Robert Rivard

I’ve never done this before, but after tonight’s stunning season-opening performance of the San Antonio Symphony, I might go again Saturday night.

An evening of Mussorgsky’s, ‘Night on Bald Mountain‘ and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition‘ was so emotional, so exuberant, it might take a second hearing to experience it a way it can be put into words.

This is the last season in the Majestic Theater for Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing and the orchestra he conducts with such verve and authority. While many of us already daydream of listening to them inside an outstanding acoustical venue when the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opens next September, Lang-Lessing himself said from the stage Friday night that there is a palpable sense of nostalgia in the air as he and the musicians embark on this new and last season on East Houston Street, the Symphony’s 74th.

An enthusiastic house seemed to agree, and patrons ended the night as they began it — on their feet.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Sebastian Lang-Lessing. Photo courtesy of the SA Symphony.

Maestro Lang-Lessing opened the evening with a welcome, an homage to the Majestic, and then a rousing ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, with the audience singing well enough, I thought, that the San Antonio Mastersingers must have been sprinkled through the orchestra seating.

“Night on Bald Mountain” was the Rimsky-Korakov edition, the only version I have ever heard, and I am not ashamed to say my first encounter with it, or pieces of it, was as a college student on an acid trip with friends in a movie theater watching the 1940s Disney classic, ‘Fantasia‘. It was an epiphany, and ever since, classical music has been in my heart and soul, even if there is very little formal learning behind my passion.

Cartoons, I realized that night long ago, especially the cartoons through the early Disney years, gave new life to many classical compositions. And it was the great, timeless music of the masters that brought the inanimate cartoon cells to life and made the characters more real, at least in the make-believe world of a child.

Violinist Karen Gomyo. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Last night, of course, was the adult version of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, and there was nothing cartoonish about the performance.

The composition conjures witches and haunted specters, but for me the music is more haunting than haunted.

(Editor’s note: The published review did not include a text block from the original version, a glitch that has occurred with two other subsequent RR postings. Editors are working to fix the problem.)

Or perhaps that was the doing of featured solo violinist Karen Gomyo and what came afterwards. The intense, emotional performance of Gomyo of Saint-Saënz’s ‘Concerto No. 3 in B minor for Violin and Orchestra’ brought buried memories to the surface, and that’s the part that is a struggle to share. It summoned up remembrances of lost grandfathers and grandmothers and adult fears of other loved ones who one day will be lost.

I am not a trained musician, or even a trained listener, but I thought her violin was one of the most beautiful and evocative instruments I’ve ever heard. I wondered if the musicians thought so, too, as they played and listened. Later Friday night, I read in the program that Gomyo plays on a Stradivarius violin that was a gift from a grateful sponsor in New York. That’s a lot of gratitude.

The San Antonio audience gave her more. She was brought out twice by the long standing ovation. What is it about violinists from Montreal, I wondered to myself, mostly because of my French-Canadian background, our pride in heritage, and our never-ending search for relevance. Last February, the San Antonio Symphony performed a modern concerto, Fire and Blood, composed by Michael Daugherty, a celebrated American composer born in 1954. The evening featured Alexandre Da Costa, a 31-year-old Montreal-born violinist and virtuoso.

After intermission, it was time for ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Like the first composition, Mussorgsky’s work has gained enduring recognition thanks to another composer, Maurice Ravel. His arrangement is the only version I have ever heard, and I can never hear it often enough. Now, I’ve finally heard it live, and the San Antonio Symphony did not let me down. I thought the performance was magnificent, and only as the music drew me in closer did I notice that Lang-Lessing seemed to be conducting more memory rather than any score before him. Perhaps it was the angle of my seat, but I never saw him look down.

Being from good peasant stock, I am drawn to any music with underlying roots in Old Country folk music, and this imaginative ramble by Mussorgsky though an outdoor exhibition of paintings by a Russian friend of the composer takes the listener along on a journey that feels like a tumble down the hole in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’  The instruments seem to take control of the musicians. The trumpet solo, the woodwinds, piccolo, clarinet, the bells and chimes, all the brass and booming tubas and trombones, the deep, strong bass, all of it always coming back to the strings. It just seems as if everyone gets to go all out and star even as the strength of the music is the orchestra working as whole.

At the end, the audience burst to its feet. This wasn’t one of those slowly building standing ovations, a few people here and there, then a few more, then finally everyone. This was the audience en masse in a single beat. For a San Antonio Symphony crowd, there was a lot of shouts and sustained vocal noise to go along with the applause as Lang-Lessing took his bows and acknowledged the musicians. San Antonio could use more hooting and hollering at a great symphony performance. It was magic.

That’s an amateur’s take. Go listen for yourself. You can purchase tickets for the Saturday, 8 p.m. performance, or you can attend “Discover: Pictures at an Exhibition,” a special program Sunday at 3 p.m. that will begin with Lang-Lessing explaining the masterpiece before its performance. There will be video projections of the conductor and musicians, a multimedia presentation that has become more common in other cities and is sure to appeal to a younger audience.

(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group LLC, which publishes the Rivard Report, has performed consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony. The Rivard Report, however, does not publish sponsored stories.) 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.