On Sept. 16, the San Antonio Symphony will open its 2016-2017 season in collaboration with the San Antonio Mastersingers with a performance of Karl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Even if you don’t recognize Carmina Burana by name, you’ve definitely heard it. It’s opening number, “O Fortuna,” has been covered over and over, ranging from techno pop versions to TV commercials. It even had a cameo in the blockbuster hit “Twilight.”

Carmina Burana is a very challenging piece for both the chorus and the soloists,” said Cindy Marini, Mastersingers board chairwoman. “It was composed by Karl Orff and he basically takes texts that are from the 12th century and organizes them into 24 poems that are mostly in Latin, few are in German, and they cover topics such as fickleness of fortune and wealth, the joy of spring and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gambling, and lust.”

One can expect the opening performance of the season to be big and festive. Carmina Burana requires a very large symphony and is able to have all of the Mastersingers on stage and showcase the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio. Notorious for being well prepared and professional, the Mastersingers are in their 73rd year and are the chorus that supports the San Antonio Symphony in performances that require it.

The San Antonio Symphony prepares for its final 2014-2015 season performance. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The San Antonio Symphony prepares for its final 2014-2015 season performance. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Marini defines the Mastersingers as “135 singers, a group of volunteers that come together from all walks of life. Some are professional singers, some teachers,” doctors, and scientists. John Silantein, PhD. assumed directorship of the Mastersingers in 1983 and has worked with a variety of conductors of the San Antonio Symphony over the years.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the German-born director and conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, has held his post for the last six years. To Lang-Lessing, the symphony is 90% education and 10% entertainment. Previously working in Hamburg, Berlin, Tasmania, France, and more, Lang-Lessing dreams to have a San Antonio music academy where kids can study and learn instruments and music theory, play ensembles, and be coached by San Antonio Symphony musicians free of charge.

He believes that music gives meaning to life and that it teaches discipline, perseverance, and focus, and should not be an elitist art form.

The Rivard Report sat down with Lang-Lessing over a cappuccino to talk about Carmina Burana, what to expect during the rest of the symphony season, and the funding and financial side of curating a season. Burgers, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts vs. the Majestic Theatre, and why San Antonio must support our symphony if we want to be a first tier city were other topics of discussion. See the interview below.

Rivard Report: How did you come to join us here in San Antonio?

Sebastian Lang-Lessing: I conducted a lot of opera in America (United States). A lot in Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, Denver, Seattle. I got this invitation from the SA Symphony and I had no idea where SA was. I went and I was really surprised by the quality of the orchestra and the quality of the musicians. They came out of a difficult phase, they went through financial difficulty. I loved the attitude of the musicians, the commitment and dedication they made of the organization, and the prospect of the new hall was very tempting for me.

RR: How is the San Antonio Symphony unique from your previous experiences?

SLL: I worked in Germany, France, Australia, and South Africa, (you) name it. Literally every country in the world except for the U.S. These organizations are government funded to the biggest part, to the overwhelming part. So, there is no private sponsoring. That would be additional. The payroll is covered by government funding.

The new part is the fundraising, which is quite interesting and you get to know very interesting people from it. People who have the money have made it from something very different. So you sometimes end up connecting very different worlds. That is the major difference. Other than that, of course, music is a universal language, so how an orchestra functions is essentially not very different, just where the money comes from.

RR: Who are some of the San Antonio Symphony’s greatest supporters?

SLL: The City of San Antonio and Bexar County, so to a certain degree we are on the right track here. Sooner or later government support will be the only solution, or more government support. Local City and County support is very important for arts organizations in the future.

RR: What changes have you seen since moving from the Majestic to the Tobin Center?

SLL: I don’t think it changed everything, fundamentally, what we present. At the Majestic, we had to play at a certain level. Now, the Tobin’s finesse and detail to sound is so much better, but it also requires so much more detail playing and (requires more) attention to dynamics and colors and opens a totally new universe for us.

Performers with the Children's Chorus of San Antonio perform selections from American folk songs. Photo by Page Graham.
Performers with the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio perform selections from American folk songs. Photo by Page Graham.

RR: Why did you select Carmina Burana as the season opener?

SLL: For a very pure, simple reason. I always think it is great to kick off the season with a lot of groups: Mastersingers, the Children’s Chorus, that makes it already 300 people. It’s a big community thing. The other thing is Carmina Burana is such a popular thing and … has been used in a million covers.

RR: What can we expect from your Carmina Burana?

SLL: That’s very interesting. It is a piece I have avoided all my life for a simple reason – Karl Orff worked during a time when Germany was about what Germany wasn’t about, 1933-1945, including Carmina Burana. I’ve always had my doubts. … Believe it or not Hitler loved Carmina Burana. If you don’t do anything that Hitler loved there is not much left. He had a pretty good taste when it came to music.

Karl Orff was a figure who probably should have stood up more, and he decided to keep his mouth shut when he should have said something. So it was a more political reason for me really for a while. But I have to say, working on the piece – I really love it. It’s very theatrical and that’s what I love about it, and crude in a certain way. It’s actually not as beautiful as people think. Especially the words: its medieval and raw and vulgar, most of the time. The fact that it is Latin, which doesn’t mean that it’s Holy (most of it’s actually not). I’m happy that people don’t understand the perversion of it. It’s actually quite rough. It’s interesting when people think if it’s Latin it must be proper, but it’s not.

