A Symphony that Needs San Antonio, and a San Antonio that Needs its Symphony

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(From right) Arianna Huckaby, 3, San Antonio Symphony Principal Bassist Tom Huckaby, Alexandria Buckner, and David Huckaby, 6, walk down Jefferson Street on their way to the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From right) Arianna Huckaby, 3, San Antonio Symphony Principal Bassist Tom Huckaby, Alexandria Buckner, and David Huckaby, 6, walk down Jefferson Street on their way to the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

I can't imagine the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts without the San Antonio Symphony and a vibrant season of orchestral programs.

The $203 million transformation of the historic Municipal Auditorium that reopened as the Tobin in 2014 was conceived and designed to be the home of this city's performing arts organizations – the opera, ballet, the youth orchestra, and others – but the symphony is the bedrock foundation of them all.

The visiting road shows that regularly come to the Tobin offer the public the kind of wide range of entertainment choices available in any major metropolitan city with a lively arts and entertainment scene. Where else can you see the seemingly ageless Engelbert Humperdinck sing his 1960s hits, be captivated by astrophysicist and science genius Neil deGrasse Tyson, and experience the music of violin maestro Itzhak Perlman all in the space of a few weeks?

Those bookings are essential to Tobin's operating budget, but the heart and soul of the performance hall is the symphony orchestra and its talented musicians under Music Director and Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing. It's a symphony characterized by two conflicting narratives: outstanding musical and artistic consistency, and episodic fiscal emergencies that border on the dysfunctional.

San Antonio and its symphony are not at a crossroads. This is not business as usual. The latest crisis has the feeling of an ultimatum: fix the symphony, San Antonio, or lose it, an unacceptable outcome, especially at the start of the Tricentennial year celebrations.

San Antonio Symphony Assistant Principal Cello David Mollenauer hands out flyers encouraging concert attendees to take action and call Mayor Nirenberg in support of the symphony.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

San Antonio Symphony Assistant Principal Cellist David Mollenauer hands out flyers encouraging concert attendees to take action and call Mayor Ron Nirenberg in support of the symphony before the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

Crisis creates opportunity for change, and this newest funding emergency for the symphony should create the opportunity to establish a new fiscal oversight mechanism to support its annual budget and avoid overspending.

Wednesday's announcement that recurring financial woes meant the symphony's Tricentennial Celebration program Friday and Saturday evenings would be its last public performance until further notice quickly became national news – not the kind of coverage San Antonio wants now, or ever.

This was not the first time red ink had silenced the storied Symphony Society of San Antonio, founded in 1939 (with the orchestra's roots traced back to the late 19th century), but many feared it might be the last.

Happily, at least for the moment, Lang-Lessing announced from the stage during Friday evening's intermission that funds had somehow been secured to revive the season. There were no details amid swirling rumors of the source of what is said to be an infusion of $600,000 in donations, but Mayor Ron Nirenberg told me Saturday that rumors the City had provided that money are not true.

"It would be unreasonable and irresponsible to release the other half of the City's annual allocation of funds at a time when people are saying the season might not continue," Nirenberg said Saturday. "Providing the Council will give its support, the City will continue to keep its funding commitment for 2018, in stages, if the symphony is able to match the funding and keep the season going. I've talked to [Bexar County] Judge [Nelson] Wolff about it, and he feels the same way."

The City has allocated $600,000 for the symphony in its fiscal 2018 budget, Nirenberg said, and a little more than half that sum remains to be paid. The mayor said he expected to attend the Saturday evening performance and might address the audience before the performance to underscore the importance of the symphony to all of San Antonio while emphasizing the need for all parties to agree to confidence-building measures and organizational changes that will avert the need for future financial bailouts.

The Friday evening concert of Spanish compositions, that included the solo performance of Ana María Martínez, an amazingly expressive and internationally renowned soprano, proved to be one of the most emotional programs in memory. The accessible music selections drew a connection to San Antonio's earliest European roots and, and the audience gave the orchestra, Lang-Lessing, and Martínez so many standing ovations I lost count.

Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

Season ticket holder Margaret Joseph raises a fist in support of San Antonio Symphony musicians during a standing ovation spurred by conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing's introductory speech during the first of two Tricentennial concerts.

A night that began in sadness ended in joy. Readers feeling the effects of whiplash will take comfort in the fact that the orchestra musicians, patrons, donors, and journalists are feeling the same thing.

So, is the San Antonio Symphony in the city's Tricentennial year in business or teetering on the precipice of financial failure? The answer: it depends on who you ask.

There are no guarantees the entire season is back on, but Lang-Lessing told me Friday night that the scheduled performance of Beethoven's Eroica Jan. 12-14 are "definitely on," including a Sunday afternoon matinée. It's the great composer's homage to Napoleon, one he later withdrew in a rage when the onetime French revolutionary declared himself emperor. For more information and tickets, click here.

After that performance, Lang-Lessing said, announcements about the rest of the season will be forthcoming.

"We need people to come to the Tobin and hear their city's symphony," he said. "Everyone who attends a performance walks away amazed by the orchestra, amazed by our guest artists, and amazed by the performance hall. And that doesn't even begin to describe what these musicians do for our city and for our culture."

Those musicians are feeling the pain of the current moment, and for the orchestra veterans, it is not a new experience. It's happened before, and one way the symphony has survived is by paying the musicians about what they earned 40 years ago, actually far less controlling for inflation.

Many people in this state are strongly anti-union, but make no mistake: the current problems cannot be laid at the feet of the union. The musicians need and deserve a collective bargaining agreement. They have been working for a pittance for decades and the last thing they need now is to lose their representation.

There has been a fair amount of finger-pointing and flaring tempers in recent days, which is predictable, but also impractical.

"You know those movies where everyone has a gun pointed at each other?" asked one of the principals involved in trying to preserve the symphony's long-term viability who did not want to be named. "That's how it feels right now."

Strong leadership can overcome animosity, and that's probably where Nirenberg has to play the leading role. Good people on all sides want to find a way to move forward. That means the musicians' union, the Symphony Society of San Antonio, and the recently formed nonprofit Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), the latter representing major donors, will have to find ways to come back to the bargaining table. Everyone will have to give ground.

14 thoughts on “A Symphony that Needs San Antonio, and a San Antonio that Needs its Symphony

  1. From looking at the board list of the Tobin Center, two thoughts come up. Why is Tom Stephenson on the board of the Tobin, especially in the role of the Board Nomination Chair?
    Also, are there crossovers of others on other arts boards?

    And, it seems that the Tobin has fallen into the “leadershup class” with board members who serve on boards and move on to other boards. The Rivard Report should do some investigation into seeing how much money the board members donate (not just memberships) on this board and the other boards they serve or served on in the past.

  2. As a whole, our city is more concerned with beer fests (Fiesta) and sportsball (Spurs) than the arts. In addition, the majority of people who attend the symphony for the classical programs are predominantly people involved with music (musicians, teachers, academics, etc). I think this is a multigenerational issue: the boomers don’t support the arts like their parents did, and our schools are cutting art and music programs, or at least making them non-requirements, which makes a somewhat world class arts community struggle to stay afloat for decades, becoming more unstable as time unravels. There shouldn’t be a cloud of uncertainty in which the only way to clear it is last minute anonymous donations. A major city without its art communities is a third world city.

  3. With the City’s outstanding experience in detailed negotiations and unraveling complex employment contracts, maybe having the Mayors’ (former and current) “help” isn’t such a good thing.

    Managing non-profits via City Hall insiders also doesn’t seem to have a really strong track record lately.

    Where do the police and fire fighters stand in this situation? Do union musicians also deserve a living wage, health benefits, a secure retirement? Or is that only something that police, firefighters, City employees and SAWS staff are entitled to?

    If only the musicians had an evergreen clause…

  4. My request to the people of San Antonio: Next time you want to honor a friend’s birthday or want to get together with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, instead of splurging on a restaurant meal, buy tickets to a SA Symphony concert and go out for nachos & beer or some equally modest chow afterwards. Talk about the concert experience you had with your friends. You might learn something new and good about yourself and your friends. And you will have increased the Symphony’s audience by a few and maybe inspired yourself and your friends to buy more SA Symphony tickets in the future. Every little bit helps?

