A New Era for ‘The People’s Symphony,’ Debt-Free and Focused on Audience Development

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A large crowd enters the Tobin Center of the Performing Arts for the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Concertgoers enter the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts ahead of the first of two Tricentennial performances.

After ratifying a new contract with the players of the San Antonio Symphony Friday, the orchestra’s governing board pledged through its new chairwoman to develop a plan for long-term financial viability and to better serve the broader community.

Kathleen Weir Vale, new chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, speaks to City Council.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Kathleen Weir Vale, new chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, speaks to City Council.

“We are going to do our level best to preserve and promote this treasure that we have,” said Kathleen Weir Vale, recently appointed chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio. “It belongs to the whole city, and the whole county, and the whole community. It belongs to the people.”

Nobody can stand back and be a spectator, Vale said. “Everybody has to be a participant. People have to buy tickets, go to concerts, and donate. That’s what the public must do.”

The Symphony Society has released a new season schedule, which preserves most of the original 2017-2018 season. Click here to download a list of remaining performances.

Vale said she also recognizes the board’s responsibility to create a sustainable organization while serving its community, she said.

The first step is a big one: “I can tell you that we are now debt-free,” she said.

Vale said achieving debt-free status is due in part to support from major donors H-E-B, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and the Tobin Endowment, who comprise Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), a nonprofit organization once positioned to take over Symphony operations.

With the Symphony Society restored to leadership of the orchestra, Vale said the board  “must take that responsibility of governance very seriously, and be sure that all the people have access” to the Symphony’s programs.

Along with a guarantee that the Symphony’s 2017-2018 season will go through early June as originally scheduled, and that neither the orchestra’s size nor players’ weekly salaries will be reduced during that time, the new contract includes an “electronic media guarantee” that allows for recording, live-streaming and other possibilities to reach potential audiences in innovative ways.

Of the guarantee, “This is the thing I’m the happiest about,” said Conductor and Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing in an interview with The Rivard Report Friday afternoon.

“There’s a lot we could do,” Lang-Lessing said, including live-streaming of concerts on the Tobin Center’s River Walk Plaza screen, outdoor Symphony concerts, and recordings of the hometown orchestra.

Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts his orchestra during the groundbreaking of the San Pedro Creek improvements project.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, music director of the San Antonio Symphony, conducts his orchestra during the groundbreaking of the San Pedro Creek Improvements project.

Recordings could benefit the Tobin Center, Lang-Lessing said, with sessions scheduled when the building is not otherwise being used. “The San Antonio Symphony has a great recording venue,” he said of the performing arts facility specially designed to house the Symphony.

“There’s a big need” for recording, he said, which “quite frankly makes us commercially viable.”

Viability is a major issue for the Symphony, which has struggled to recruit and maintain large corporate and individual donors in its recent past, as well as develop audiences among key demographics, including patrons between 30 and 40 years old, Lang-Lessing said.

“Sometimes you reach the kids, but you don’t reach the parents,” he said. This morning, for example, the conductor set aside time for 600 students and their teachers after rehearsal to answer questions. One teacher asked how they might support the Symphony.

“You come to the concerts, and you schlep your parents with you,” Lang-Lessing instructed the students.

“Going to a concert is a reflective moment in a busy day,” he said later, “and to share that with the family is fantastic.”

The Symphony has incentivized that proposition, lowering its normal student ticket price from $12 to $5, and offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal on regular tickets for this weekend’s concerts. The reduced pricing also applies to members of the military, said Christopher Novosad, Tobin Center director of Marketing.

“We need each and every citizen of our community to take an interest in our Symphony,” Vale said, and several are responding, with strong ticket sales for rescheduled performances, and large donations from anonymous givers. “A few very courageous people step up to give, and others follow,” Vale said.

Students of Trinity University plan a show of support this weekend, buying tickets en masse for Friday night’s performance. A group of 85 music students (and counting, according to a news release) were expected to gather outside the Tobin Center prior to the concert, wearing the signature turquoise color of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.

Beyond the excitement of the moment, Lang-Lessing said, “we need to find a sustainable plan, also resources. Donations that we haven’t tapped into before.”

Lang-Lessing also suggested that a major endowment is necessary, similar to the combined City-County San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, which tallies at $175 million. “If San Antonio had an arts trust fund, let’s say the same size of San Pedro Creek project, none of our arts organizations would be in any financial struggle.”

The funding for such an endowment would be a mix of donations from corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals, Lang-Lessing said, “but I would include also the City and County pitching in as well, if that’s possible.”

The Tobin Center, he said, “is a great example of this joint public-private investment.” City and County leaders, he said,  are “visionary, open and creative,” and mirror his own “strong belief that the infrastructure doesn’t stop with streets and buildings, it needs the people.”

