The concept of heroism and heroes looms large in this weekend’s San Antonio Symphony concerts, which feature selections to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

In the second installment of Tricentennial Celebration concerts, the Symphony will perform Duke Ellington’s The Three Black Kings and Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World. The centerpiece is Beethoven’s epic Eroica. Added to the typical Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. performances at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is a 2 p.m. Sunday concert.

“Of course, we are paying reverence to Martin Luther King and the San Antonio Martin Luther King [Day] march,” Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing said in a video interview about the performance. “We want to honor that.”

The concert comes as the Symphony has weathered the tumult of management turnover, funding problems, the “it’s-off-no-it’s-on” uncertainty about the remainder of the season, and, finally, negotiations that yielded a new labor contract for musicians. That the musicians are performing the lengthy and large-scale Eroica under such circumstances could in itself be considered heroic.

However, for Lang-Lessing, the original intent behind including Eroica was to evoke the heroism of King’s life and work.

“Beethoven’s Eroica is paying reverence to a lost hero in a certain way, and of course that can be a reference to Martin Luther King,” he said.

King is one of the “Three Kings” in Ellington’s piece, along with two Biblical kings – Solomon and Balthazar. New Morning for the World incorporates parts of King’s speeches, ending with the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The piece “really takes the Dream Speech and gives the strength and the atmosphere and the emotional content of the speech a lot of color and power,” Lang-Lessing explained. “It’s very percussion-driven.”

In fact, he said, the drums will be placed in front of the orchestra to allow them to be more visible.

“It gives this feel of a march – marching forward, moving forward,” he said.

That’s something likely to resonate as much with the Symphony’s musicians as with their audience.

Wendy Lane Cook is the managing editor at the San Antonio Report. Contact her at