Tone Poet: The San Antonio Symphony's Strauss Festival

Sebastian Lang-Lessing - COURTESY
Sebastian Lang-Lessing

For its annual at-length festival celebrating a master in classical music, the San Antonio Symphony explores the orchestral charts of Richard Strauss. Born in Munich in 1864, Strauss helped bridge the 19th and 20th centuries with a focus on rich texture and tone poems, works that etch into song the story and feeling of a poem, novel or painting. In an interview, symphony conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing spoke to the Current about his relationship with Strauss' work, bringing the music to life and the challenges of running such a long project, running through February 22.

How did you choose Richard Strauss for the 2015 festival?

We're celebrating our 75th anniversary and the founder of the San Antonio Symphony, Max Reiter, was a friend of Richard Strauss. So a lot of Strauss' works have been U.S.-premiered in San Antonio, before they even made it to the east coast, which is quite astonishing for such a prominent composer. By honoring Max Reiter, the Strauss Festival would be the appropriate theme to celebrate our 75th.

What draws you to the music of Strauss?

Strauss is probably the most important composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it comes to orchestral development. By introducing new instruments to the orchestra and finding new sounds and mixing new colors, no other composer was more influential than him in really creating the orchestra of the 20th Century.

Have there been any challenges pulling from the same composer for almost two months?

It would be extremely tiring for the musicians to play only Strauss. I also believe in a mixed diet when it comes to Richard Strauss. Most of the music is fairly easy listening, but it's exhausting for musicians because it's so rich and dense. We try to include the influences on both sides — the people he influenced, the people who influenced him and those who go the same direction, but in a very different way. 

How do you express the stories that are embedded in Strauss' tone poems?

As conductor, I have my very wild imagination of these stories, and everybody has his own. There's absolutely no question when you conduct Don Juan that lovemaking is the central aspect of the score. If you would show the images during the concert, it would probably be pornography. That's the beauty about music. We can actually create images that are understood differently by everybody.  

What is the story of your feature this weekend, Ein Heldenleben, or Life of a Hero?

Life of a Hero, I think Strauss sees that in a very ironic way. He describes his life with a lot of humor, especially his relationship with his wife Pauline — with a violin solo, played by the newly appointed, extremely young violinist Eric Gratz. It's Strauss' most important tone poem, no doubt. It reflects the life of an artist in a world that is so full of restraint.

San Antonio Symphony Presents Ein Heldenleben

$20-$96, 8pm Fri-Sat, Feb 6-7, Tobin Center, 100 Auditorium, (210) 223-8624,

Scroll to read more Music Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.