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The San Antonio Symphony announced Tuesday that music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing will depart after the 2019-2020 season and become music director emeritus in an advisory role with the orchestra.
Lang-Lessing has led the Symphony since 2010. For the 2019-2020 season, he will conduct six concerts, and 10 guest conductors will lead the orchestra through what Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair since January 2018, termed an “exciting, festival year.”
“This past decade with the San Antonio Symphony has been deeply rewarding,” Sebastian Lang-Lessing said in a prepared statement. “From that first downbeat, there was a singular bond with these remarkable musicians and that bond has only grown stronger. Ten years in, and so much accomplished together, will be the ideal moment to transition into a new role. I am indeed honored to continue making music as the ensemble’s emeritus Music Director.”
The emeritus role will not be symbolic, Lang-Lessing said. “The message is not that I’m stepping down, but that I’m moving into a more long-term role with the organization, which is kind of beautiful.”
The move comes just months after the arrival of Corey Cowart, the Symphony’s new executive director, and 15 months following a short-lived season cancellation due to continuing financial problems. A new board, led by Vale, has put the organization on firmer fiscal footing.
Cowart said when he and Lang-Lessing made the announcement to the orchestra’s musicians after a Tuesday rehearsal, the well-respected conductor received a standing ovation. “That’s very appropriate for how far he’s brought the orchestra,” Cowart said. “Sebastian has accomplished amazing things with the orchestra over his tenure.”
“Sebastian’s work in building the San Antonio Symphony was one factor in my decision to join the orchestra this January,” Cowart stated in the news release. “He has honed the ensemble’s virtuosity and the orchestra today is playing at the very highest level. … We look forward to continuing our partnership in this newly created and deeply deserved Emeritus role.”
Concertmaster Eric Gratz agreed. “We’re very appreciative to have him, and to have been lucky to have had him for this period of time,” Gratz said. “I think he’s been an incredible asset to the organization.”
Lessing appointed Gratz concertmaster six years ago.
“I’ve certainly grown a lot under his leadership,” Gratz said, including learning to give his all each time he picked up his instrument. “He said, ‘Eric, we leave it all out there.’ That’s been his approach, to always put every ounce of your spirit, your soul into the music, always.”
Lang-Lessing could be demanding of his musicians, Gratz said. “Even in rehearsal he demands everything from musicians. It’s a lot for people to accept at first, but you’re kind of amazed at how much energy one person can bring to the room.”
Lang-Lessing’s own outlook testifies to Gratz’s memory. “No, I never look back,” he said. “As a musician, you can’t look back the concert you conducted last week. It’s over the minute the last note is gone. It hopefully resonates with our audience in an impactful way.”
In speaking of his fellow musicians, Gratz said the orchestra looks forward to working with the guest conductors who will lead the group through 10 concerts next season. “That’s the thing about being a musician, just working with new people always puts you on your toes a little bit. It’s going to be fun.”
Karina Bharne, former interim director now with Symphony Tacoma, said a fresh perspective can be healthy for an organization, and the search for a new leader can offer an opportunity for community engagement. “The Symphony does have an opportunity to bring the community on board when they’re selecting a new person,” she said, through audience surveys and other direct forms of opinion-gathering.
Lang-Lessing intends to remain a part of the San Antonio community and has offered a challenge grant to help the Symphony maintain its recent fundraising momentum. His pledge of support is backed up a $100,000 challenge grant in his name, to be matched by new and increased gifts through August. “I want to see at least five times the amount I donated” as an end result, he said.
Vale characterized the shift from Lang-Lessing to a new music director in positive terms. “Change is a good thing,” she said, and “everyone is celebrating Sebastian and the future of the Symphony.”
Change also will usher in the familiar with the new season’s first concert. With the idea of “celebrating Sebastian bringing what he wants to bring” for programming his six concerts, the season will open in September with Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, known as the “Resurrection Symphony,” which was the first piece Lang-Lessing conducted when the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2014.
Among his accomplishments, Lang-Lessing cited the recent Mahler Symphony No. 9, which he characterized as a very difficult piece. “Having seen the audience following this 80-minute symphony, you could hear a pin drop in the hall in the quiet moments, the tension was so amazing. That is something that shows we’ve done the right work together, and I can say proudly that the orchestra is in better artistic shape than when I came here.” (Lang-Lessing noted that the orchestra had been without a regular music director for three years before his arrival.)
“Music always has to be progress,” he said. “If you’re not in better shape, you’re going downhill.”
The year 2020 is shaping up to be a year of change in U.S. orchestras, with recently announced retirements of long-tenured music directors Osmo Vänskä in Minneapolis, Robert Spano in Atlanta, and JoAnn Falletta in Norfolk, Virginia.
However, one thing will remain consistent. The 53-year-old Lang-Lessing said, “I’m still here, still a resident of San Antonio and that won’t change immediately,” Lang-Lessing said. “I’m part of the community and I want to stay a part of the community forever.”