The San Antonio Symphony receives an ovation at the start of the Jan. 5 concert in the Tobin Center. Below: American soprano Ana María Martínez.
Photo: Tom Specht
Happy ending, for a while
January 6, 2018
The most bizarre and dispiriting 10
days in the history of the San Antonio
Symphony culminated Friday night
(Jan. 5) in a glistening, pristine,
supremely virtuosic performance of
Maurice Ravel’s colorful Alborado del
The audience responded with the most
boisterous extended ovation I can
recall, eclipsing even the cheers an
hour earlier when music director
Sebastian Lang-Lessing returned to
the stage after intermission and told
the audience, “I am instructed by the
board chair, Kathleen Vale, to
announce that the season is moving
The 10 days that shook the symphony
began on Dec. 27, when a troika of
major donors, citing a multimillion
pension liability that didn’t actually
exist, backed out of a plan to take
control of the orchestra from the
Symphony Society of San Antonio. The
Symphony Society board, under then-
chair Alice Viroslav, voted on
Wednesday to suspend operations
effective Jan. 7, making this weekend’s
concerts the last for the foreseeable
future. But Ms. Viroslav resigned on
Thursday, and her successor, Ms. Vale,
called the board together again on
Friday. Thanks to a new infusion of
funds, the season could continue after
all, at least as far as next weekend’s
concerts. It remains unlikely, however,
that the orchestra will be able to
complete the season as scheduled.
(Sold-out concerts would help.)
Oh, and before the concert Tobin Center security ejected some symphony musicians from the lobby after they’d handed concert-goers leaflets urging them to ask local public officials to support the orchestra. The musicians say that the National Labor Relations Board had ruled late last year that they had a right to distribute informational leaflets on Tobin Center property. (Tobin Center president Mike Fresher did not respond to an email request for his response by the time this review was posted.)
Still, the most important thing was the exalted performance standard set by the orchestra, its music director and the evening’s lustrous guest artist, the American soprano Ana María Martínez. Were this just a check-the-box orchestra, able to get through a Strauss waltz without embarrassment but not a genuine treasure, its scant and grudging financial support would be less of a scandal. But the San Antonio Symphony has been a consistently excellent orchestra for at least a dozen years, and this season brought a conspicuous leap higher to a level of polish and refinement comparable to much richer big-city bands. That isn’t an achievement that any city can just toss aside without grave damage to its reputation, if not its spirit.
So, to the music: The concert was billed as a celebration of San Antonio’s tricentennial. Although this area had long been inhabited by indigenous peoples, 1718 was the year Spanish colonizers established the Presidio San Antonio de Béxar and Mission San Antonio de Valero, the roots of the modern city. Accordingly, the concert program held Spanish and Spanish-flavored music.
It was a program made for pleasure, and most pleasurable of all was Ms. Martînez’s rich, warm, disciplined instrument, a melt-in-your mouth dark-chocolate truffle – with flecks of orange zest contributed by her horn-like vibrancy. She is remembered locally for her splendid work in the Verdi Requiem in 2013, and I also recall her impressive Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Juliet in Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet at Houston Grand Opera in 2005.
Her vehicles in this concert were Manuel de Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs, arranged for orchestra by Rodolfo Halffter, and selections from four zarzuelas – the Spanish style of operetta – including her encore, the famous “Carceleras“ from Ruperto Chapi’s comedy of tangled loves Las Hijas del Zebedeo. There were many rewarding subtleties in her performances – the slight pitch inflections in Falla’s tender “Nana,” the sweetness of her response to concertmaster Eric Gratz’s sweet violin solo at the beginning of the Romanza from Ernesto Lecuona’s Maria la O, her intelligent shadings of vocal color to underscore the texts throughout.
The orchestra opened with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos’ arrangement of five movements from Isaac Albeniz’s Suite Española. Most notable from the top-drawer performance were the silken elegance, transparency and beautiful balances of the strings in “Asturias,” beloved of guitarists. Jacques Ibert’s delicious Ports of Call has only one stop in Spain – the finale, “Valencia” – but no matter. Another highly polished orchestral performance, with special gleam from principal oboe Paul Lueders in an exotic Arabic-flavored solo in “Tunis.” At the end, Mr. Lang-Lessing strode into the orchestra to shake Mr. Lueders’ hand and raise it aloft in triumph. The strings showed off their refinement once again in the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’ Goyescas.
But Alborado del gracioso was the pièce de résistance. Despite the Spanish title and flavoring, this work is French modernity in its bones, and Mr. Lang-Lessing seems to have a special affinity for the style. The performance was crisp, spirited and virtually flawless.
Next weekend’s concerts hold Beethoven’s Eroica Symph0ny and two works honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – “Duke” Ellington’s valedictory Three Black Kings and Joseph Schwantner’s New Morning for the World. The concerts start at 8 pm Friday and Saturday (Jan. 12 and 13) in the Tobin Center.
SA Symphony, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Ana María Martínez