A Timeline of Symphony Struggle: Springtime Hope, ‘Iceberg’ in Winter

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Symphony Clarinet Player Stephanie Key walks across Auditorium Circle to get to her car after symphony practice at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Symphony clarinet player Stephanie Key walks across Auditorium Circle to get to her car after a rehearsal at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

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.

May 2017

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.

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, the San Antonio Symphony’s music director, conducts the orchestra during the groundbreaking of the San Pedro Creek improvements project.

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.

August 2017

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.

The San Antonio Symphony rehearses for an upcoming concert at the Tobin Center.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio Symphony rehearses for an upcoming concert at the Tobin Center.

November 2017

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.

December 2017

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.

Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony hold signs at a Dec. 21 news conference after negotiations between the musician’s union and management stalled.

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.

January 2018

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.

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Tobin Center for the Performing Arts

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.”


21 thoughts on “A Timeline of Symphony Struggle: Springtime Hope, ‘Iceberg’ in Winter

  1. Now its making more sense… Hopefully the new board can turn this mess around… Speaking of messes, i encourage everyone to read the posted comment from the other article. Mr Bugg seems to be the catalyst for planned failure. An arts blogger from the Midwest has reviewed Mr Buggs payments and questionable fees. Symphony goers and musicians shouldn’t have to suffer due to people making almost half a million dollars a year in management fees. This guy seems toxic. Read the Boston Globe expose on him.

  2. The symphony should be allowed to work through its own issues and without government intervention. Another round of government bailouts or infusions from wealthy donors rewarding symphony management’s bad behavior will not stimulate sufficient demand to make the symphony viable in its current format.

    The symphony cannot justify its bloated supply of dates when there is not sufficient ticket revenue, due to the low level of demand for the symphony in this city. That’s a hard reality to accept, despite whatever cultural implications this may mean for the symphony as an institution in San Antonio. This is particularly relevant, as the symphony’s core audience is only getting older and smaller, while younger generations simply do not care en masse. Again, there simply does not exist the demand to support the number of dates in which the symphony performs, nor is there sufficient revenue to fulfill the negotiated compensation commanded by the union that represents the musicians themselves.

    In other words, there are not enough attendees paying to watch the symphony to justify the expense of even having the symphony in its current format. Any individual or entity seeking to bail out the symphony in its current state is merely delaying the inevitable, as a point of personal, nostalgic pride, and any governmental entity contributing to same bailout ought not to involve itself in market forces of which it ultimately has no control.

    In the remainder of the music business, when demand for artists goes down, then the price of the artists and the supply of dates go down too. In this case, boosting or subsidizing either of the above gives a temporary reprieve to an entity who continuously fails to observe even the most basic business responsibility, regardless of its often touted status as a non-profit. Moreover, bailouts and donations will not create, conjure, manufacture or otherwise stimulate demand.

    Even though donors may choose to do whatever they wish to do with their own money, and whether or not the symphony is an indispensable cultural institution, public officials ought to be held accountable for the frivolous expenditure of taxpayer dollars for a symphony that has failed to demonstrate even the slightest understanding of fiscal responsibility.

    • Blayne, an uninformed statement. The young people of San Antonio crave art, culture, thought provoking music. Just look around, and ask around. The Tobin Center did a miserable job advertising for the symphony; Bruce Bugg, Dia Campos, Tullos Wells, Tom Stephenson, (whom none of which should EVER be tasked with running a professional symphony orchestra) effectively stepped in under the guise of saviors, orchestrated a premeditated murder of the entire organization while subtly attempting to break up the local musicians union. It is criminal, no wonder ticket sales are down. As a young adult in San Antonio I see first hand how many people are so enthused by the symphony and a growing arts scene in general. I also see lawyers and power brokers playing strings with this same arts scene to either alleviate some boredom they have or to further a personal agenda. Let’s not short change the great people of San Antonio, we all deserve a Symphony.

      • Just to clarify, I love having the symphony in town and personally think it is culturally important. But neither one of us speaks for an entire generation. However, the age demographic data that other commenters have provided below justifies my position.

        Nevertheless, the organization needs to be able to prove it can sell tickets to fewer dates, before occupying so many dates on a calendar and leaving seats unfilled. Moreover, the pipeline between donor contributions and the salaries of the artists themselves should be expedited, without internal operational meddling, and irrespective of the number of dates on a calendar. That is, if we choose as a community to retain the best symphony talent available..

    • This is interesting.. I like hearing all sides of the issue and ways forward.. Fyi, im the other Daniel who posted first at midnight.. Lots of Daniel’s here on the comments!

      I have also thought they offered too many events when they are so poorly attended…. Fewer but higher caliber works could be a way out.. And i feel the city and county should increase funding.. In most arts centered nations ie Canada, China, Europe, Japan, the government provides the vast majority of support. Arts line items in a budget should be normal expense like roads, parks, police, fire, etc.

      • I completely agree, your examples of funding for the arts in other countries is critical in our community as well.

