Bekah S. McNeel

For the third year running, the San Antonio Symphony is hosting a winter music festival, highlighting the works of one composer. In 2011 it was Tchaikovsky, and 2012 they celebrated Beethoven. In 2013, we’re invited to “celebrate the romantic” with Johannes Brahms.

I caught up with San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing at a coffee shop, where he was no doubt fueling up on some much-needed caffeine. The internationally recognized talent was in town for five short days between performances in Berlin. Ordinarily he would not have come back for such a whirlwind visit, but he and his wife have recently welcomed their first daughter, whom they adopted from Colombia.

There appears to be no slowing down in sight. By the time Lang-Lessing returns from his performances in Berlin, and then another in Italy, the Brahms Festival will be in full swing.

Technically, the festival has already begun with preview concerts on KLRN. As it crescendos, nineteen artistic partners representing music, film, dance, the festival will run events until February 24, and fill venues around the city. Live events begin January 15 at San Antonio Museum of Art, with a free screening of the 1947 film Song of Love.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Sebastian Lang-Lessing

When  Lang-Lessing arrived in San Antonio just over three years ago, the idea of a festival struck him as ideal. If there’s one thing San Antonio knows how to do, it’s throw a citywide party inviting community involvement at various venues over many days. The festival model makes a lot of sense in the Fiesta City.

Last year’s Beethoven festival proved that theory correct; the performance of the composer’s 8th and 9th Symphonies had the highest ticket sales in San Antonio Symphony history. A total of sixty events filled churches and recital halls where festival partners fleshed out the Beethoven repertoire.

This is part of the festival philosophy, to introduce audiences to smaller, younger organizations. It invites musicians, artists, and organizations across the city to capitalize on the recognition and share the stage. “We feel that it is our obligation to give back to the music community and help others to be noticed,” Lang-Lessing said.

In addition to local partnerships, two international talents will join for a first-time collaboration: Vladim Gluzman and Jian Wang. World renown pianist  Kirill Gerstein will play with both the Symphony and Camerata.

More than anything, Brahms Festival offers a unique opportunity to become immersed in a composer’s works, and perhaps to access classical music in an entirely new way. “When you see all of the symphonies within two weeks, the style becomes like a second skin,” Lang-Lessing said, “It gives a deeper, rounder picture.”

Part of that deepening picture will be two “Discover” matinees on February 8 and 17, in which the symphony from the previous evening will be broken down into parts and layers to demonstrate to the audience how the music is constructed and help them look for motifs and stylistic themes in the works. The symphony is then played in its entirety. Think of it as the chef’s table of orchestral music.

Even without an in-depth investigation of the music, Lang-Lessing still believes that symphony concerts are a vital resource for the city.

“I don’t see us as part of the entertainment industry,” he said, “A concert is not a passive act…the music speaks to you and the emotional experiences only happen if you open up.”

Sebastian Lang-Lessing

Those emotional experiences are profound, especially with a composer like Brahms. “Happy is only 10% of our emotional range,” Lang-Lessing said. Brahms, with his “rich and expressive palate” promises to access a wider swath of that spectrum, all the more powerful for the fact that it is being shared by a room full of strangers.

Hesitant audience members will probably be surprised at how well they relate to Brahms, as well as the familiarity of his melodies. The son of a street musician, Brahms never lost his affinity for the rollicking dance hall scene, and invented tunes that sound much like folk music. Far from stuffy, Brahms was known for his honesty and realness, as well as humor often bordering on sarcasm. He exemplifies what Lang-Lessing means when he says, “There is no pretentious music. If it is, it is bad.”

Of course the festival will also be a treat for die-hard fans of classical music. Brahms, while unpretentious and accessible, is what Lang-Lessing calls “the pure and perfect sound picture of symphonic writing.”

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group performs communications consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony, but does not publish any sponsored stories on the Rivard Report site.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.