Cellphones Welcome at SA Symphony Performance: They’re Part Of The Program

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony's music director since 2010, will end his tenure with the Symphony at the end of the 2019-2020 season.

Before most orchestra concerts, audiences are asked to put away their cellphones. But Friday night at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the San Antonio Symphony’s conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, will encourage audience members to keep their phones at the ready – even to turn up the volume.

Composer Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds invites people in the seats to participate, via a downloadable app that provides a sound recording of birdsong-like whistles and light wind and string instrumentation.

The download and a clickable, 55-second audio file are available free here.

The recording uses Chinese instruments to imitate birdsong, Lang-Lessing said. “With this composition, we are brought back to our roots of music making, when music was meant to be a communication with nature.”

The orchestra’s professional musicians also will participate with their phones, and with singing, speaking, whistling, and snapping. “It’s a very accessible piece, very thrilling, with all these effects,” Lang-Lessing said. “And it’s what music is about, a way to communicate. The cellphone is a great symbol for that.”

The 12-minute composition was originally commissioned by Carnegie Hall in New York for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States and debuted in 2015 at Purchase College. A composition based on audience participation is unusual enough to have earned Tan a spot on a 2018 Oklahoma City Philharmonic program called “The Rebels,” along with French composer Hector Berlioz and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

In fact, Lang-Lessing is somewhat of a rebel himself. He said he’d love to see cellphones come out regularly during concerts – not simply for reading regular Facebook posts but to have audience members share their excitement about performances.

“I want people to use Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook during the concert. … If you’re really excited about something, you have to let it out” while it’s happening, he said.

Though such direct audience engagement as in the Passacaglia is unprecedented locally, Lang-Lessing said the Symphony has been creatively engaging its community during his tenure as its onstage leader, since 2010. In presenting the great works of classical music on a weekly basis, he said, “We are doing this for the community of San Antonio, and we really want to be the most accessible Symphony in the world.”

Tickets for the Friday and Saturday Jan. 11-12 evening concerts, with Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 and Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 also on the program, are available here.

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