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Perhaps nothing could be more appropriate for the San Antonio Symphony’s season of reinvigoration than an image of resilience, resourcefulness, cultural mixing, and constant renewal.
The May 31-June 1 program, titled Nomadic Journey, might best represent the theme of the entire 2018-19 season, which begins Sept. 21 and runs through June 15, 2019.
The upcoming season is “one of the most cosmopolitan seasons that I’ve created,” said Music Director and Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, “by taking us on a big journey in each of these programs, going around the world, and preaching multiculturalism.”
The Nomadic Journey program traces the mix of international influences that inspired European composers at the turn of the 19th century. It opens with George Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody, continues with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher (Memory of a Dear Place), moves to Ravel’s Hungarian-inflected Tzigane – a colloquial term for “gypsy” at the time the work was composed – and to Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite, leading to Five Hungarian Dances by Brahms.
Classical music during that period became “extremely flavorful,” Lang-Lessing said, because of the influence of Roma peoples migrating throughout Europe from distant lands in southwestern Asia and the Middle East.
“People who travel around bring a lot of cultural exchange,” he said. The Nomadic Journey program is “about honoring this culture of people who call the world their home.”
Another central program of the 2018-19 season is the three-weekend long festival of flavors, with the alliterative titles Tuscan Tour of Taste (Mar. 29-30), Flavors of France (Apr. 5-6), and Savor Spain (Apr. 12-13).
Not only will music honor each region’s composers – from Rossini and Puccini of Italy, to Milhaud and Debussy of France, and De Falla and Salgan of Spain – but hors d’oeuvres also will be served to bring the sensations of smell and taste into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
Lang-Lessing himself might even cook onstage during one evening’s program, he suggested, if regulations allow.
Other surprises are in store, including the potential for spontaneous improvisation, a Masquerade dance piece not printed on the season program, and an opportunity for the audience to actually leave their cellphones on during a performance, for a purpose.
Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu’s Nami No Bon, to be performed Nov. 16-17 along with Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade and Dvo?ák’s Symphony No. 8, will take tweeting to a whole new level. Originally written for a television show, when performed live the piece incorporates birdsong through audience participation via a downloadable app.
Lang-Lessing said there is no better way to begin the season this month than with composer Anna Clyne’s Masquerade. “It’s just a fabulous piece, a great opener of any concert,” he said, that “takes us back into the 17th-century British masquerade promenade.”
The season-opening program, The Greats: Watts Returns for Grieg, also features famed pianist André Watts, returning to San Antonio for the first time since 1973 to perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
The Nature Speaks in Music program of Nov. 9-10 features another “great,” Lang-Lessing said, in cellist Lynn Harrell. Watts and Harrell “are two big legends of an era,” he said. “It’s great to have two giants like this in one season. It’s fabulous, and a big honor to us.”
Another star of the season will appear under the bow of violinist Vadim Gluzman for the Nomadic Journey program. Gluzman plays the famed Leopold Auer Stradivarius violin, which he has said “makes me run 15 times faster, dive 15 times deeper.”
Local talent also makes significant appearances during the season, with popular mezzo-soprano and Symphony singer-in-residence Veronica Williams performing in three concert programs, and concertmaster Eric Gratz featured in the Nov. 16-17 program.
Politics on the Program
Current events also make their way into the season program, Lang-Lessing said. His British Classics concert of Mar. 1-2, featuring Elgar’s Enigma Variations and works by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, is his “anti-Brexit” statement, he said. The Brahms program of Jan. 11-12 and the Russian program of June 7-8 are also not without timely political undertones.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky was composed for famed filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s film, which Lang-Lessing admitted is “one of the most hideous films that has ever been filmed. It’s so bad that it’s actually really fun to watch,” he laughed. And the Viktor Hartmann paintings that inspired Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition are “nothing you would put into a museum,” Lang-Lessing said. But the two orchestral works transcend the mediocrity of their inspirations, he said, affirming their genius.
Guest pianist Gabriela Montero is unafraid to speak out against the troubling political situation in her home country of Venezuela, Lang-Lessing said, and she also brings spontaneity and improvisational virtuosity to her performances. During concerts, Montero commonly asks the audience for a theme, then improvises to their delight, he said.
Her chance will come Jan. 11-12, with Tan Dun’s Passacaglia, Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 491, and the Brahms Symphony No. 4 on the program.
During the tumultuous 2017-18 season, two concerts were canceled to accommodate a truncated schedule.
“One obligation I felt to the audience was that nothing was canceled, just postponed,” Lang-Lessing said. In that spirit, the Elgar Enigma Variations return, and bringing in guest conductor and soloist Jeffrey Kahane for the Flavors of France program fulfills that promise, he said.
Lastly, Lang-Lessing own German heritage comes into play in two programs. Feb. 22-23, he will revisit the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 featured in his very first performance with the San Antonio Symphony back in 2010, a piece he considers “part of my musical DNA” since it was written in Düsseldorf, near his hometown of Gelsenkirchen.
Also, Jeannette Sorrell will conduct and play harpsichord for Heaven’s Gift: The Brandenburgs on Feb. 8-9, when all six of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos will be performed in one sitting. Hearing all six concertos together is “very unusual,” Lang-Lessing said, and will be “a once in a lifetime experience.”
Sorrell will display great stamina and artistry, and the concertos represent his desire to expand the range of the musicians he conducts, he said.
“I’m always keen on widening the stylistic flexibility of the orchestra,” Lang-Lessing said.
“It’s so important to bring something like this to the main stage of the Tobin Center,” he said.