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Henry Lewis; Symphony Conductor Broke Racial Barriers

January 28, 1996|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Henry Lewis, one of the first African Americans to break the color barrier as a musician and conductor at a major symphony orchestra, was found dead of a heart attack in his New York City apartment Friday.

Lewis, 63, was a former associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and as a teenager debuted with the orchestra as a virtuoso on the double bass.

In the past three decades, Lewis specialized in guest conducting operas around the nation and world, including the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Scottish Opera and the Hamburg State Opera. He continued to work often with the star mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, even though they divorced in 1979 after a 19-year marriage.

"I'm feeling the loss so personally," Horne said Saturday by telephone from New York. "The music world has lost somebody very special." She and Lewis, neither of whom remarried, had a daughter, Angela Lewis, who lives in Hermosa Beach.

Lewis was proud of being a pioneer, but felt that many managements scrutinized his work more than that of white conductors, Horne recalled. She added that he wished more African Americans had followed in his footsteps to become orchestra conductors.

Born in Los Angeles, Lewis was a musical wunderkind. From Dorsey High School, he won a scholarship to USC and, as a teenager in 1951, became the first black instrumentalist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He played with the orchestra until 1954, when he was drafted into the military and conducted an Army orchestra in Europe.

He returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and guest-conducted several non-subscription concerts on tour in 1960. Lewis' big moment before the hometown audience came Feb. 9, 1961, when he replaced an ailing maestro Igor Markevitch in a concert that included Dvorak's Fourth Symphony and Verdi and Beethoven arias sung by Horne. The program won fine reviews for its musicality and headlines for being a racial breakthrough.

Lewis "proved he had the right to be there. He has a conductor's natural flair for command," Times reviewer Albert Golberg wrote at the time.

From 1968 to 1976, Lewis was the music director of the New Jersey Symphony. In 1972, on his 40th birthday, he became the first black to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Subsequently, he conducted and made recordings with the Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Netherlands and the Scottish Opera. His 1986 version of Richard Strauss' "Salome" at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera was praised by Times critic Martin Bernheimer for "splendid sweep and urgency."

Lewis was treated for lung cancer two years ago and suffered chronic heart problems, Horne said. A private funeral service will be held Monday in New York and a memorial concert at Carnegie Hall is being planned for a later date, she said. Other than his daughter, Lewis left no immediate survivors.

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