RR: What can we expect from this symphony season?

SLL: Extremely eclectic combination of work. It’s a big journey through the musical landscape of what a musical orchestra can offer.

RR: How do you balance the creative process of building out a season with marketing and selling tickets?

SLL: Every concert has a very different angle. A restaurant has a more extravagant creation of cuisine and they always have their flat iron steak or … the house burger or whatever on the menu to be on the safe side for those who don’t want to try lamb’s tongue tonight, you know? But if you only serve burgers you better serve really good burgers or you know what you are catering to at the end of the day.

Of course we are not a burger joint as a symphony orchestra – we have to be a gourmet place. We are not in competition with burger joints. You are expecting to get something more refined as a product, something that also takes more care. And yet, then you see burgers become gourmet burgers, that’s the part of our repertoire that nowadays if you open a restaurant and put a burger on the menu, you cant just do a straightforward burger. It’s the same for us. We have to reinvent how we present these pieces, and then it becomes really difficult.

RR: There was a funding bind earlier this year. Did that influence the lineup or did you still have your creative freedom?

SLL: I used my creative freedom. I had to create this current season under severe budget restraints. You can live with it if you shift your repertoire a little bit and focus a little more on the orchestra and it works once in a while. It worked miraculously. I got artists, guest artists, to agree to come for less and put together things that don’t put together a great number of musicians. It has its limits. I think I had my freedom this way and it’s a great season. Thanks to Mozart, also, to a certain degree because it’s slimmer, you don’t need that much meat. It plays a role, but our goal is to never compromise on artistic excellence.

A member of the San Antonio Symphony listens intently as violinist and conertmaster, Eric Gratz, introduces the second half of the Baroque series. Photo by Bria Woods.
A member of the San Antonio Symphony listens intently as violinist and conertmaster, Eric Gratz, introduces the second half of the Baroque series. Photo by Bria Woods.

RR: Can you tell us about the San Antonio Symphony’s High School Mentorship Program?

SLL: There are multiple (initiatives) we do with the high schools. First, we present the (Young People’s Concerts) … In detail, they prepare the program. Not just going to entertainment events and not being prepared. We reach 40,000 kids. We have musicians go into the schools and prepare themselves … and work with strings and bands, give lectures and give sessions and go really into detail from groups to one-to-one sessions to classes to hall orchestras or bands. So it’s a very sophisticated and growing project

RR: In what ways does the symphony engage with the community that does not necessarily have access to music?

SLL: We do that with a number of programs. We bring in people from all over town (who come) with tickets that are provided to them through different organizations. For a family of four (that) loves music, even if they buy tickets, $50-$60 for a family is a lot of money. I strongly believe that our cheapest ticket should not be any higher than a movie ticket. Ideally our tickets should average around that. I want the largest possible access.

The most important difference between private and public funding (is) if you go to Europe, for example, ticket sales make up 15% of (the) budget (and) for us it makes 40%. That implies that our tickets are higher priced. We lowered our prices and we have a lot of programs that do a lot for families and kids, students, college and university students. It’s extremely cheap, but it would be great if we (didn’t depend on that) in the future.

RR: Do you have a message for someone who has never been to a symphony before?

SLL: Don’t be afraid. I think people are afraid. First of all, the fear people have is partially claustrophobic because you are forced to sit down with other people and they think, ‘you cannot breathe, you have to wear tuxedo,’ which is not true. You can come in jeans and you’re perfectly fine. Second, you do not sit down for two hours and have no way to the restroom. They are 45-minute halves, (a) very good portion, not longer than a school class.

You experience a lot of people coming for the first time actually. People always think there is a secret code to behavior in a concert hall – there is none. And don’t be afraid (about) when to applaud. When you make a mistake, there is no mistake when you show appreciation. There is no mistake. There are no secret codes. You experience something everyone in the hall will experience for the first time because every concert is new. You are making new friends who come for the same reason, coming for curiosity finding something meaningful, doing something valuable with your time.

RR: What message do you have to the San Antonio community about the importance of music and the San Antonio Symphony?

SLL: San Antonio wants to be a first tier city that attracts the creative class, attracts the young professionals to live here, that stimulates kids to get a college and university degree – that’s what we want right? What attracts those people are many factors. It’s a given fact that part of them is a good culinary scene, a great bar scene, but includes symphony orchestra museums, performing arts groups. That’s the fabric of a healthy cultural city. We need public art as well, but we need the performance arts. Young professionals and creative young professionals need the stimulus of creative arts as well, not just bankers and computer nerds.

For more information about upcoming shows, including performances featuring Garrick Ohlsson, Pablo Villegas, Susan Graham and The Police co-founder and drummer, Stewart Copeland, visit the San Antonio Symphony website here. To donate to, apply for, or find out more about the Mastersingers, visit their website here.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Symphony,
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Symphony, Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Symphony

CORRECTION: The Symphony will perform with former Sting drummer Stewart Copeland, not Vinnie Colaitua.

Top image: San Antonio Symphony Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing leads his musicians to the sound of Las Fundaciones de Béjar.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Alexandra Alvarez

Alexandra Alvarez is an art-enthusiast and culture connoisseur. A San Antonio native, she graduated from Wesleyan University in 2014 with degrees in Art History and Science and Society Program. Since graduation,...