  5. As to where the firefighters stand, the answer is clear. At a series of meetings with each City Council member, held over the past several months, representatives from the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, including delegates from the Firefighters Association, have been unequivocal in their support not only for AFM Local 23, but most pointedly for strong continuing municipal funding of the San Antonio Symphony.

    As to lumping SMSA in with the Symphony Society, MOSAS, and Local 23 in the author’s list of entities which need to “find ways to come back to the bargaining table and…to give ground,” NONSENSE. SMSA has made their real agenda abundantly evident: the rescinding of City support for the Symphony Society, dismantling of the San Antonio Symphony, the establishment of a “pick-up house band” willing to take low-rent gigs at the Tobin without the protection of a collective bargaining agreement, free reign to the Tobin junta to re-allocate dates previously earmarked for the Symphony to more lucrative national touring acts, and the demise of yet one more Union on their TSL (“To Strangle List”).

  6. Thank you for your informative reports on this situation. If it becomes clear in the future what we all can do to insure a stable, sustainable living wage orchestra please share with all of us. This orchestra is far to valuable to be taken for granted.

  7. One more thing. We’re always hearing about the need to have some Captain of Industry stride into the fray, wrest control of [INSERT ANY OF THE FOLLOWING: government, not-for-profit institutions, the VA, cultural organizations], and “run it like a business.” What ever happened to the corporate axiom “You’ve got to spend money in order to make money,” people? The problems experienced by the Symphony Society may more properly be ascribed to chronic underspending, not overspending. If SMSA and their coterie are allergic to mozzarella then they need to stay the hell out of the pizza business.

  8. Bob, thank you for such a thoughtful editorial. Voices of reason are badly needed, and I say that as a rabble-rouser of the first order. I meant every word I said over the past few days but I now accept the necessity of being more politic instead of bad-mouthing the power structure because now I “R” one! I went back on the board of the Symphony Friday and while I shall defend to the death the worth of the musicians and their need for a living wage, I shall move toward — note “toward” not to — the middle and try to work with all sides. Thank EVERYONE for caring about our Symphony. It is a treasure, a jewel in the crown of our City.

  9. Perhap some of the money corporations won’t be paying in taxes will go toward funding the Symphony, the arts and basic human needs in San Antonio.
    Ok everybody stop laughing. I can dream can’t I?

  10. I was shocked to see the wonderful
    Musicians carrying their instruments across the street 15 minutes before last Friday’s perf because the “new” Tobin center failed to give them room to warm up before a program! What?? They warm up across the street?? Tell me it ain’t true!
    Our beautiful symphony orchestra needs to be treated MUCH better!

  11. I am a supporter of the arts but have long felt there is tremendous overlap in our various arts organizations — specifically in the infrastructure (development staff, executives, etc). I am also a believer that significant endowments are needed. And, as has been mentioned by others, there is tremendous pressure on big corporations and local philanthropists to step up. They may start to feel overwhelmed before long (Symphony this week, will it be SAMA next month?). Has anyone considered consolidating some of the fundraising by creating a “San Antonio Art Foundation?” This organization would build an endowment(s) and dole out funds. Instead of me writing 6 $100 checks to various arts organizations, maybe I would write one check for a similar amount and have a membership in the combined entities. My guess is that the biggest resistance to this kind of a proposal would come from the staff currently performing these roles. But, I am more concerned about having competitively paid symphony players than development executives. The big donors would not have to be hit up by multiple organizations … but make the one big annual gift to the umbrella group. Could we at least consider other options instead of doubling down on what has not been working?

  12. Creatives have always been seen as dispensable and the first to go when money is tight. Police, firefighters, city staff, even trash collectors, even local school sports teams will always have precedence over musicians. That’s sadly the way it is. Our values show indelibly where we spend our money and always will. Is it any wonder even talented musicians are told to ‘always have a backup plan’? So where is our money being spend and what backroom deals are trying to be hidden at the moment?

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