Arts & Culture

From Mount Olive to KC: The story of Midwest Chamber Ensemble’s founder Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis started his career playing French horn. He founded the Midwest Chamber Ensemble to help musicians who are starting their professional careers.
Steve Lewis started his career playing French horn. He founded the Midwest Chamber Ensemble to help musicians who are starting their professional careers.

The two major employers in Steve Lewis’ hometown of Mount Olive, North Carolina, are a pickle factory and a plywood factory.

With his love of music, Lewis decided to forge his own path. He pursued study of the French horn and eventually made his way to Kansas City, where he founded the Midwest Chamber Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that provides opportunities for music students entering the professional world.

The Midwest Chamber Ensemble will present “Youth at their Best,” featuring winners of the group’s Youth Concerto Competition, Sept. 14 at Community Christian Church and Sept. 15 at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection.

As a high school student in North Carolina, Lewis said that his extracurricular choices came down to sports or band.

“As someone who struggled with sports, I was looking for another opportunity to engage with my peers,” he said. “I really dug in on the music and fell in love with that.”

He said he auditioned for the North Carolina School for the Arts, a boarding school, without knowing what he was getting into.

After he was accepted, Lewis was encouraged to take French horn lessons with a visiting instructor.

“They were flying David Jolley in from New York every week to teach French horn,” Lewis said. “David Jolley just happened to be a founding member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. So here I am, 16 years old, fresh off the farm, studying with one of the greatest living French horn players. It was amazing.”

It was while Lewis was studying music theory and composition at East Carolina University in Greenville that he started thinking about conducting. He said his interest in music theory inspired him to look at conducting as another way to experience musical scores.

“I really fell in love with conducting,” Lewis said. “A friend of my mine at East Carolina played French horn with the Mahlerfest Orchestra in Boulder, Colorado, and she told me about Robert Olson, who was conducting the festival. I investigated him and his connection to UMKC and that’s how I learned about the music program at the Conservatory, so I moved out here to do my master’s degree.”

While studying at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, Lewis was inspired to create a chamber orchestra that would help music students like himself transition from academia to the “real world.” He said he wanted to model it after New World Symphony and L.A.’s Debut Orchestra.

“That’s how the program came about,” Lewis explained. “When you go into a professional gig, it’s one week of rehearsals, maybe four or five rehearsals, and you play the show. There’s no rehearsing for six weeks and taking all kinds of time. It’s a hard step to take for many young musicians.”

The Midwest Chamber Ensemble provides the rigor of a professional chamber orchestra while taking into account the needs of a music student. Founded in 2011, Lewis said the orchestra now has a stable footing and has gained remarkable support from the community.

The Youth Concerto Competition is another way the Midwest Chamber Ensemble is providing opportunities for area music students. This year’s winners, cellist Cameron Quick, a junior at Blue Valley Northwest high school, and pianist Matthew Liu, a student at Southwest Middle School in Lawrence, Kansas, will be the featured soloists in “Youth at their Best.”

“Cameron is playing the first movement of the Haydn C major cello concerto,” Lewis said. “Matthew is playing the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19. It’s an interesting piece. I did not know that one, but I have grown to like it a lot.”

The two classical era concerto movements will be surrounded by 20th century takes on early music: Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s Prelude in B minor from the Well-Tempered Klavier Book I and Igor Stravinsky’s sprightly “Pulcinella,” based on Italian baroque music.

Lewis and his wife are now firmly established in Kansas City. They are both church musicians and Lewis also conducts the Medical Arts Symphony.

“The people here are actually pretty similar to folks in North Carolina,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s kind and personable. And that I enjoy very much.”

3 p.m. Sept. 14 at Community Christian Church, 4601 Main St., and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, 9100 Mission Road, Prairie Village. $12.

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