What connects a 300-year-old violin, an Italian conductor, and the Majestic Theater? The San Antonio Symphony’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, happening this Saturday evening, June 14, to commemorate the Symphony’s first performance held on June 12, 1939.
The concert at the Majestic Theater will feature one of the most renowned violinists of our time, Joshua Bell, who will play his 300-year-old Stradivarius, an instrument valued at $4 million with an even richer history, one that connects to the founding of the Symphony by its founding conductor Max Reiter.
Though Bell’s violin may be priceless, tickets to see him perform at the 75th Anniversary Concert are not. Tickets for the concert and after-party are intentionally affordable to make the celebration inclusive of the entire San Antonio community. Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the Symphony’s Music Director, says, “Even if you’re not interested in music at all it’s a great way to celebrate San Antonio’s history and our diverse culture.”
The concert will be followed by a celebration at the newly renovated St. Anthony Hotel, which was the first luxury hotel to open in San Antonio in the same time period as the Symphony was founded.
“This is a wonderful occasion to go back in time and celebrate the thriving '30s, one of the most exciting times in San Antonio, especially architecturally,” said Lang-Lessing. “Buildings such as the Majestic, The St. Anthony Hotel, Municipal Auditorium, and historic homes in Monte Vista were constructed around the same era.”
The Symphony’s first concert in 1939 was staged at the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park, a played-out rock quarry transformed into a performing arts venue.
Lang-Lessing has presided as musical director and conductor of the Symphony for four seasons, and he'll inaugurate his fifth season with the orchestra this September in the Symphony’s new home at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Lang-Lessing is looking forward to honoring the Majestic Theater, the Symphony's home for 26 years. The relationship began in the Symphony’s 50th anniversary, 1988-89 season in the newly renovated Majestic.
The anniversary program will commemorate the Symphony's first-ever concert that occurred on June 12, 1939. “The year 1939 is interesting historically," Lang-Lessing said. "Significant movements within the art world, such as American modernism and surrealism, were transforming the visual arts, while America was just emerging from the Great Depression and facing another major challenge, World War II.”
Reiter left his native Italy at the onset of WWII after the government proclaimed an official anti-Semitic policy. Reiter was one of few Jewish conductors working in Italy at the time. He came to America and toured the country with the goal of establishing a new American orchestra.
Lang-Lessing said of Reiter’s vision: “I find it extremely courageous and adventurous to build another orchestra in this period. Art is mostly needed when times are the most difficult. The most creative periods of art have been during big historic changes; sometimes the art form serves as a symbol, while sometimes it ignites that change.”
While visiting San Antonio, Reiter was encouraged by civic leaders to assemble a group of standout musicians for a “demonstration concert”. He knew he needed a superstar lineup to attract a large audience so he brought on musicians, who as Symphony board member and unofficial historian Jim Berg says, “who were as famous as Timmy, Manu, or Tony.” The successful performance drew more than 2,500 people and solidified Reiter’s vision for a new symphony. Shortly afterwards, city officials approved Reiter’s proposal for a full-time orchestra.
“Reiter was ambitious in selecting a program that would showcase the original orchestra, a group of musicians who had only recently begun playing together for the first time," Lang-Lessing said. "The pieces were extremely challenging, even for very established groups.”
Reiter finished the program with Maurice Ravel’s "Bolero," showcasing the musicians individually.
For the 75th Anniversary Concert the Symphony will play the same program performed 35 years ago.
World-renowned violinist Joshua Bell will be the headline performer along with his famous Huberman Stradivarius violin, named after its original owner, Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947), a Jewish Polish violinist equally esteemed during his time. As Lang-Lessing says, “He was even more famous than the Spurs.”
Huberman used his status to save other Jewish musicians from Nazi persecution during WWII. He founded the Palestine Philharmonic, providing refuge in Palestine for Jewish musicians trapped in Europe. Around the same time, fellow Jewish immigrant Reiter founded the San Antonio Symphony. So, as Lang-Lessing says, “It’s not by chance that Joshua Bell is a perfect choice to perform at the San Antonio Symphony’s 75th Anniversary”
Symphony board member Jim Berg, owner of Matson Creative, was a founding director of KPAC-FM classical radio station, which later became the local NPR affiliate. The Classical Broadcasting Society of San Antonio evolved into Texas Public Radio.
“My interest was originally in classical radio,” says Berg. “Before there was television, if you wanted to hear classical music, you had to turn on the radio.”
Berg is dedicated to the music education of adults and children and is a self-proclaimed apostle of the benefits of classical music, acknowledging the positive effects of music on the mind.
“People who study music or play music are brighter," Berg said. "So that’s been my driving force—getting the education of classical music on the airwaves.”
Every week Berg produces a video interview with Maestro Lang-Lessing at no charge so that the public can learn about coming San Antonio Symphony concerts. From its beginnings, the Symphony has been recognized for its high level of musicianship.
Berg recalls an old letter written by Arturo Toscanini, a world-class conductor who was the first music director for the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937-54, in which he gave Max Reiter his highest compliments on the San Antonio Symphony. Toscanini’s letter stated that conductors and orchestras more widely known at the time rarely matched the quality of the San Antonio Symphony.
"That tradition has not changed.” says Berg.
“Having been a performing musician in orchestras for nearly 30 years, I was particularly taken with the sense of color and precision the San Antonio Symphony performs with," said Symphony President David Gross, who arrived here last year. "Maestro Lang-Lessing has created a most versatile ensemble capable of performing a vast repertoire with tremendous integrity.”
“The Symphony’s 75th Anniversary concert is not simply a concert," Gross said. "It is a celebration of one of San Antonio’s great cultural institutions and will feature one of classical music’s superstars. The concert celebrates our legacy and our community.”
*Featured/top image: The San Antonio Symphony and the San Antonio Mastersingers. Courtesy photo.