Review: San Antonio Symphony’s Schumann performance a homecoming for Lang-Lessing

February 23, 2019 GMT

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing is no stranger to the music of Robert Schumann.

Lang-Lessing grew up near Düsseldorf, Germany, where Schumann lived the last part of his life. Earlier in his career, Lang-Lessing recorded all four Schumann symphonies with his previous orchestra in Tasmania, Australia.

And in May 2009, when Lang-Lessing auditioned for the open music director position with the San Antonio Symphony, he conducted the 1850 Schumann Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish,” at the Majestic Theatre.

A decade later, on Friday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, it was a kind of Rhine River valley homecoming for Lang-Lessing to again conduct the five-movement “Rhenish,” widely considered to be Schumann’s finest symphony. It actually was the last symphony Schumann composed, not the also-popular Symphony No. 4.

Of course, Lang-Lessing needed no printed score to conduct the work. The gusto of the first movement was followed by a relaxed second movement that sounded like sailing down the Rhine River.

The highlight for many listeners is the fourth movement of “Rhenish,” a hymn to a solemn cathedral processional, the layered, contrapuntal theme making visible the sunbeams slanting through the windows. At the end of the fourth movement, two fanfares were followed by hushed, awestruck tones, shaped by the director to suggest a miracle had just happened. The cheerful finale formed a joyful end.

The concert opened with Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a deserved hearing instead of the composer’s oft-programmed Concerto No. 1. The pianist was Viktor Valkov of Bulgaria, who now is based at the University of Utah as a visiting piano professor.

The second concerto is more difficult, but Valkov was well-prepared for the grueling first movement in which the piano and orchestra only occasionally played together. Valkov performed the longest cadenza with passion, leading dramatically to a signature Tchaikovsky orchestral march.

For the slow movement, concertmaster Eric Gratz and principal cello Ken Freudigman joined Valkov at the Steinway because the movement is a trio of violin, cello and piano with orchestra, each instrument echoing a gentle, longing theme. The short, thrilling ending, with the piano and orchestra finally united, was over before anyone knew it.

Valkov’s robust encore was a transcription of Györgi Cziffra’s “Valse Triste.”

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