The San Antonio Symphony's musicians work to revive orchestra — this time with a viable future

'That's a decision by a group of people, but they cannot wipe out history, legacy, and heritage,' the orchestra's former music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing said of the Symphony Society's move.

click to enlarge The unionized Symphony musicians called a strike last year, resisting drastic proposed cuts that they say would have destroyed the symphony anyway. - Courtesy Photo / Lee Hipp
Courtesy Photo / Lee Hipp
The unionized Symphony musicians called a strike last year, resisting drastic proposed cuts that they say would have destroyed the symphony anyway.

When the Symphony Society of San Antonio announced in mid-June that it was shuttering the city's professional orchestra after a nine-month labor dispute, it was a watershed moment. The San Antonio Symphony had entertained, educated and enlightened the community for 83 years.

But the musicians and their supporters are adamant that management's action doesn't spell the end of elite orchestral music in San Antonio. The move, they argue, frees the city to build a new, more sustainable organization.

"That's a decision by a group of people, but they cannot wipe out history, legacy, and heritage," said Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the orchestra's former music director, of the Symphony Society's decision. "They cannot. And they shouldn't. It's basically just a name game."

The unionized musicians called their strike last year, resisting drastic proposed cuts that they say would have destroyed the symphony anyway. Those included moving from 72 full-time positions to just 42, eliminating four positions and converting 26 more to part-time.

The two sides entered a federal mediation process designed to end the strike, but the musicians walked away in early May, citing management's inflexibility. A month-and-a-half later, the Symphony Society said it was dissolving the orchestra and filing for bankruptcy.

In a statement, the Symphony Society wrote the decision was based on a "unanimous vote" of the Board of Directors, though Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) chair Mary Ellen Goree said the three musicians who sat on the board had been excluded from meetings for months and weren't consulted on the matter.

Goree called the dissolution a "a very sad end to a very proud organization," adding that her preference — which she stated in a communication to the Symphony Society — was that the Board of Directors be dissolved but the symphony itself left intact.

That didn't happen. However, the upside, as far as the musicians and their allies are concerned, is that their nearly year-long standstill with the Symphony Society is now over.

"It was clear from the beginning that there was no way we could reach an agreement that they would accept that would allow for a fully professional orchestra in San Antonio," Goree said. "We could not agree to anything that would ensure our own destruction, so now there's an opportunity to build an organization with a vision."

'It will be done'

While there's some excitement about the possibilities now on the table, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said that the Symphony Society's dissolution will likely have to be finalized in the courts before the city or county can take steps to help get the orchestra back on track.

"I feel confident that some people will come together to revive the symphony," Wolff said. "I just can't tell you what form it will be in or how it will be done."

Even so, there's broad agreement that the next iteration of the orchestra needs to be more steadily and robustly funded. Lang-Lessing said the yearly budget for the symphony should be closer to $15 million than the $5 million proposed by the Symphony Society, and he said the musicians' pay should be nearly doubled from its last rate of around $30,000 per year.

Given the difficulties San Antonio's had funding a full-time orchestra through private philanthropy, that will almost certainly take significant public funding.

"There's no other way," Lang-Lessing said.

Funneling more public money into the symphony may mean reframing it primarily as a public good. Lang-Lessing noted that roughly half of the orchestra's programming was educational — and that's not including the teaching and tutoring many musicians do in addition to their symphony work. Keeping an orchestra playing, he said, is a civic obligation.

"We built the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with taxpayer money as a resident home for the symphony," Lang-Lessing said. "Opera and ballet as well, but in terms of impact, number of performances — that was always the symphony."

Still playing

The good news for musicians and their allies is that elected leaders seem open to the possibility of intervening to help keep an elite orchestra playing. Lang-Lessing has met with multiple city and county leaders, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, while Wolff said he's been tracking the situation closely and plans to have his own meeting with Nirenberg to review potential models for reviving the symphony.

"There are different groups talking about the possibility of standing up, but it won't be an easy process," Wolff said. "I think we have a chance for a new beginning, but we're going to have to sort it out and figure out what that new beginning looks like."

For the time being, the musicians are operating a nonprofit organization led by orchestra player Brian Petkovich and a board composed of both musicians and community members to support ongoing events and programming.

Petkovich said that the group wants to launch a series of concerts as well as programming in schools after Labor Day. 

How much they're able to do, Petkovich said, depends on fundraising. In the spring, for instance, the musicians received a $100,000 grant from the San Antonio Symphony League in part to fund concerts that took place at First Baptist Church in April, May, and June.

Lang-Lessing, who was removed from his role as the symphony's music director emeritus after it was announced that he would conduct two of those performances in May, said that he's continuing his work on behalf of the musicians without any official title. He said his work in the city isn't finished.

"I still feel responsible for helping to fix this constant struggle and help developing a model that will save us from failing approaches," he said.

Goree, who came to San Antonio in 1988, said she and many musicians — including a share who played with other cities' orchestras during the strike — feel similarly committed. Even with the Symphony Society dissolved, the "overwhelming majority" remain rooted in the city and are waiting to see what will happen in the coming weeks and months.

"​​San Antonio is a major city," she said. "It deserves a major orchestra."

For Goree, the long-term vision remains much the same: an endowed, full-time orchestra with 72 or more musicians, playing 30 to 40 weeks of concerts annually. Whether she and her fellow musicians can make it happen is an open question.

But in the end, it was clear that the Symphony Society couldn't.

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