliber of soloists here too, often choosing his Consort soloists from the chorus, saying, “It’s home-grown, yes, but I couldn’t do any better no matter where I looked!”
Reilly was famous for his visceral descriptions of music. Talking about one of Handel’s coronation anthems, Reilly’s words were as alive as the piece itself. He savored the gradual build-up, as only Handel could write, leading to the fabulous D Major chord. “Zadok, the Priest,” he exclaimed (in tempo, of course)!
In speaking about Bach’s B minor Mass, a signature piece for the Consort, I asked him how he approached a work he’d conducted so many times before—35, in fact. It’s not, “what can I do different this time,” Reilly said. “We’re not conquering the piece. We approach it with reverence for the privilege of experiencing it, and, when we do, the music guides us, and takes us wherever we’re going to go.”
David Ginder, Producer of Choral Showcase