One way or another, Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing will conduct Beethoven in San Antonio.
The former music director emeritus of the San Antonio Symphony will lead the orchestra’s striking musicians in two independently produced concerts Thursday and Friday evenings at First Baptist Church of San Antonio, with a program featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, a Mozart clarinet concerto and a piece by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk.
Lang-Lessing was fired by the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the board that manages the orchestra’s operations, ostensibly for violating a contract clause prohibiting him from conducting with any group other than the San Antonio Symphony when concerts are scheduled.
Lang-Lessing’s two concerts scheduled for May 13-14 and May 20-21 remained on the schedule as of Monday, but symphony management announced Tuesday that all concerts for the 2021-2022 season have officially been canceled.
Asked what it’s like returning to San Antonio under the cloud of his termination, Lang-Lessing said, “It’s very Beethoven. … Beethoven is always against the odds.”
Lang-Lessing spoke of the 19th-century German composer fighting through late-career deafness to become a world-changing figure, writing music even as battles with Napoleon’s invading forces raged outside his windows.
Against the backdrop of Lang-Lessing’s conflict with the symphony’s board and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine, conducting the triumphal Symphony No. 7 will “awaken the fighting spirit in all of us,” he said.
Very fittingly, he said, Mary Ellen Goree will be concertmaster for the First Baptist performances. Goree, the symphony’s principal second violinist, is the negotiating chair for the musicians’ union.
“Having the spokesman of all of this as a concertmaster is also a wonderful, symbolic gesture,” Lang-Lessing said.
The soloist for the concerts will be Ilya Shterenberg, principal clarinetist of the San Antonio Symphony and the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. Shterenberg is a native of Zhytomyr in Ukraine and will perform Skoryk’s Melody — recognizable as the background music in the war video played during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s March address to the U.S. Congress.
Lang-Lessing described Melody as “melancholic and mourning and soothing and comforting at the same time, a wonderful symbol of the Ukrainian mindset and culture.”
Shterenberg will also perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major, which Lang-Lessing said will be recognizable to some movie fans as the record played by Robert Redford’s character in the 1985 film Out of Africa.
The Mozart concerto was not set to be part of the original San Antonio Symphony concerts scheduled for this weekend, though the Beethoven symphony was. Lang-Lessing said the situation with the symphony board is unfortunate, but he remains in support of the musicians and their community.
The community also showed support to Lang-Lessing, who received a standing ovation when introduced as an audience member at the Musical Bridges Around the World concert at San Fernando Cathedral on Sunday.
“I took it as very strong support of the community for the musicians. That’s what it is,” he said. “It’s not for me, it’s applause for the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony that stand strong.”
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. concerts are available through the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony website, starting at $10.
This article has been updated to clarify Mary Ellen Goree’s role with the musicians’ union.