Conductor Lang-Lessing: Symphony Shows Will Go On Despite Management Issues

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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.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony’s music director, said Friday that an upcoming series of Tricentennial concerts set to begin next week will happen. “They will take place,” he said, even as uncertainty clouds negotiations about a new labor contract for the orchestra’s musicians.

The current contract expires at midnight on Dec. 31. Talks have stalled between the musicians and Symphony management, which itself is unsettled amid a withdrawal by a new board that had been set to take over operations.

Lang-Lessing’s planned Tricentennial Festival includes Tricentennial Celebration concerts scheduled for Jan. 5-6 featuring soprano Ana María Martínez. A Dream Week program featuring Beethoven’s Eroica symphony is scheduled for Jan. 12-14, and a program centered around Elgar’s Enigma Variations is set for Feb 2-3.

Lang-Lessing’s optimism, as the conductor characterized his assurance, comes with a challenge. “We need to pack the house in these concerts,” he told the Rivard Report in a FaceTime conversation from his Berlin home Friday afternoon. “Quite frankly, there starts the next responsibility.”

Lang-Lessing challenged the San Antonio community to “show some commitment” to its symphony orchestra, first by buying tickets to its concerts, then by realizing the seriousness of the current situation.

“What’s at stake at the moment is the sheer existence of the Symphony,” he said. “What’s happening right now – that the organization is in danger – is very disturbing.”

Negotiations have hit a roadblock in part because current Symphony management has failed to schedule negotiation sessions beyond what musicians’ union leaders described as walkout by management representatives Dec. 18.

Who is actually in charge of the Symphony is also in question, due to the collapse of a transition agreement between past management by the Symphony Society of San Antonio, and a new nonprofit organization, Symphonic Music of San Antonio (SMSA).

Instead of taking over as planned, the SMSA pulled out of a transition agreement on Dec. 21. In withdrawing, Thomas A. Stephenson, SMSA president and CEO, cited a potential Symphony Society pension fund withdrawal liability as a “deal breaker.”

Craig Sorgi, a Symphony violinist and Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony labor union negotiating chair, called the SMSA’s reason a “false excuse,” and has said that the withdrawal liability would not be incurred if current pension fund contributions were to continue.

Musicians’ Society of San Antonio union negotiator Craig Sorgi held a press conference in front of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts last Thursday, Dec. 21 to announce stalled negotiations with symphony management.

Nicholas Frank / Rivard Report

Musicians’ Society of San Antonio union negotiator Craig Sorgi holds a press conference in front of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 21 to announce stalled negotiations with symphony management.

As expiration of the musicians’ current labor contract looms, the Symphony Society has scheduled a board meeting for Tuesday, Jan. 2. The group’s board chair, Alice Viroslav, confirmed the meeting Friday in an email to the Rivard Report.

Asked Friday whether the musicians are prepared to work without a formal contract extension or negotiated agreement, Symphony violinist Craig Sorgi replied via text message, “For now all we can do is plan to return to work on the [Jan. 3] as scheduled. We are still working and honoring our contract until further notice.”

The union issued a press release Friday addressed to Viroslav, demanding that the Symphony Society “return to the business of contract negotiations post haste,” and asking for clarification on her further involvement with negotiations, and the role of Stephenson, with whom the union had been negotiating since early September.

That press statement was quickly followed by another, addressed to Symphony Society board members. Citing no response to requests for bargaining sessions, the letter points out that despite management uncertainty, the Symphony Society “continues to be the employer of record for the musicians and it is the duty of [Symphony Society] leadership to return to the table.”

In the second Friday press statement, the union reiterated that “the musicians are ready, willing and able to continue presenting concerts.”

Although he said he does not wish to interfere in negotiations, Lang-Lessing said, “of course I support the musicians, we’re in the same boat.” At the same time, he said, “Everybody who put money into the Symphony did so with the best intent to make it work. I strongly believe that.”

Lang-Lessing said his philosophy is that the Symphony is owned by the community as a whole, and that the responsibility to take ownership belongs collectively to the business leaders, elected officials, foundations, corporations, and individual citizens of San Antonio.

The conductor’s call to elected officials is in part being answered by several, including Congressional, County and City officials, including City Councilman John Courage (D9) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who have scheduled meetings with union leaders, Sorgi said.


