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J. Reilly Lewis (1944-2016)

J. Reilly Lewis, the indomitable organist and conductor, died suddenly last night at the age of 72. The cause was a massive heart attack, while he was at home with his wife, Beth. A vital presence on the Washington music scene for half a century, Reilly, as everyone knew him, influenced countless musicians as the conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society and Washington Bach Consort. When the news began circulating this morning, social media lit up with remembrances from almost every singer and musician friend in the area.

At some point, almost everyone who worked as a musician in some capacity in the Washington area has performed with Reilly. Everyone recalled not only his musical skills, his often excessive enthusiasm for the music he loved, but also his gifts for talking (legendary) and for making everyone he met feel cherished and the focus of all his attention. The term "gentle giant" came to more than one person's mind. Reilly was larger than life, but when it came right down to it, he was a mensch.

The many gifts he gave to Washington listeners over the years include the free noontime series of Bach cantatas he directed on the first Tuesday of most months. He once crowed that he had led a performance of every cantata Bach composed and was going back for seconds. One naturally thinks of all of the concerts of Bach and other early music that he conducted, instrumental and choral, but he had important successes with more recent music, too, like Britten's War Requiem, even working with American composer Dominick Argento on a new commission.

Reilly, like so many great musicians throughout history, got his start as a child chorister, singing in the choir of Washington National Cathedral as a boy. That place, with all of its troubles and exaltation, was his musical home in many ways. He worked as organist and choir director all these years at Clarendon United Methodist Church in Arlington, where just on Tuesday night he accompanied a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass in one of the many mass sing-along events he loved so much. This is an important reminder of the man's dual gifts: he was a top-notch organist and a talented conductor, but perhaps more importantly he loved to help others -- anyone, really -- learn to love music as he did. One suspects that the singers who will want to join the chorus at his memorial service will fill the entire Cathedral.


Seth Arenstein said...

Beautifully written, Charles. You captured Reilly's enthusiasm for music making and his ability to make you feel like a VIP when he spoke with you. It's hard to know--was he better at making music or at being one of the warmest people around? He was a giant in both respects but was as down to Earth as they come. What a terrible loss for the DC music scene.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks, Seth -- a friend remarked that he imagines Reilly immediately set about getting to know all the lost cantatas of Bach in the hereafter. He leaves an immense emptiness behind him.