To observers of an orchestra that once appeared dead, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony seems an appropriate choice to open the 80th season of the revived San Antonio Symphony this weekend.
Amid strife among two competing boards and the musician’s union, the Symphony’s 78th season was briefly canceled before being revived by new board chair Kathleen Weir Vale.
Since that moment in early 2018, Vale and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing have steered the orchestra through a revived season, an interim executive director and the hire of new Executive Director Corey Cowart, a season exploring the world of music and food, and the announcement that the 2019-2020 season would be Lang-Lessing’s last as music director and conductor after a 10-year tenure.
The selection of a Mahler symphony made perfect sense as a season opener for a number of reasons, Lang-Lessing said. “Ending is … always one of Mahler’s themes,” he said, referring to Mahler’s inclusion of funeral marches in each of his symphonies.
The 19th century German composer has been important to Lang-Lessing – who was born in Germany and still maintains a residence in Berlin – for a number of reasons. The Symphony No. 1 in D Major was included in his first concert with the San Antonio Symphony in 2010, and the Resurrection Symphony (or Symphony No. 2), opened the orchestra’s first season in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2014.
“Mahler has been in my time here a very important composer,” Lang-Lessing said. “I conducted his first symphony when I was in my inauguration concert, so that was a good start. So it’s kind of natural that Mahler is in my closing season.”
Aside from the resonance of its themes with the Symphony’s recent history, the Resurrection Symphony incorporates an entire community of musicians, including the San Antonio Mastersingers, also celebrating a milestone by opening their 75th season.
“Involving the chorus is very symbolic to me too,” Lang-Lessing said. “They are a very crucial and important part to our orchestra. … When you open a season, you want to appear as complete as possible as an organization, and the chorus is definitely part of that.”
The music also requires adding guest musicians to the 72-member symphony. “All these ‘subs’ that come to play with us regularly are part of our family. That’s why also a big orchestra shows how deeply rooted we are in the music community.”
Yet further, the history of Symphony No. 2 itself reflects the orchestra’s turmoil. Its first movement was originally intended to be a single movement symphonic work, titled Die Totenfier (The Funeral), Lang-Lessing explained, but the work found only rejection. Mahler showed it to a colleague, who pronounced the piece “terrible,” Lang-Lessing said. “He couldn’t get it performed, then put the piece away.”
Years later, Mahler attended the funeral of Hans von Bülow, another German conductor and good friend, and “heard the first verses we find now in the last movement,” Lang-Lessing said, referring to Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock‘s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) chorale. The verses reflected Mahler’s mood at the moment, contemplating death and the possibilities of an afterlife:
Rise again, yes, you shall rise again / My dust.
Writing to critic Arthur Seidl at the time, Mahler explained that “It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for” – and he had his inspiration for completing the final movement of what would become a five-movement symphony, and the composer’s most popular work.
“All of the sudden he saw the ending of the symphony and it all came together,” Lang-Lessing said. “He resurrected his own symphony idea.”
Lang-Lessing called the Resurrection Symphony “one of the most powerful pieces ever written. Just the sheer force of the piece, the greatness of it, the amount of people involved, all of that superficially makes it already a super exciting piece. That’s why it’s so popular, and the impact so direct.”
The irony of its history is not unexpected, Lang-Lessing said. “Some of the most successful works of art are products of extreme struggles.” He then explained one of the primary reasons for its success. “Part of the reason it’s so captivating for the audience is how long it takes for the chorus to get involved and how amazingly subtle he starts using it. Basically, when everything has been said with the power of instruments, the human voice needs to come in.”
The nature of the composition means it will be the only work on the concert program, and there will be no intermission during the 85-minute piece. So “no late seating, at least until the first movement is finished,” Lang-Lessing warned.
So the Symphony season will begin with an ending and end with a beginning. Lang-Lessing will become music director emeritus after the season ends in June and embark on a new phase of his career.
But for the moment, things all come together: the Tobin Center’s fifth anniversary, Lang-Lessing’s 10th anniversary, the Mastersinger’s 75th season, and – for an organization that not long ago appeared dead – the Symphony’s 80th year.
Tickets are available for the Sept. 20-21 performances on the Tobin Center website or at the box office.