Like many in the Washington music community, I am left shaken and deeply saddened at the news that J. Reilly Lewis died suddenly on Thursday night of a massive heart attack. He was at home with his wife after a perfectly normal day; it was sudden; and according to Genevieve Twomey, executive director of the Cathedral Choral Society – one of the organizations Reilly led — there was nothing anyone could do.
Ebullient, multitalented, warm and open to a fault, Reilly, 71, was a key figure on the Washington music scene for decades: the leader of the Cathedral Choral Society as well as the founder and leader of the Washington Bach Consort, and a crack organist to boot. He was a cadet member of what one might term the Old Guard of the Washington choral world, the junior in a club that included the late Norman Scribner of the Choral Arts Society, the late Paul Hill of the Master Chorale, and Robert Shafer, now of the City Choir of Washington. But he was in a way busier than any of them, with his two chorus jobs as well as his post as organist and choirmaster at the Clarendon United Methodist Church, which he held for more than four decades. The Bach Consort alone was thought to have potential for an international career; Lewis opted, though, to keep it at home.
Reilly retained some of his Wunderkind flair to the end of his life, with a boyish sense of puckishness that bled over into his performances. He also remained fiercely loyal to Washington in a world where many musicians measure themselves by international yardsticks. A former boy chorister at the National Cathedral, he was a passionate advocate of the building, despite its problematic acoustics in some repertory, and of its organ, which some people wanted to replace. And he had very clear ideas about how he thought his organizations should be run, which he presented with a gentle smile that masked impressive stubbornness. At the same time, he was a deeply warm and human man, with a childlike openness and caring that made him a kind and generous participant in the lives of his choristers. After his death was announced, Twomey said, some people came to the office, not wanting to be alone.
“He was a gentle and joyful soul totally enchanted with music making,” said Deb Lamberton, a host and producer at the classical radio station WETA, who knew Reilly for 30 years.
The Cathedral Choral Society is celebrating its 75th anniversary next season – a season that Reilly planned with great excitement, down to a new commission by Nico Muhly on the last concert. It could have been a great finish – except that, Twomey said, “He had been very clear that he was going to go on doing exactly what he was doing until he was 80.”