Leadership at the San Antonio Symphony: A Q&A With Corey Cowart and Kathleen Vale

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San Antonio Symphony Board Chair Kathleen Vale and Executive Director Corey Cowart stand outside the Tobin Center.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio Symphony Board Chair Kathleen Vale and Executive Director Corey Cowart stand outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

In the latest San Antonio Symphony news: The San Antonio Spurs beat the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks 121-114 on March 11. Pau Gasol played 15 minutes coming off the bench and made one of three field-goal attempts, a 3-pointer.

Why is this Symphony news? As Spurs fans know, forward Pau Gasol was traded to the Bucks in early March, ending his nearly three-year tenure in San Antonio. One important facet of Gasol’s stint with the Spurs was his support for the San Antonio Symphony, having joined its advisory board in March 2018 and done promotional work for the orchestra.

The Rivard Report chose this moment of transition to talk with Corey Cowart, who has spent two months on the job as the San Antonio Symphony’s new executive director, and Kathleen Weir Vale, the board chair who led the organization back to the stage of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts after its January 2017 season cancellation.

Rivard Report: So Pau’s now in Milwaukee.

Kathleen Weir Vale: Too bad. I hate to lose him. I texted him, we texted goodbye. He said, “But you’ll hear from me.”

RR: Was there an appreciable “Pau bump,” in donations, subscriptions, attendance?

Vale: No. But there was a hype. He just gives his celebrity, that’s what he does. People were excited about it.

RR: Did you have a chance to meet him, Corey?

Corey Cowart: I was here two months before the trade happened. … Of the things that he’s done, primarily it was awareness building around both what the Symphony is and the arts scene overall in San Antonio. I think there was an increase in attention, in part because of the NBA Films piece that aired a couple months ago. We got a lot of traffic through that. It’s more about awareness than something we can track to conversions, but overall it’s a good effect.

Vale: Now I need to go after Patty Mills. He’s a music lover. That was a referral from Pau. He said Patty also loves classical music. Patty doesn’t know about this yet. …

RR: Kathleen, is Corey everything you expected and hoped for?

Vale: Yep! He’s an American orchestra professional executive director, who comes to us experienced, seasoned. Other people have learned on the job, but he’s got all the chops. We don’t have to wait for him to learn. He’s teaching us. He’s teaching us what to do, how to do it.

RR: A month ago, Kathleen, you said Corey has some proven strategies for marketing, so you decided not to hire a new marketing director yet.

Cowart: The most important thing we have to do is grow our audience and grow our subscription base. When you look at how critical that is, we can’t afford to get it wrong in how we execute or the things we choose to do. … We engaged a firm – CR Stager [based in New York] – to basically be our interim director of marketing, to hit the ground running as we work to build and train our staff in that capacity. They’re basically the industry experts in orchestral marketing. … We’re focused on the absolute fundamentals, and they’re the right team right now to help lead that and also to help as we bring on more staff, to coach our staff in best practices, and how to execute.

RR: And what are a couple of those key fundamentals?

Cowart: Primarily it’s direct mail, it’s radio, newsprint, and telling people what’s actually being played. … That includes having more concerts listed than just one at a time, because we’re not just selling a concert, we’re selling the concert experience and coming back to the orchestra over and over again. Ideally, with the trust in Sebastian [Lang-Lessing, conductor and music director], the trust in the orchestra, the trust in the artistic product that’s onstage, people are going to want to come back multiple times.

The other thing is just getting into more radio advertising in a way that’s focused on helping people along with what the concert sounds like. As an example, not everybody may know what every Beethoven Symphony sounds like. But there’s a reason [Symphonies No.] 3, 5, 7, and 9 sell a lot better than the others. So if you help out, even with just those opening bars of Symphony No. 2, everybody’s heard that before, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I can come to that.” So just those basic things.

RR: Earlier you spoke of the importance of growing the audience. But if ticket sales can only account for 25 percent of an orchestra’s budget, there’s only so that far ticket sales can take you.

Cowart: It’s a larger range than that. Hopefully for orchestras, you can account for a little more, 30 to 35 percent in ticket sales. But the most important thing where people are going to see the value of what this art form is, or any art form, they have to participate in it. … And if they’re not choosing to come to either a free community concert, or come to a pops concert, or a movie show at the Majestic, or a classical program at the Tobin, then we don’t have as many engaged patrons that would potentially want to donate back to the orchestra and support what the art form is, and what the ultimate value is to the community. Because in the grand scheme of things, we don’t just preserve this art form for the concerts, we preserve this art form for the city, for the community, so we have this resource.

