Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
On Wednesday night, news broke that the last two-thirds of the San Antonio Symphony's 2017-2018 season had been canceled. Coming on the eve of two major Tricentennial-themed concerts, the abrupt decision stunned Symphony musicians and supporters.
But the unraveling had begun months earlier, at a May 4 meeting last year. In retrospect, that meeting would prove to be a major turning point in the Symphony's struggle for survival.
What follows is a timeline of developments since that pivotal gathering eight months ago.
Leaders of the Symphony Society of San Antonio were called to the May 4 meeting at H-E-B headquarters by three major donors who in July would go on to form a new leadership entity, Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), to take over Symphony operations after a transition process.
A then-Symphony Society board member who was at the meeting had prepared a detailed “survival plan” for trimming costs, pulling the organization out of debt, and restructuring towards a sustainable model for the future. (The board member spoke on the condition of not being named.)
The turnaround plan was simple, the board member said – “get out of debt, stay out of debt.” If the "survival plan" steps were followed, the board member said, the plan would have required the Symphony to be out of debt midway through the current season.
One part of the plan asked Sebastian Lang-Lessing, musical director and conductor of the orchestra, to cut costs for the programs he presented, which Lang-Lessing indicated he was willing to do. The plan was a participatory effort among the Symphony Society's leadership finance committee, its board, and the union representatives, the former Symphony Society board member said.
The three major donors who had called the meeting instead issued what the former board member described as an “ultimatum” for management to step down and to initiate a transition process to new management.
But there was a twist. There, seated with the three donors who had issued the so-called ultimatum, sat Alice Viroslav, who was a member of the Symphony Society board and former development chair.
The "ultimatum" also included a statement that the major donors would withhold their contributions, essential to the Symphony’s continuing operations, unless three key changes were made: 1) to agree to the management change; 2) to consolidate Symphony staff with staff at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, which houses the Symphony; and 3) to “change the orchestra in a way that would significantly reduce the orchestra’s compensation,” according to the former Symphony Society board member.
That board member and Symphony Society Development Chair Taddy McAllister resigned immediately, walking out of the meeting. McAllister later said that one of the major donors followed her out of the room and told her that they “hate to see her go.”
The departures of McAllister and the other board member had immediate consequences. McAllister has alleged that marketing for the Symphony effectively stopped, resulting in poor ticket sales and what she called “half-empty houses.”
“The business changes [the SMSA] put into effect immediately have wrecked the Symphony,” the former Symphony Society board member said.
Not everyone agrees. “You can’t build your budget on what the Symphony deserves. You have to build your budget on what the community can reliably provide,” said one local source familiar with labor law and pensions. The source spoke only on the condition of not being identified.
Throughout the summer, meanwhile, representatives of the musicians' union were continuing their contract negotiations with Viroslav, now board chair of the Symphony Society.
Then in August, SMSA announced the hiring of Thomas A. Stephenson as president and CEO of the board effective on Sept. 1. As part of the leadership transition process, Stephenson joined the labor negotiations.
Craig Sorgi, Symphony violinist and negotiating chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony union, said during the talks, an offer had been made to introduce a two-tier wage scale, in which newly added musicians would be paid less than current musicians.
The union rejected the proposal because of concerns over maintaining quality in the orchestra. The musicians weren't the only ones worried about that: Lang-Lessing, conductor and musical director since 2010, and several former board members concurred.
The new board’s solution was to reduce costs “in a way that in the opinion of the [Symphony Society] board members who resigned, would make the Symphony – as a business – unmanageable, and as an artistic entity, of unacceptably low quality,” the former board member said.
By Nov. 21, the planned leadership transition had hit an "iceberg," said J. Bruce Bugg Jr., SMSA board chair.
SMSA had asked the Symphony Society to provide details of its assets and liabilities. A letter dated Nov. 21 from the musicians’ pension fund enumerated a potential withdrawal liability penalty, should management no longer contribute to the pension fund.