5 thoughts on “Conductor Lang-Lessing: Symphony Shows Will Go On Despite Management Issues

  1. Is San Antonio going to have to go through another symphony bankruptcy and a year or two with no symphony? It’s sad, but it may be time for San Antonio to downsize to a smaller orchestra and to hire a large number of its musicians on a performance-by-performance as-needed basis the way orchestras in Laredo, McAllen, Victoria, and Corpus Christi do.

    • The SA Symphony has flourished under SLL’s baton. The caliber of new hires is exceedingly high. The quality of the symphony’s sound, repertoire and guest artists under SLL is remarkable. (Although I will admit that this season’s repertoire offerings are less adventurous than in recent seasons.
      And how many more Beatles tributes, nights in Old Vienna, and Star Wars/Harry Potter concerts do we need — or is that the bread-and-butter for SASym?)
      Is what I heard recently true: The SASym musicians no longer get free parking for rehearsals & performances? SASym musicians receive a very low salary, comparatively. Requiring them to find and finance their own parking downtown is ludicrous.
      Turning the SASym into a “freeway philharmonic” like the other cities Dansk Tex listed will negatively impact the strides SASym has made in recent years.
      The SAS needs a board with resourcefulness to facilitate the health of our orchestra. Is the Tobin being financially managed in a way that promotes the health of its resident performing organizations?
      I wonder if a “try it, you’ll like it approach,” might increase the support by SA public — perhaps offer a one-time BOGO, one per patron, for any remaining SASym series concert might get a few more folks to attend regularly. Sadly, there are usually many empty seats at SASym concerts.
      Now I’m gonna head to the SASym website and buy a few tickets for future concerts. A drop in the bucket, I know….

  2. When SSSA meets Jan 3, I will never entertain a motion for bankruptcy…period. A smaller orchestra for the nation’s 7th largest city makes ZERO sense.

    Smaller cities than San Antonio have had generous families step forward to do as Gregg Popovich says..”We’re rich as hell, and we don’t need it all.”

    One only needs to look at Kansas City and San Diego as examples of financial leadership for their respective Symphonies.

    San Antonio needs leadership in how and why to give (significant dollars)…there’s no better leader than Coach Pop.


  3. There are a lot of really smart people on the Board of Directors…why is this so difficult? Perhaps there are “too many cooks in the kitchen?” You only need 5 or 7 board members. There can be a large number of “committees” and other volunteer positions but the actual oversight and management needs to be a very small group and an odd number.
    Symphony Society of San Antonio Board of Directors
    Dr. Alice Viroslav, M.D., Chair | Neuroradiologist, Radsource, Clinical Assistant Professor of Radiology, UTSA
    Kathleen Weir Vale, Vice Chair & Marketing Chair | CEO, Hope Medical Supply
    Clay Jett, Treasurer | Market President, San Antonio, Bank SNB
    Mark Tolley, Co-Treasurer | 210 Development Group
    Jennifer Munzel, Secretary | H-E-B
    Frank Stenger-Castro, Development Chair | Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP
    James R. Berg | President,
    Ernest Bromley | Chairman & CEO, Bromley Communications
    Freddie E. Cervera, III (President, San Antonio Symphony League) | Cervera Consulting Group
    Lauren Eberhart, (Musician Representative) | Musician— Trumpet, San Antonio Symphony
    Alfredo Flores, Jr. | President, Alamo Music
    David Gross (President) | San Antonio Symphony
    David Holmes | Santikos Foundation
    Eric D. Honeyman | Vice President, Refining Operations, Valero Energy Corporation
    Beth Johnson (Musician Representative) | Musician— Violin, San Antonio Symphony
    Alfredo La Rosa | Executive Vice President, Intercontinental Wealth Advisors, LLC
    Cindy Marini (Mastersingers Representative)| San Antonio Mastersingers
    Betty Merchant | Dean of Education and Human Resources at UTSA
    Diane Persellin | Music Education Professor at Trinity University
    Brian Petkovich (Musician Representative) | Musician — Bassoon, San Antonio Symphony
    Beverly Purcell-Guerra | San Antonio Woman
    Dr. Sheila Swartzman | Tejas Anesthesia, Retired
    Steven Tye | The Martha Ellen-Tye Foundation
    Mary Jane Verette | Vice President of Administration, Frost Bank
    Dennert O. Ware | KCI, President and CEO, retired
    Didi Weinblatt, Ph.D., CFA | USAA, Retired

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