        However, arts funding should never be used as a crutch or attempt to resuscitate organizations that have failed to demonstrate any independent responsibility.

        There’s a fine line between supporting the arts and enabling organizations that do not even have a firm grasp on their own audience.

      • You are, of course, correct about funding the arts. Understand that arts funding will get worse under the current administration. The NEA has been under fire by the far right for decades and may indeed succumb in a Trump administration unless Democrats take back a significant majority in the mid-terms. The new tax bill doubling the basic personal deduction is also a disaster for nonprofit fundraising. Now more than ever, we must support the arts in every way we can.
        A smart guy I know has made the point that rather than excoriating the one percent, we must encourage them to step up and do more with their vast bank accounts. We must recognize that this has always been their role to support and elevate the cultural life of our communities, and that must continue. With the middle class withering on the vine, we do our best, but it’s tough to do more than make small donations or buy the occasional ticket. Thank goodness for school performances, so at least our children are being exposed to the arts even if the family cannot quite swing tickets to The Tobin.
        It isn’t only the San Antonio Symphony at stake here. Most of our cultural institutions in the city are struggling to one extent or the other.

  3. In the history of classical music, literally thousands of years, symphony orchestras have never been supported solely by ticket revenue. Doing so would require ticket prices to be raised to such a level that only the most wealthy would attend. In order to allow more people to enjoy the great music, those who have been fortunate have always stepped forward to help fund great symphonies.

    The demographics are actually very favorable to orchestra’s today. As the Census Bureau wrote:

    In 2010, there were 40.3 mil- lion people aged 65 and older, 12 times the number in 1900.
    • The percentage of the popula- tion aged 65 and over among the total population increased from 4.1 percent in 1900 to 13.0 percent in 2010 and is projected to reach 20.9 per- cent by 2050.

    This is actually an outstanding demographic trend for the orchestra. Older citizens are more inclined towards classical music – that’s just a fact. That demographic group has more free time, more resources, and is not burdened by evening babysitter and child care issues.

    Many successful orchestras in the US are doing very well in marketing to this demographic. If San Antonio is not succeeding here, it is because their marketing and development teams have been decimated, and they have no effective marketing or fundraising plans whatsoever. That should be the focus of the fix that is needed.

    • I refer you to my response to BWSA below.

      With less dates on the calendar, but more seats filled, production expenses will go down overall, and more seats will be filled with the dates remaining. As artists, I have zero doubt they would rather be playing to a packed theatre than one that is 1/3 filled. And since an older demographic has more free time, as you say, they should be able to attend the dates even if there are less options.

      Outside revenue from donors and other entities can then be more effectively utilized to pay the musicians directly and help bolster marketing, in an effort to sell out existing dates.

  4. Blayne, you may be interested to know that on average, all major orchestras in the US only “earn” roughly 40% of their revenues, and of that figure, about two thirds is subscriptions and ticket sales (meaning subs and ticket sales account for about 25-30% of overall revenues).

    The rest of your post is typical uninformed garbage rehashed many times over by better armchair economists than you, and easily disproved. Google is your friend.

    • BWSA,

      How does this in anyway justify leaving unoccupied seats in a taxpayer funded theatre, because there are too many symphony dates on the schedule?

      With less dates, but more seats filled, the other 40% of outside revenue, as you suggest, could go directly to support the salaries of musicians themselves from donors etc. Nevertheless, the cost to produce a show when seats aren’t filled doesn’t justify the added dates that aren’t being attended.

      You’re actually making my point.

  5. How does the Tobin Center, formerly Municipal Auditorium until it was torn down, play into this? Does Tobin come out ahead by not having an arrangement with the Symphony? I would like to know more.

  6. Just an observation. In 2016, I bought a season ticket and attended all but two performances. The houses seemed fairly full to me. This year, especially the last couple of performances, attendance seemed way down and I was shocked. I couldn’t believe such brilliant talent as is offered by our symphony would not draw more people. Perhaps the explanation lies in the recent comments on marketing. I have no solutions but am praying someone with a fine mind for business and a great love of our symphony comes forward to helm this catastrophe. We cannot let this beautiful and majestic art form die in our city.

    • Susan, while I agree marketing efforts can be an aspect of this conundrum, a relatively full theatre doesn’t equate to ticket revenues. Without getting a full understanding of how many of those tickets were actually purchased or whether they were complimentary (often the case at symphony shows) we won’t fully know.

      My entire point here is that the number of shows needs to appropriately correlate with the tickets sold for those shows. Giving complimentary tickets away to fill the room so it looks good will not solve this problem.

    • Tony, cannot put that 100% on the Tobin. Tobin employee Aarron Zimmerman is just one member of the decision making body, but it is feasible that the rest of the board may defer to him on performing arts decisions. We need to be concerned about the leadership and subsequent micromanagement by Edward Benavides. This all leads straight back to the City Manager’s office. Are you listening, Mayor Nirenberg?

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