The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center.
The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center. Credit: Courtesy / Juan Martinez

If audiences bring knowledge of world history to the San Antonio Symphony‘s newly announced classical season, they may hear familiar selections in new contexts.

“I designed a season that is very much constructed around historical markers,” Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing told the Rivard Report. “We have a lot of anniversaries in ’17-’18 to celebrate.”

The season will open with Grammy Award-winning pianist Emanuel Ax, performing an all-Beethoven concert as a one-night-only event on Sept. 16 at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The anniversaries being celebrated this season include the centennial of the Russian Revolution, commemorated in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 “The Year 1917,” the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and, of course, San Antonio’s Tricentennial, celebrated during the Symphony’s annual winter festival.

The three programs of the Tricentennial Festival will celebrate the city’s “cultural, ethnic roots and demonstrate the diversity of San Antonio,” Lang-Lessing said. The first features Puerto Rican-Cuban soprano Ana Maria Martin in a concert of Spanish music of Spanish and zarzuela arias.

The birthday of Martin Luther King will be the focus of the second Festival concert, including The Three Black Kings by Duke Ellington, New Morning for the World after one of King’s speeches, and Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 “Eroica.” Lang-Lessing points out that Beethoven wrote the symphony for lost heroes such as King. King’s non-violent call to action harkens back to a program earlier in the season honoring Martin Luther’s revolutionary nailing of the Ninety-five Theses to a chapel door, sparking the Reformation.

The third part of the Festival will celebrate the country’s Anglo-Saxon heritage with music by British composers.

“It’s basically a pomp and circumstance concert,” Lang-Lessing said, “a Last Night of the Proms.”

A concert later in February, 2018 celebrates three anniversaries: the centennial of Leonard Bernstein with his Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town;” the 80th birthday of John Corigliano, composer of music in the Oscar-winning “The Red Violin;” and the 50th anniversary of Corigliano’s Piano Concerto, composed for the San Antonio Symphony when his father, John, served as concertmaster under conductor Victor Alessandro after retiring as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic in 1966.

“I called John and said, ‘We want to honor you for your 80th birthday. What do you want?’” Lang-Lessing said. “He said, ‘Play my piano concerto.’ He recommended [pianist] Philip Fisher to play it, so I’m very happy with that.”

For the first time, the SAS is hosting an artist-in-residence after Lang-Lessing and musicians “fell in love” with concert pianist Olga Kern during her performance with the orchestra last year. She will open and close the season, perform a recital, conduct master classes, and engage with the community, all while commuting from New York.

Merely words on paper now, Lang-Lessing hopes the impact of individual programs’ cross-references will become apparent when audiences read about and hear the music, or, perhaps, attend one of Lang-Lessing’s rich pre-concert talks.

He explained that while he designs programs as events in themselves, he intends an entire season to have its own internal logic, as opposed to season schedules he sees from other symphonies across the country where the premise seems to be, “Let’s play what’s nice.”

“I design a season not for my single-ticket buyers but for my season-ticket subscribers, so when they when they go through this voyage, this journey, they will take something from it. They make the connection from ‘Elijah’ to ‘Eroica,’” Lang-Lessing said. “If they make it with full consciousness or if it’s subconscious, I don’t care. But every season tells a different story.”

Lang-Lessing said he constantly thinks about the shape of a season.

“It’s a constant process, a very long-term process, so I don’t think about just one season, I think about programming continuous and consecutive seasons,” he said.

The audience and orchestra are chief artistic considerations.

“You look at, where do we have to nurture the curiosity of our audience, and where do we have to satisfy their comfort zone,” he said. “That has to be very well-balanced. It’s part of the process of educating an audience into a certain taste and style and appreciation.

“Then there is this process of artistic progression, this journey you take the orchestra on, so you’re also always working with different repertoire and what is the next step artistically to achieve something as an organization.” 

Lang-Lessing said he also balances the comfort zone of the single-ticket patron and the core audience, the season subscriber. Now in his seventh season as music director, Lang-Lessing said he feels the audience has come to trust him and the journey he wants to take them on. The annual festivals he created to explore a composer’s music and influences have spread to concert halls citywide and become an important way of stretching listeners.

“It’s like at the top restaurants in the world, you don’t look at the menu,” Lang-Lessing said. “You can order anything. In a good Japanese restaurant, you don’t even ask. They bring you something to eat, and you enjoy it. The best restaurants in the world function that way.”

No doubt patrons will want to immerse themselves in culinary history, politics, chefs, art, and traditions as they prepare to indulge in the Symphony’s upcoming fare.

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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.