A Final Requiem: J Reilly Lewis (1944-2016)

A Tremendous Loss:  The musical world mourns the loss of J. Reilly Lewis, founder and conductor of the Washington Bach Consort, conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society and organist at Clarendon United Methodist Church.

by Patrick D. McCoy

Mystics 2007

J. Reilly Lewis was the founder and conductor of The Washington Bach Consort, conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society and organist/choirmaster at Clarendon United Methodist Church-the site of his final musical performance. (PHOTO CREDIT:  Cathedral Choral Society)

There are hardly any words to describe the sudden death of  Maestro J. Reilly Lewis.  Lewis was his usual personable, joyful self this past Tuesday night as he joined fellow choral conductor Thomas Beveridge in welcoming a hundred or so singers to Clarendon United Methodist Church for the first “Washington Summer Choral Sings” of the season.  Reilly shared with all gathered that the long-standing tradition began with conductor Paul Hill and that the mantle was taken up by Beveridge.

During his impassioned talk with all the singers assembled, he shared that Beveridge sought his help and advice about maintaining the series, which needed a new home.  So it was further shared that Clarendon United Methodist Church, where Reilly served as organist would be that home for the series. And so the evening commenced with the singing of the Mozart Requiem.  The ‘sing -along’ was conducted by Beveridge, with Reilly masterfully accompanying at the piano with such support, beauty and musicality.


The late J. Reilly Lewis (seated at the piano) exquisitely accompanying the Mozart Requiem at Clarendon United Methodist Church as Thomas Beveridge conducts.  (Photo Credit:  With many thanks and deepest sympathy to Beth Lewis)

So to have just witnessed such living, breathing artistry just earlier in the week, and then to learn on Friday morning of the death of yet another towering musical icon in the DC community has rocked singers, instrumentalists, friends, colleagues and lovers of music to the core.   J. Reilly Lewis died at his home at the age of 71.

Beloved by many near and far,  J. Reilly Lewis was the founder and conductor of the Washington Bach Consort and conductor of the Cathedral Choral Society.  Having an affinity for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, it is touching that both ensembles allowed the church to serve as the stage:  a remarkable parallel between two great artists-generations apart, yet divinely connected.

One of Reilly’s amazing attributes was the way that he supported and mentored other conductors in the area.  Reilly had big musical moments of his own, but he never elevated his accomplishments over those of others.  It was nothing for Reilly to have conducted his own large scaled masterwork at the cathedral and then go and support the performance of other conductors right after.

He was quite excited about the upcoming Cathedral Sings (now revised in light of his death).  He shared Tuesday night that he began singing in the cathedral in the choir at the age of 8, so it was a space that he knew very well and was encouraging all gathered to come for the Schubert program, which was to include the Mass in G and anthem “Great is Jehovah, the Lord.”

His passion for music began at an early age, and that passion carried him to Oberlin College, The Juilliard School and studies in Europe with Helmut Wacha and Nadia Boulanger.  Whether he was conducting, playing the organ or simply talking about music, that joyous passion touch all who was within the sound of his voice.

On a personal note, I will always be thankful for the blessing of knowing  J. Reilly Lewis. He was extremely supportive of my work in the area of arts journalism.  After learning of my facebook posting about having attended the Washington Choral Sings event, he thanked me through his wife (Reilly was not on facebook) for sharing about the event, but would announce the date of the next one.  Ironically, he was slated to conduct the Brahms Requiem on June 21.

Dear Friend, I indeed followed through on your request.  Our eyes are mangled with tears, yet we find comfort in the fact that the Almighty has followed through on his request as well. Reflecting on the words of the ‘Hostias.’

Sacrifices and prayers of praise, Lord,
we offer to You.
Receive them in behalf of those souls
we commemorate today.
And let them, Lord,
pass from death to life,
which was promised to Abraham
and his descendants.


John Reilly Lewis (1944-2016) -SOLI DEO GLORIA

Instead of the previously planned Cathedral Sings Schubert Program scheduled for today, The Cathedral Choral Society invites to community to join them at 7:30 p.m. at Washington National Cathedral for a special community sing of hymns, anthems and solos conducted by Gisele Becker, accompanied by Todd Fickley on the cathedral Great Organ, honoring the Reilly’s memory.  Details about further memorial arrangements will be announced as they are made available.






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