J. Reilly Lewis, world-renowned conductor, organist, and expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and our dear friend, died unexpectedly last week.
A Friend to All
We called him our friend because, for Reilly, if you were a friend of Bach, you were a friend of Reilly’s — and if you were a friend of Reilly’s you could not help but be a friend of Johann Sebastian Bach.
We were both. We were both because Reilly was a true teacher who was passionate about his craft, welcoming and enthusiastic for his learners, and compassionate and patient for those who didn’t know it — like the best teacher, a friend to all.
Reilly welcomed his friends several Sundays each year at the National Presbyterian Church, whose organ he called one of the best in the world, and on occasional Tuesdays at the Church of Epiphany on 13th Street, for “Noontime Cantatas.” Reilly’s Washington Bach Consort is a premier musical organization in Washington DC whose performances are part of the permanent collection at the Library of Congress.
A few years ago, the musical director at my high school and I brought a rather unwilling group of about a dozen or her Music Theory 9th graders to a “Noontime Cantata.” Reilly loved nothing more than for students to attend his concerts.
The value in it for the kids was the trip itself, hanging out with their friends and missing their other classes. The cost in it was to have to sit through a classical music concert. These were Catholic school students, so they knew how to endure a mass. Still, classical music? Yikes!
I sat behind them in the upper level pews and shared a box of Altoids to help them stay awake. There weren’t enough Altoids in the world to hold up their nodding heads. If the violins didn’t push their eyes to the back of their heads, the chorus closed the gap between their chins and chests. Most of them were fast asleep by the end.
They were good sports, they were brave, and they had behaved.
We awaited for the audience to depart, then relocated to the main pews while the school bus returned. I did my best to give them a little history lesson of the church, why the stained glass, why the design, how this church held community in DC during times of distress such as the Civil War. Poor kids, they bravely sat through my attempts to engage them in some learning while we were sitting there waiting for the bus.
A Private Lesson from Reilly
Then a little man in a tuxedo walked up to the group, and with the brightest, happiest voice, loudly welcomed them and thanked them for coming to see his concert. The kids turned to him and smiled back gently, reluctant to engage, but curious.
Reilly asked them a few questions about their school, if they’d seen a concert like this before, and one or two bravely, if quietly, answered.
Then, with that wisp of mischievousness that made him so compelling as a person, performer, and teacher, Reilly said, “Do you want to see the organ?”
Again, the kids were hesitant but polite. Reilly said, “Come on!” and led them up the isle and onto the alter, where a beautiful organ sat with all it’s confusing keys, knobs and pedals. Reilly sat at the bench and ushered us to come around him. The kids were now well past curiosity and jostled for the best view. My father and I stood back and smiled at each other, not fully aware yet of the magnificent treat before us.
Reilly turned to the kids, “Do you want to see how it works?” He had them by now, of course, deliberately teasing them with a couple keys and different sounds from the pipes.
Suddenly, he launched into a full blown performance, with his hands and feet racing about the keys, magical, like nothing they had seen before, not CGI from the movies, not beats and rhymes from their friends and music videos. This was special, and their eyes lit ablaze.
I looked over at my father who had seen countless performances – but never from just over the master’s shoulder! He was as mesmerized as the kids, and more for knowing for what a special moment it was.
After a bit of pure showmanship, Reilly wrapped up, not having shown off, but having shared the fun.
We thanked the maestro who with genuine enthusiasm thanked the students for being there. The kids returned the thanks with equal enthusiasm.
The bus had arrived, and these 9th graders climbed into it not with the shared pain of sleeping through a classical concert but with the joy of a unique and wonderful experience that they talked about the ride back to school.
RIP J. Reilly Lewis
We will miss you, J Reilly Lewis, and we will think of you often as we aspire to love our work as you did yours and, more importantly, love sharing it with all — all of whom we will call our friends.