For the moment, one of those leaders will actually be joining the Symphony on stage. For the Saturday night concert, County Commissioner Tommy Calvert will read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set to music by American composer Joseph Schwantner.

Precinct 4 Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert gives entrepreneurs a pep-talk during the activation event. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert

“I’m a classically trained piano player and singer,” Calvert said via text message. San Antonio mezzo soprano Veronica Williams will read the text for the Friday and Sunday concerts, while Calvert reads for the Saturday show.

Calvert credits his musical training for making him a more creative person. Asked if he had been worried he might not get to perform, given the Symphony’s recent troubles, Calvert said, “It would have been depressing not to have our Symphony. I hope the public comes out in a big way to financially support them.”

Former Symphony Society of San Antonio board member Taddy McAllister has rejoined the current board as development chair. In a text message comment, she said, “It is our plan to bring the entire city into the fold,” and that “We have an extraordinary opportunity to … create a true people’s orchestra.” Major donors will help, too, she said, and that she is “very optimistic about the future of the Symphony.”

(From left) Bruce Davidson, Taddy McAllister, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg enter the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts before the second of two Tricentennial concerts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Bruce Davidson, Taddy McAllister, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg enter the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts before the second of two Tricentennial concerts.


8 thoughts on “A New Era for ‘The People’s Symphony,’ Debt-Free and Focused on Audience Development

  1. Isn’t it amazing what a difference having the right people and the Symphony Society running the show makes? Well done, and let’s keep the momentum going.

  2. The symphony schedule link in the article is MOST USEFUL! Outreach to those who are unfamiliar with the composers/compositions would engage many potential music lovers.

  3. You know what might help the Symphony? Working links on its web page that help people actually get there.


    Directions (link to map): dead link. I hate navigating downtown. I hate the unmapped lane closures and one-way streets and confusing signs. Fix your navigation links.

    Tobincenter.org: dead link, 404 error.

    Parking map: dead link.

    But that’s okay, because surely the Tobin Map will help, right? No! How about marking which streets are one way, or even putting names on the map! Martin, unnamed, one way. Third, unnamed, one way. Pecan, unnamed, one way. Navarro, one way. https://www.tobincenter.org/sites/default/files/parking_garage_1600_900.jpg

    Which of the annotated parking garages are City-owned? Which ones provide free parking for Disabled Veterans, or for people who have certain military-medal license plates? (yes, it’s true, that’s why people get them)

    Finally – what streets are closed? How about a map? I made the unfortunate choice to try to support a business on N. Alamo last week. The overturned truck on the ramp to 281N, Broadway didn’t help. So I went south and tried to turn around. Apparently SAWS has N. Alamo closed for an extensive length. But that info isn’t readily available in any graphic format anywhere.

    The City’s web site is about useless, too. How about a current list and a good map?


    So, if the City, and the Tobin, and the Symphony are serious about getting people there, they can fix the links and provide info that makes planning a trip downtown easy.

    Get to work!

    (Me, personally, as a long-time resident of San Antonio I hate driving there. Click on the above links and you’ll see why).

    • I hear you, Joe. A little while back, I tried the “Donate Today” button at http://sasymphony.org/support/
      to send an “Other” amount of $ through PayPal. Scared the bejeezus outta me when it came up as a reported malicious website…
      But that was then, because a very cordial, professional, and friendly Annette Paulin (email: paulina@sasymphony.org) responded to my concern in a timely manner. She even responded enthusiastically, showing she listened to me blather on how I first experienced our Symphony at NISD Paul Taylor Field House for free (The Firebird Suite!), and then another performance in a then-Kelly AFB hangar! Let her know these above problems you’ve got at:

      • Not to pile on, but of course I tried the direct route first. I eventually went via Facebook (whose links are also dead on their webpage) and the Tobin Center communication link – which did appear to go through.

        If they want to present as a professional organization, they need to step up their game.
        Delivery to the following recipients failed permanently:

        * info@sasymphony.org

        Reason: There was an error delivering your message to info@sasymphony.org.
        The server responded with “550” – “550 5.1.1 : Recipient address rejected: User unknown in relay recipient table\r\n”

  4. I like the live stream idea; bit take it a step farther. Find a way to offer the streams to local and surrounding school districts. So many band, orchestra and choir kids simply never are exposed to this type of programming. Allowing the districts to live stream select performances in their auditoriums for their students would be a great way to expose students to this material. I am sure district fine arts officials could find some $$ laying around to do this.

    • Yes, good idea Eric!
      And I’ve been to Bandcamp.com to purchase a few of our local artists’ offerings. I’d be happy and willing to part with some scratch for a couple of SAS digital downloads (say, around $7-$8 per albums-worth. I’ve only got so many shillings, y’know!)

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