Sebastian Lang-Lessing Sounds Off on “Las Américas” Fest

Pianist, and Tony Parker pal, Vincent Balse
Pianist, and Tony Parker pal, Vincent Balse
San Antonio Symphony’s “Las Américas” Festival: Rhapsody in Blue
8pm Fri & Sat, Jan. 15-16,
2pm Sun, Jan. 17
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
100 Auditorium Circle
(210) 223-8624

Music from North, Central and South America has arrived in the Alamo City via the San Antonio Symphony's sixth annual winter music festival, "Las Américas."

The musical celebration began on January 5 and lasts through February 23, featuring works curated by symphony conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, including a highlight of "the most American" of music: jazz. Performances include George Gershwin's ode to the boom and bustle of 20th century living, Rhapsody in Blue; his Cuban Overture; I Got Rhythm, Variations for Piano and Symphony; and Catfish Row: Symphonic Suite from Porgy and Bess.

Also featured at the January 15, 16 and 17 concerts will be a medley of Duke Ellington, and other-half-of-his-heartbeat, Billy Strayhorn, essentials arranged by renowned pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, along with Harlem, the Duke's ode to his African-American Sanssouci. Interestingly, Tony Parker's longtime friend Vincent Balse will be the featured pianist, so keep an eye out for number nine.

I spoke with Lang-Lessing from his home in Berlin about his selections for the festival, particularly the pieces by Gershwin, Ellington and Strayhorn, and how they, and jazz, convey American-ness.

"With most jazz musicians you can go from piano solo to trio to quintet to brass to big band, and then it's just the next logical stop to go to symphony orchestra without sacrificing the spirit of the piece and the freedom of jazz performance, which is fantastic ... If anything defines American music, it's jazz," he said.

This freedom is, of course, essential to the idea of the American Experience, something that Lang-Lessing is cognizant of and takes into account when conducting.

"Jazz is a very personal thing. It's not just one style. Even if you play the same tune or the same music, it's very personal how you approach it. This will be evident, I think, when we do it," he said.

I asked the maestro if his interpretation of such heavy pieces, such as Porgy and Bess, colors his performance and the performance of the symphony.

"Sometimes, in a piece like Porgy and Bess, when we do Catfish Row, of course, the anger that is in the piece and the fear — fear, anger, hopelessness — is probably today as relevant as it was in 1935 ... I don't think it's a Broadway piece, I think it's an opera, it's 20th century opera. So, for me it's not like a happy Broadway-tune piece, it's a political piece, and for me it's as relevant as it was at that time ... there's a lot of violence in it, of course, and I'm gonna bring it out," he explained.

The firepower of an 80-piece symphony, not only being a shiny, spruced-up vehicle for the industrial romanticism of Gershwin, the anxious hostility of Porgy and Bess, or the sophisticated swing of Ellington and Strayhorn, is surely something to behold.

"Gershwin, for me, is very interesting because Gershwin is not an African-American ... he absorbed jazz in a symphonic way like nobody did before him. He was the one making jazz symphonic and integrating jazz into classical music ... and Gershwin then defined what became really 'American,'" Lang-Lessing went on.

The tenacity of a composer like Gershwin, a Jew from the Northeast, to compose something like the Cuban Overture, is telling. It's not only adventurous, but a feat. One of the exciting things about symphonic music is that when composers, musicians and conductors attempt something outside of their realm, they have to invest themselves in it completely. Otherwise they come off as charlatans vacationing in exoticism, and that is something that is not abided in their sphere. And something of which other genres could take note.

"It's music that speaks to the soul, directly. The style is important but you don't need to know anything about jazz, about symphonic music to enjoy this. It goes directly to the heart," he said.

A free simulcast screening of the concert will be shown in the River Walk Plaza at the Tobin Center on Friday, January 15 at 8 p.m.


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