Review: San Antonio Symphony concert combined tradition and electronics

January 12, 2019 GMT

Two orchestral favorites and a clever new piece inviting the use of a versatile technology device nearly everyone has — a smart phone — all brightened the first San Antonio Symphony classical series concert of 2019 on Friday night.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 were the evening’s main course. The appetizer was Tan Dun’s 2015 “Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds.”

In the Mozart concerto, the pleasant surprise was soloist Anne-Marie McDermott, who was brought in with only a few days notice as a replacement for the ailing scheduled guest pianist Gabriela Montero of Venezuela. McDermott, a busy touring soloist, also serves as artistic director for several music festivals, including Colorado’s Vail Valley Music Festival.

The Mozart Concerto No. 20 reaches into the realm of mythology with a minor-key darkness that defines the classical-era sturm und drang, or “storm and stress.”

McDermott embraced that and more, gracefully and elegantly articulating every phase as only a Mozart specialist can.

Her playing felt truly authentic, something accentuated by her dressy white, Viennese-style blouse with its high, puffy collar. Her middle-movement approach was especially soothing, given the wrathful outer movements. If this were the only performance anyone ever heard, it is the only one needed. McDermott’s spirited encore was from J.S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2, BWV 807.

Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing and the musicians were fully committed and prepared for their presentation of Brahms’ final symphony, the composer’s summary orchestral statement. The cataclysmic first movement was calmed by the tender second-movement andante and the sunny allegro. The last movement played out perfectly, a bit unsettled, as if looking ahead from the late 1800s into the coming 1900s. The woodwinds particularly stood out.

Tan Dun’s “Passacaglia” started literally with sounds from the audience’s cell phones. The symphony website had invited people to download the bird sounds from ancient Chinese instruments. Many of the audience of about 800 people did, and they followed Lang-Lessing’s cues. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts hall sounded like an aviary gone wild before Lang-Lessing eased the orchestra into its role. The musicians also used their cell phones as instruments. They snapped their fingers, vocalized and slapped their instruments. The French horns were raised for full volume. It was gimmicky, but the repetitive melody was appealing, resulting in a fun piece.

The program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Tobin Center downtown.