Amid Strings and Brass, Tobin Center Opens to Standing Ovation

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The moment seven years in the making has finally arrived.

Before an enthusiastic audience of more than 1,000 this morning, dignitaries from the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation joined Tobin Center CEO Michael J. Fresher and the San Antonio Symphony in a ribbon cutting ceremony for the $203 million Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Led by Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the symphony ushered in a new era for the performing arts in San Antonio with an exuberant rendering of Dukas’ Fanfare from “La Péri.”  The string musicians on stage stood at the command of Lang-Lessing’s baton and performed standing up, while members of the brass section stood facing one another in the first balcony, their sound filling the hall with a brightness and volume that was almost startling.

Fresher introduced J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., founder and chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, and the driving force behind the project once the foundation was formed. For the last seven years, Bugg has been the Tobin Center’s chief fundraiser, cheerleader, and booster. As Bugg came to the podium, the audience delivered a standing ovation, no small moment for someone whose singular fundraising efforts began in the Great Recession and continue today.

Bugg stood patiently at the podium as Lang-Lessing and the orchestra performed Charpentier’s Introduction from “Te Deum,” and then delivered an address that traced the genesis and development of the project, giving credit to the 3,350 men and women who labored on the former Municipal Auditorium and transformed it into the Tobin Center.

“This is perhaps the most successful public and private partnership ever in the history of this country,” Bugg said. 

Bugg recalled how Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger started the ball rolling in 2007 and how Wolff brought Bugg to the table as chairman of the newly-formed foundation. A 65 percent majority of Bexar County voters approved a $100 million bond initiative in May 2008 to provide the public funding and financial foundation for the project. The City then deeded over the Municipal Auditorium, the former San Antonio Fire Department headquarters and the land under the buildings, all valued at $41 million.

Bugg then launched the private fundraising campaign, kickstarted by a $5 million gift from AT&T shortly before the corporation announced its move from San Antonio to Dallas. The Tobin Endowment then contributed $15 million for the naming rights to honor arts patron and philanthropist Robert L.B. Tobin. In total, Bugg has raised more than $50 million of the $54 million goal.

The Municipal Auditorium has deep ties to the Tobin family. It was dedicated in 1926 by then-Mayor John Tobin, Robert’s great-uncle. Bugg related a story about Robert’s early love of the theater and the backstage world behind the curtain.

“In 1955, the stagehand union presented 16-year-old Robert Tobin with a gold union card making him an honorary lifetime union member,” Bugg, the chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment said. “That gesture meant so much to Tobin that it remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 2000. That card now rests on my desk.”

J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. addresses the audience at the Tobin Center opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. addresses the audience at the Tobin Center opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

Tobin and his mother, Margaret Batts Tobin, were enthusiastic patrons of the arts in the mid to late 20th century in San Antonio, Santa fe, New York and Italy. According to his New York Times obituary, “Mr. Tobin served on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Santa Fe Opera. He was also on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art and of the Spoleto Festival in Italy. He endowed libraries and museums, underwrote operas, sponsored symphony premieres and championed artists and composers in many places.”

“Today on the banks of the San Antonio River we dedicate a building for the ages,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

The building dates to the early 20th century, but 21st century mechanics and technology have brought it new life. In addition to the H-E-B Performance Hall’s superior acoustics and dramatic setting, the retractable floor allows performance seating to be transformed into a banquet or cabaret space in 23 minutes.

District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney shakes hands with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff during the Tobin Center's opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney shakes hands with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff during the Tobin Center’s opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

A $3 million catering kitchen in the basement that will easily handle banquets, receptions, corporate meetings, and concessions during performances.

“It will be a lot more than just peanuts and Cracker Jack,” Fresher said.

When the three performance spaces that comprise the center – the H-E-B Performance Hall, the Alvarez Family Studio Theater, and the River Walk Plaza – aren’t occupied with performing arts groups, they will be available for a variety of purposes, what Bugg called “productive occupancy,” thus helping the Tobin Center achieve financial self-sufficiency. The Tobin Center will not receive any continuing city or county funding.

Following his remarks, Wolff was joined at the podium for the four members of Commissioners Court to present Bugg with the county’s highest honor, the Hidalgo Award in honor of his leadership on the project.

“This is almost like a dream but even better because it will still be here tomorrow,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor. “I did not ever have the opportunity as a child to enjoy a beautiful hall such as this. I learned about the symphony and the opera as I watched Bugs Bunny cartoons. I’m sure some of you can relate. I am just happy to be able to give so much more to my child, to our children.”

There will be many free performance opportunities at the Tobin Center. The River Walk Plaza seats 600 and some performances will be simulcast on the big screen installed on the plaza, enabling every citizen of our city to enjoy the performing arts. 

Former San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger rounded out the proceedings by reminding us all of how much we have done, and how much we can do.

“This is a place that we can think and enlarge our own souls. We can do anything in San Antonio that we want to do,” he said to applause. “National championships, the longest linear park in the country, or the way we helped out the folks from New Orleans when called to do so. We can think big.”

Hardberger is a significant patron of the arts and humanities, and his stirring remarks clearly moved the audience, especially when he talked about San Antonio’s ability to achieve its highest aspirations when its citizens join together in common purpose.

Former mayor Phil Hardberger addresses the crowd at the Tobin Center opening ceremonies. Photo by Scott Ball.

Former mayor Phil Hardberger addresses the crowd at the Tobin Center opening ceremonies. Photo by Scott Ball.

“There is nothing like the arts to broaden minds and to make people think. The arts are so important to the life of the city,” he said. He also called on the audience to remember the hungry and the homeless, drumming on the theme that there is absolutely nothing that we cannot do.

Hardberger finished his words with a flourish. “We do know how to party, we don’t need any instruction there.”

Daniela Mack performs Bizet's "Carmen". Photo by Page Graham.

Daniela Mack performs Bizet’s “Carmen” during dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

Tonight’s program will be an integrated performance featuring the San Antonio Symphony led by Music Director Lang-Lessing), Ballet San Antonio, and Opera San Antonio.

Highlights will include: Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack in selections from Bizet’s “Carmen,” joined by members of Ballet San Antonio; selections from “Swan Lake” featuring Ballet San Antonio principals Sarah Pautz, Ian Morris, Sally Turkel, with Jason Cox in the role of Von Rothbart; Ballet San Antonio’s “Scheherezade” featuring the dynamic principal Jayson Pescasio; and an excellent delivery by The Symphony of George Gershwin’s “An American In Paris.”

Ballet San Antonio performs the finale of Scheherazade. Photo by Page Graham.

Ballet San Antonio performs the finale of “Scheherazade” during dress rehearsal. Photo by Page Graham.

This will be San Antonio’s first formal opportunity to experience The Tobin in action.

Sitting in on the dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening, Jim Berg, vice-chairman of the board for the San Antonio Symphony, had these words of praise in an email: “The San Antonio Symphony’s sound is around you and fabulous. The higher your seat the better … cheaper seats? You win.

“Voice, dance and music – big wow. If the Spurs won the big one in June, the San Antonio arts organizations (and its citizens who will appreciate them) won its well deserved prize in September.”

This article was originally published on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014.

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3 thoughts on “Amid Strings and Brass, Tobin Center Opens to Standing Ovation

  1. It feels good to read such a positive story about San Antonio, the Arts and the movers and shakers making things happen. I remember fondly the Municipal Auditorium from my youth, from concerts to my high school graduation. But as former Mayor Hardberger said, “We can think big.” In that vein, the Tobin was long overdue. It will help establish the City as an arts destination for residents, tourists and conventioneers.

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