As the San Antonio Symphony’s search for a new music director goes on, its music director emeritus will lead the orchestra this weekend through a concert program featuring a symphonic poem by German composer Richard Wagner, paired with an unusual Mozart chamber symphony.
“Having this one hour of concentrated music-making with [music] that doesn’t want to be loud, it’s beautiful, especially after coming out of this pandemic,” said Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who led the Symphony for 10 years before achieving emeritus status in 2020.
The Wagner Siegfried Idyll opening the program was originally composed as a private celebration for the birth of his son Siegfried, and played with a small number of musicians for his wife, Cosima, at home as she recovered from labor.
“It was a dedication of love and a dedication to life, to this young boy,” Lang-Lessing said. “There is everything from a lullaby, to a children’s song, to some tumultuous young and energetic rebellion, and then putting it back to sleep at the very end. It’s this outlook on the young life about to start.”
The pandemic actually afforded Lang-Lessing the opportunity to finally program the Idyll, long one of his favorite pieces, due to social distancing protocols that have reduced size of the orchestra to roughly half its normal size.
“It works very well with the size of our orchestra,” he said. “It’s very beautiful, and it sends this message of rebirth, and hope, and consolation.” Acknowledging the hundreds of thousands of deaths faced by the country over the past 14 months, Lang-Lessing said, “I had this also in mind that we will be coming out of something quite devastating.”
Cue the Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, one of only two symphonies he composed in that key. While its meanings are much argued over, Lang-Lessing said the piece results mostly from the composer’s interest in the Sturm und Drang movement that swept the German arts world in the late 18th century.
“It’s the piece of a rebel, the piece of a radical,” Lang-Lessing said, with Mozart expanding his palette of sound and emotion to upset the balance of perfection and symmetry that classical music normally attempts to achieve.
“Mozart does everything in this piece to to destroy that in a way that is so well done that we don’t realize everything is unusual about the piece,” he said.
It starts “in the middle of something that has already started,” he said, and builds in harmonic complexity to become “one of his most advanced chromatic modulations that he has ever done,” even including a 12-tone scale that would much later become a hallmark of modern composers such as Schoenberg and Charles Ives.
Lang-Lessing explained, “we see Mozart always as the prodigy, the angel that has been chosen by God to bring beautiful music and everything for him was easy and came to him without struggle. But that’s actually not true. I think this symphony is the best example of that, that every artist struggles, and overcoming struggle is what the symphony is about.”
Lang-Lessing might just as well have been speaking about the San Antonio Symphony as an organization, having overcome many struggles only to be faced with first a total shutdown last year, then a slow build toward any form of normalcy.
Executive Director Corey Cowart acknowledged that the pandemic has been a significant setback in the search for a new music director to take the baton from Lang-Lessing.
“It’s such a different feel, from the number of musicians on stage to the number of people in the house, to everything, it hasn’t allowed us to proceed as we had originally had hoped,” he said. But, Cowart said, the slate of guest conductors has allowed them to continue envisioning the future of the Symphony, and he assured that the process continues.
Cowart pointed out one silver lining of the shift from live to virtual performances among many orchestras throughout the world, that the search committee has been able to witness many more conductors at work than would normally be the case.
“It’s just opened our eyes to a lot more conductors than I think previous searches would allow,” he said.
Cowart would not put a timeline on the search for a new conductor to lead the Symphony into its post-pandemic era. He said it will become obvious when the sought-after “magic at the podium” occurs.
That person will “have an infectious artistic vision, when they are articulating what they want to achieve as an organization, what they want to present to an audience, what they want to bring to a community that gets people excited about it,” Cowart said, preferring a much more positive sense of the term “infectious” than the one currently going around.
Tickets are available for the one-hour concerts Friday and Saturday scheduled for 8 p.m., including a digital concert accessible from home for those not yet ready to venture out to live performances. The Symphony’s policy of requiring face coverings and social distancing with reduced seating capacity remains in place.
The final Classics Series concerts of the 2021 season are scheduled for Jun. 4-5, featuring guest conductor Brett Mitchell and soloist Sarah Silver Manzke, associate concertmaster of the Symphony.