In January, during one of the most troubled periods in its history, the San Antonio Symphony received word that a prominent local figure wanted to help.
Pau Gasol is an outsize presence in the community, not only as a star forward for the San Antonio Spurs and a 18-year veteran of the NBA, but for his charitable and philanthropic work here and abroad.
The Symphony quickly invited Gasol to join its new advisory board, as part of an effort to reach new audiences. That and other community outreach efforts seem to be working: The Symphony in mid-April nearly sold out the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with its blockbuster concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
After shooting a promotional spot for the Symphony on Tuesday, speaking especially to his own fans who might not be familiar with the city's orchestra, Gasol spoke with the Rivard Report about the role classical music has played in his life.
“My first opera was [Giacomo Puccini's] Tosca,” he said when asked what piece of music reached him deeply enough to make a lifelong imprint. “That opera really … touched me, and now I’ve watched it three or four times."
Asked to compare music to sports, Gasol said, “I consider both to be forms of art.” The connection, he said, is “the passion that you can feel and perceive from the artist, from the player. Because that’s something that moves you, and touches you, and you can appreciate that.”
Gasol gave some advice to potential new fans who have not yet experienced the Symphony: “Don’t be scared of the unknown – have an open mind. There’s a lot of beauty out there.”
And whether cheering for music or sports, at the AT&T Center or the Tobin Center, Gasol said, “You’ve got to put yourself in experiences that make you feel alive, that make you feel something that’s important to you, and that moves you.”
This, he said, is “what life is about.”
Several Symphony musicians are Spurs fans who now have a confirmed Symphony fan on the iconic hometown team.
“I was really excited when Pau moved here,” said violinist Joan Christenson, “because he’s saying how important the symphony and opera is, and he’s been so outspoken about it. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s always an honor to ... meet people that appreciate your craft and your talent, what you do. It’s a gift,” Gasol said. “If you can admire mutually, then it’s even better.”
Speaking of meeting orchestra musicians in the various cities he’s played, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and Barcelona, Gasol said, “I hope it makes them feel as well that they’re appreciated, that people from all kinds of jobs and professions admire them and appreciate their craft.”
Recently, the Symphony has extended its presence in the community.
“As a THANK YOU to our incredible community," its Facebook page stated in reference to recent fundraising successes and increased ticket sales, the Symphony recently offered free concerts at the Laurie Auditorium at Trinity University and Hangar 9 at Brooks, a new venue for the orchestra.
To play out in the community at new venues is “a very healthy process,” said the Symphony's music director and conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, “because you have to adjust to different acoustics, different atmosphere, different settings. It feels good to do that.”
On Founder’s Day of the Tricentennial Commemorative Week, a slightly reduced, 62-member version of the Symphony was at St. Philip’s College, performing a 25-minute prelude to a program honoring activist Artemisia Bowden and noted educator Ruth Simmons.
During the performance, audience member Orlando Richards snapped a photograph of the Symphony on the Watson Fine Arts Center stage, festooned with blue and white flowers. This was his first time seeing the Symphony, Richards said.
Simply “knowing that they exist” is reason enough for him to become interested in the Symphony’s programming, he said, and even though he’s not a Spurs fan, he likes what the team does for the community. Richards prefers the Los Angeles Lakers, which Gasol played for from 2008-2014, winning two NBA championships.
Richards said he likes Gasol, because "he was always an upstanding person, and a good player.”
For the Symphony, the word of the day was “new," with new community outreach strategies, the quest for new fans, its new advisory board member, and in the last piece of its short St. Philip’s program, the Largo of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, titled From the New World.
The Symphony’s hopes for its future might be best summed up in the lyrics of traditional gospel song I Am Seeking for a City, sung at St. Philips by San Antonio mezzo-soprano Veronica Williams, who had previously joined the Symphony for its February Dream Week program:
“There’s a better day a-comin’, hallelujah,” Williams sang. The performance received a standing ovation.
The Symphony then rejoined the program to accompany the St. Philip’s Choir in Lift Every Voice and Sing, or what emcee and local arts advocate Aaronetta Pierce called “the Negro National Anthem."
To reach every possible fan, one orchestra musician has an idea for yet another new venue for the orchestra. “I’d like to have the Symphony play at a Spurs game,” an enthusiastic Christenson said.
Should the Spurs and Symphony follow through on her wish, they might attract some important new fans. While it’s nice to have at least one “true lover of the arts” among the Spurs organization, violinist Judy Levine-Holley said, "it would be nice if we could get some more of them.”