A Pioneer in Turbulent Times: Henry Lewis Made History in Both the Orchestral and Opera Worlds

The 1970s also saw an uptick in Lewis’ career as an opera conductor, leading 139 performances at the Met.

By Brian Wise | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

It was late on a sweltering July afternoon in 1968, in a vacant lot in Newark, New Jersey, and Henry Lewis was making history. The double bassist–turned-conductor was introducing himself as the new music director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO), bringing Dvořák and Gershwin to a site that, a year earlier, had been wracked by civil unrest that claimed the lives of 26 people and injured hundreds more. “I want to bring this music to the people of the ghetto,” Lewis told reporters before the concert, which drew some 1,500 listeners to the lot flanked by boarded-up storefronts and vacant structures.

From a distance, the tableau is an inspiring inflection point: the 35-year-old Lewis had just become the first African American to win a major conducting post, and the performance was dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated three months earlier. Yet seen through a more distant lens, a layered story emerges. Lewis had already achieved several firsts in his still-early career, with more to come: He had become the first Black member of a major symphony orchestra when he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s double bass section in 1948. He later went on to become the first the first Black conductor to lead the Metropolitan Opera in 1972, and was chosen for the New Jersey post from a pool of 150 candidates.

Yet Lewis’ career was also tumultuous: He quickly raised the NJSO from an avocational orchestra to a fully professional group with a $1.4 million annual budget, the ensemble giving performances at the nation’s top concert venues. His arrival was compared by some to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a Major League Baseball contract. But upon Lewis’ departure in 1976, the rosy reviews had given way to stories asking what had gone wrong, citing a season-scuttling strike and public tensions between Lewis and the players.

“Henry was innately musical,” Debra Biderman, a violinist in the New Jersey Symphony, tells Strings. “Sometimes, though, he had a problem explaining what he wanted.” One local newspaper headline summarized his tenure as “volatile but valuable.” Another paper called it artistically uncompromising, albeit “turbulent.”

Born in 1932, Lewis was raised in Los Angeles, the only son of a mother who was a nurse and a father who worked as an automobile dealer. He began playing piano at age five and tried out several other instruments before settling on the double bass. Though he faced racist taunts at his Catholic elementary school, others encouraged his musical talents, and at age 16, he successfully auditioned for the L.A. Phil. Alfred Wallenstein, the music director, helped Lewis secure a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he furthered his musical studies while continuing his full-time orchestra job.


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Uncle Sam gave Lewis his major break as a conductor. Drafted into the army in 1954, he continued to perform, first as a bassist and then a conductor of the Seventh Army Symphony in West Germany. He led more than a hundred concerts and broadcasts across Europe. After his discharge, it was back to L.A., where Lewis stepped in to replace an ailing guest conductor in 1961, and in doing so, became the first Black conductor to lead a major orchestra on a regular season concert. This led to dates with the orchestras of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and San Francisco, as well as a U.S. State Department–sponsored tour of Europe.

Just as important to Lewis’ career was his marriage in 1960 to Marilyn Horne, whom he met at USC and with whom he formed an onstage partnership that would eventually outlast their personal union. “Henry Lewis was my prophet and my teacher and my right hand,” the great mezzo-soprano writes in her autobiography, The Song Continues. “I depended on him for advice and support. Sadly, because my fame eclipsed his, he was known in some circles as ‘Mr. Horne.’”

Lewis himself acknowledged he was not above drawing on his wife’s services to help the New Jersey box office. “I’ll admit it,” he told the New York Times in 1971. “We hid behind Marilyn’s skirts that first season.” But Lewis also brought an approachability to the podium, bantering with the audience and championing initiatives like $1 concerts in Newark. Starting in 1970, Lewis led the NJSO in an annual series of concerts at Carnegie Hall and in concerts at the United Nations and the Kennedy Center during its opening season.

“He had an amazing impact,” says Biderman. “First of all, the orchestra became known. I felt that musically it was getting better and better. So, it made me feel like it was worth the effort.”


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The effort was not insignificant. The orchestra undertook a heavy travel schedule, playing in town halls, shopping malls, school auditoriums, and parks across the Garden State. Lewis replaced two-thirds of the (essentially) part-time players and built the season from 18 to 34 weeks. But rehearsals ran into overtime and a deficit grew to $300,000. Amid planned cutbacks to the 1974–75 season, the musicians’ union filed a lawsuit, charging the administration with “neglect and mismanagement.” News reports suggest that there was blame to go around.

“He innately understood music, but he didn’t always understand people,” Biderman says. “In one instance, somebody in the French horn section was laughing, and he interpreted it as if they were laughing at him. And he yelled at them. A lot of it was frustration, either because people didn’t communicate with him, or he didn’t understand what they were saying.” Prior to Lewis’ resignation in 1976, the musicians sought a contract clause stipulating that he could not frown during rehearsals.

“As is common with many conductors, he had a very strong temperament, and a very strong ego, and it often brought about a very adversarial situation [with the orchestra],” Joe Gluck, a late NJSO violinist, told the Hackensack Record in 1996. The article also suggested that Lewis could be relaxed off the podium, and that he simply struggled with the pressures of being a pioneering African American musician in a white musical world. 


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The 1970s also saw an uptick in Lewis’ career as an opera conductor, leading 139 performances at the Met. They included the company’s celebrated revival of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète, starring Horne, Renata Scotto, and James McCracken. With Horne, Lewis made a string of recordings in London, including Massenet’s La Navarraise and Bizet’s Carmen. In the 1980s, he was increasingly active in Europe, appearing with the opera companies of Paris, Avignon, and Marseilles. (Though he and Horne divorced in 1979, they remained close friends, and their marriage produced a daughter, Angela.)

Lewis was welcomed back to the NJSO as a guest conductor in the 1980s, and in recent years the orchestra has held a concerto competition in his name. But Lewis’ career was cut short when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1996. He was just 63 and had not yet won the elder statesman status enjoyed by other post-war African American conductors (among them Paul Freeman, James DePreist, Dean Dixon, and Calvin Simmons).

For all his opera expertise, the pit was never a perfect showcase for Lewis’ idealism. At the concert at the empty lot in Newark, he painted a grander picture in his remarks. “We have come to the mountain,” he told the audience. “I trust the performance of the orchestra will have a lasting effect on many of you. I also hope that the one or two children out there who are budding musical geniuses will be inspired.”