San Antonio Symphony survives its latest crisis, but still grapples with long-term concerns

The irony of the moment couldn't have been clearer: receiving a career-threatening bombshell while playing a buoyant, exultant piece of music that Shostakovich

San Antonio Symphony cellists David Mollenauer (front) and Giovanni DiGiosia perform during a recent free public concert held at Trinity Baptist Church. Donations received from concert-goers benefited the struggling orchestra. Photo by Mark Greenberg
intended as a glimmer of hope amidst the psychic rubble left by World War II.

"What he wrote was a piece of optimism, and no one expected that," says Stephanie Key, first-year clarinetist with the Symphony, and a veteran of the Houston Ballet. "They all expected it to be, 'This is what war has done to us, it's ravaged us.' I thought it was so perfect that we played that, because it's made us not think of victory, or vengeful attitudes, but looking to the future and being hopeful."

Taking a cue from Shostakovich, the SA Symphony's musicians made up their minds to whistle through the budgetary boneyard, and keep playing without pay - at least temporarily. They hoped that their show of selflessness would motivate potential donors to open their checkbooks.

The strategy worked. In the week following the announcement of the budget crisis, individual donations exceeded $30,000 a day. As a result, the Symphony has been able to - belatedly - meet the entire February 28 payroll, and 30 percent of the March 14 payroll. With last week's announcement of the schedule for the 2003-2004 season - and a corresponding bump in subscriptions expected - the Symphony has dodged a funding bullet, although its long-term stability remains a big question mark.

Key - whose husband David Mollenauer is a 13-year orchestra veteran - recalls feeling stunned when the musicians learned that the Symphony had no money to pay them. "There wasn't even that much discussion when the board members left the stage," she says. "It was really a do or die, and nobody wants this to go. We love what we do, and

"We believe in this so much, we're willing to stick our own necks out to make this happen."
Stephanie Key, Symphony clarinetist
we do it with such a passion that the opportunity to have that stop is not a choice for everybody there.

"What if you told your plumber, 'Look, I can't pay you right now, but can you just come fix this, because I have water all over the place.' Would he come? Probably not, unless you had a good relationship. I think that's what we're really trying to show the community. We believe in this so much, we're willing to stick our own necks out to make this happen."

Emergencies often spur a sense of philanthropy, but the deeper issue for the Symphony remains whether it can achieve real financial viability and not merely survive from one crisis to the next. Its problems come at a time when symphonies around the country are vulnerable. The orchestra in Savannah, Georgia canceled the remainder of its season because of money shortfalls; the Colorado Springs, Colorado symphony filed for bankruptcy. In Houston, symphony musicians are on strike over staff and salary cuts.

Some ill-informed, bottom-line politicians insist that the SA Symphony must downsize if it can't meet its payroll. As Key points out, such a move would mean "You'd have a different beast. It wouldn't be a symphony orchestra."

Considering that local symphony musicians took a 20 percent pay cut last fall, and most of them are scraping by on an annual salary of slightly more than $28,000, it's hard to fault them for the budget problems. Like most orchestras, however, they need to combat the perception that they're staid, stuffy perveyors of dead European music.

"The median age of our orchestra is about 40, so it's not like we're looking at snobby people who are

San Antonio Symphony violinist Terry Stolow. Photo by Mark Greenberg

older and set in their ways at all," Key says. "They drink, fart, carry on, just like everybody does. That's the thing, the human element of who we are, and if this music turns us on, why can't it turn you on?"

Key says the effects of the Symphony folding would be much wider than most people realize. San Antonio would lose its pool of classically trained musicians. These musicians would no longer be available to teach in the schools, perform chamber-music concerts, or play at weddings or Christmas concerts.

For many of the Symphony players, the prospect of a San Antonio without a symphony orchestra was written most expressively on the face of piccolo player Julie Luker, after she completed her final solo during the February 28 Shostakovich performance.

"She finished, the conductor had her bow, and I saw her crumple in her chair and start bawling," Key says. "We all wanted to go to her. She was realizing all of our fears." •

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