“Dark chords … spinning wheels of darkness resolving into an orchestral melody and a heavy end.”

This is how San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing describes the familiar Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. Guest pianist Olga Kern will unleash the powerful concerto to open the Symphony’s 2017-2018 season Sept. 22 and 23 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where all concerts are scheduled.

The season includes 14 classical concerts and the popular H-E-B Pops Series, running through early June. Season and individual tickets are available at the Tobin Center Box Office or here.

Before the official start of the season, celebrated pianist Emanuel Ax will perform in a special concert Saturday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. The all-Beethoven program will include the “Egmont” Overture, Piano Concerto No. 5, known as the “Emperor Concerto” and Symphony No. 5.

“I think it’s a huge privilege to have him here, and he will be awe-inspiring for everybody – the audience, but also musicians,” Lang-Lessing told the Rivard Report. “It’s always a fantastic moment going in-depth with a piece we all seem to know, but these guest artists always bring something very special with them.”

Ax, who was born in Poland and lives in New York City, has won Grammy Awards for a series of Haydn sonatas and for Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ax also contributed to an International Emmy Award-winning BBC documentary commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust.

Pianist Emanuel Ax. Credit: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Lang-Lessing fashioned the Ax program within a concept connecting the season’s individual programs. This year, oppression and revolution are on his mind, concepts explored in music tied to revolutions both political and intellectual. Appropriately, Beethoven took a rebellious approach to composing music, working in the aftermath of the French Revolution and restoration of aristocratic power in Austria.

“That’s why I think he’s so important for humanity as somebody without compromise,” Lang-Lessing said. “The Overture to Egmont reflects that, this rebellion of fighting against oppression.”

The emperor of the “Emperor Concerto,” which Ax will perform, refers to Napoleon Bonaparte. Scholars believe Beethoven would not have approved of the association, which was tagged on later by a music publisher.

“Beethoven welcomed Napoleon at first because Napoleon was a revolutionary,” Lang-Lessing said. “But he saw him turning into a tyrant and crowning himself the Emperor of France. And the aftermath I think is what triggers the Fifth Symphony.”

The iconic “pom-pom-pom-POM” opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony represents the rattling of the prisoner’s chains as he tries to get free, Lang-Lessing believes, not the symbol of fate knocking, as it is usually interpreted.

“It is strong, it is raw, it is full of will and power,” he said. “Metaphorically, it is the sound of society breaking out of these chains of oppression.

“This is the fantastic thing about great art, and why a piece like Beethoven’s Five will always be relevant to us, because there will always be oppression in the world and we’re always fighting against it. It’s a phenomenon of society and humanity, and it is an artist’s obligation to speak out. And Beethoven is definitely one of them who did.”

A more inward-looking program will ensue a week later with three pieces that depict the inner mind: the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz.

The dark drama of the Rachmaninoff concerto reflects his early depression and serves as “self-therapy” and “a dedication to his shrink,” Lang-Lessing said. He and Kern performed the work this summer in Copenhagen, and he was impressed by Kern’s restrained, psychological approach. “She’s not tempted to go the showcase way, though she has the chops to do anything pianistically.”

Considered the leading pianist of her generation, Kern will serve as the Symphony’s first-ever artist in residence and perform in the season finale as well as the opening concert.

Debussy’s impressionistic work, a dreamy phantasm, was controversial for its new form when it was first performed in the late 19th century. Modern ears hear it as a lovely evocation of a lone faun playing his pan-pipes.

Lang-Lessing calls Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique “mind-blowing” because it seems to describe a psychedelic opium trip and was written less than 30 years after Beethoven died. Berlioz had been rejected by a beautiful actress and tried to attract her attention with frenzied music conveying his adoration and frustration, ending with a witches’ Sabbath. In between are movements about a formal ball, shepherds in a field, and Berlioz’s own execution.

The symphony premiered in 1830 when others were writing in a classical form.

“He created this monster of a symphony that has nothing to do with anything that had ever been written before,” Lang-Lessing said of Berlioz, who eventually married the actress.

The theme of historical markers continues into the new year with a three-concert Tricentennial Celebration on Jan. 12, 13, and 14. Works by Bernstein, Brahms, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, and other favorites are part of the season’s offerings.

The San Antonio Symphony is making its own historic change with the start on Sept. 1 of a new managing body, Symphonic Music for San Antonio. The nonprofit was formed to ensure the Symphony, which has for years struggled to balance its books, remains financially viable. How does Lang-Lessing feel as the Symphony enters a new era?

“I’m by definition an optimist,” he said. “I’m here to bring great art and great music to San Antonio. That’s what I stand for, and I think that’s the biggest asset of the San Antonio Symphony is our performances and our excellence, and [we want] to keep that tradition blooming and blossoming under the new management. They deserve all the credit for taking on a very, very challenging job, and that is a very honorable thing to do because it comes with a lot of obligations.”

Ultimately, he continued, “it is the community that owns the orchestra, so it’s a much, much bigger picture. We seek to serve the community.”

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Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.