“Our aim was to promote symphonic music in San Antonio, not be funding unfunded pension liabilities of an incumbent company,” Bugg said.
SMSA members had already given more than $2 million in support of Symphony operations in the current fiscal year, a former board member familiar with organizational finances said.
The leadership transition then fizzled altogether when SMSA formally pulled out of the agreement Dec. 27, citing the potential $8.9 million pension withdrawal liability as its chief cause for abandoning negotiations.
The liability itself became a point of contention. SMSA cited a purported $4 million underfunding of the pension fund, but that number proved erroneous and was later retracted. The reference was to a $4 billion underfunding of the national pension fund, which includes more than 50,000 members. The Symphony Society itself had no part in the national fund’s underfunding, and had kept current on its pension contributions, according to Viroslav.
Whether the $8.9 million liability, or a prorated portion thereof, would have been triggered is arguable. Only certain instances would prompt the penalty: if the musicians' employer (either the Symphony Society or SMSA) no longer contributes to the fund, which would mean they have either renegotiated a contract with no pension contributions, or have reduced pension contributions below a 70 percent threshold stipulated in the Nov. 21 letter.
What could trigger the penalty? A reduction in the number of orchestra musicians, or a two-tier wage system in which pension contributions were no longer made to a portion of the musician employees.
Abruptly, the SMSA board, once hailed as the Symphony's saviors, walked away. The departure forced Viroslav to take action. She called a negotiation session with the union on Tuesday, at which Symphony management floated the idea of a shortened season. The union tentatively accepted the proposal, which did not yet specify details.
Viroslav then called a meeting of current Symphony Society board members on Wednesday evening. After the four-hour meeting came this decision: the Symphony’s current season would end after this weekend’s Tricentennial Celebration concerts, with operations suspended indefinitely.
On Thursday, Viroslav announced her resignation from the board, and turned over chairmanship to current board Vice Chair Kathleen Weir Vale. Weir Vale will attempt to resuscitate the Symphony, McAllister said, including reviving scheduled season performances.
To that end, McAllister was busy Thursday imploring season ticket holders to hold off on asking for refunds, in case the turnaround took hold. A board meeting, to which former Symphony Society board members would be invited, was being scheduled for Friday. However, the Tobin Center has already begun refunding tickets, a move the former Symphony Society board member said could deprive the Symphony of crucial funds for continuing operations.
While what Lang-Lessing calls “the sheer existence of the Symphony” hangs in the balance, not all is lost. Substantial funding might become available from the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, but any new management structure for the Symphony would need to reapply for funding, pending a proposal for finishing the full performance season.
The funding is contingent on restoring the full performance season that the Symphony management promised in its initial application for funding last year, Assistant City Manager Lori Houston said. The Symphony was awarded $614,000 after completing a competitive funding process, she added.
Only 40 percent of the funds, or $245,000, have been disbursed so far, used by SMSA for Symphony operations during the first part of the season, Houston said.
With SMSA now out of the picture, a restructured Symphony Society could still apply for 60 percent of the remaining funds, Houston explained. But any changes or reapplication by the Symphony Society would require a vote by City Council, she added, and "any future funding request will only be considered if it is part of a sustainable funding strategy for the Symphony."
Meanwhile, City officials have made general statements in support of the Symphony, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Councilman John Courage (D9). The musicians' union representatives are working to schedule meetings with more government officials.
“Leaders from across the city are working to ensure that our symphony not only survives, but thrives with a solid and sustainable financial footing,” the mayor said in a Thursday statement to the Rivard Report.
Even before the season was canceled, Lang-Lessing offered a canny perspective on the months-long saga.
"Musicians are very professional. They separate all this from playing and performing," he said in an email to the Rivard Report on Tuesday. "Don't forget the orchestra on the Titanic was still playing, while the ship was sinking, and kept playing. While we definitely hit an iceberg, I still see hope to keep it over water. We might have rethink how to rebuild the ship."