It’s the same reason the Super Bowl has the most expensive advertising you can buy, because the most people are watching it. So the more that people are engaged with it in general, the more people want to support it.

RR: And that includes sponsors?

Really, it’s the same thing – the more kids that we can reach through our education programs, the more impact it makes in the community, the more people want to get behind that and make sure it continues.

RR: So let’s say everything you do works. You’ve increased your audience and your donor and subscriber bases. What does this look like? Where is this orchestra in five years?

Cowart: I’m not going to be egotistical enough to say I have an answer for that. It’s a question that we need to all figure out together. Being here only a little over two months, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what those questions are, but that’s with the musicians, with the board, with the other community stakeholders.

For me, at a high level, it’s that we are seen as an artistically ambitious and financially strong cultural leader for our region, whatever that needs to look like. But drilling down on the specifics of that, that’s where we need a whole lot more smart people than me in the room and talking about it.

RR: Are conversations to be built around commissioning new works, programming, building an endowment?

Cowart: All of that. A couple years ago, as we started the movie concerts, doing more of those — those are fantastic. And also how do we do really artistically interesting things? Either in the Tobin or out of the Tobin, around the community, that people are really excited about coming to, that may be completely different from what we do in there. Not for everybody, necessarily, but some people are really excited about it. Yes, that could be commissioning, that could be collaborations with different organizations [from the Botanical Gardens to the Guadalupe Theater, and others], that could be where or how we perform, but it’s kind of a very blue-sky conversation right now.

RR: Kathleen, what does the Symphony look like in five years?

Vale: … It’s a place where the hall is filled when we perform. It’s a place where the musicians are thinking of as a destination orchestra. We have many, many musicians for whom it is a destination – very fine, world-class musicians. They’re geniuses, they’re wonderful musicians, gifted, dedicated, devoted to the city, devoted to their families, their community, their students, their audience, and my vision is to have them in a situation where they’re financially secure, where they wouldn’t dream of leaving SA.

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

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Sebatian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony during a rehearsal.

RR: Is it a full-year performance schedule for them at that point, versus the current 30-week schedule?

Vale: I think it probably could be expanded, yes, it could be grown. They would love that. Those musicians live to play, they live to make art. They are the art, and they make the art.

RR: As you said earlier, not everything the Symphony will do is for everyone. Is there a way to keep alive the complexity of classical music and still appeal to people who might be intimidated by that or are just not familiar with the vocabulary? How do you communicate to the full breadth of a potential audience?

Cowart: …We have to operate both as a museum and as a gallery. Yes, we are always going to do Beethoven, and Mozart, and Haydn, and Shostakovich, and Bruckner. These are amazing artistic achievements that we can replicate in real time for our audience. And then we also have to be very experimental, in what we’re pushing for, really looking at what are our musicians interested in playing. What haven’t we done before? What is our music director interested in, and our guest conductors and guest artists? And [performing] in different venues that may allow people to interact with us in a different way.

People talk about this as a demographic issue, that there’s not enough millennials. But you go back 20 years, and there’s not enough Generation Xers. You go back to 1960s, and there’s an article about how there’s not enough hippies. There’s this interview with Elvis Costello in the New York Times magazine probably three or four years ago now, I think he was talking about country music. He made the point that he hated country music growing up, didn’t see the point of it. But as he lived more, he found out he really needed that type of music. He basically said that “I believe you find whatever type of music you find when you have the emotional need for that type of music.”

Vale: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

Cowart: There you go! And what can happen at a concert hall is nothing but emotion that people find at different points in their lives. I always use the example of Kindertotenlieder. It is beautiful, Mahlers’ [translated] Songs for the Death of Children. Which is five songs that were taken by a German poet, Friedrich Rückert, who wrote at least 200 poems about the death of his children. It is the most singular outpouring of emotional anguish.

When I first listened to this piece in high school, I thought, “That’s pretty.” I could kind of play it on my instrument. [Cowart studied trombone.] Then when I got to it again in college, I read the words, I thought, “This is serious.” Then I listened to it again after my wife and I had our first daughter, and it was heavy. And when it finally had the biggest effect on me is right after Sandy Hook, and I listened to that, and my daughter was the same age as all those kids. [Cowart chokes up.] And it is impossible to get through! So this type of music, it can mean so much to you, depending on where you are in your life.

And the fact that you can have a concert hall of 1,000-plus people who are all experiencing this music at completely different levels, is magical. It’s hard to say how to get that across, other than to just come and experience it and be open.

RR: You just encompassed every level of audience engagement, with the levels embedded in the work itself. You’re very knowledgeable –

Vale: Very!

RR: — and you’re a musician.

Cowart: I’ve studied, I have a degree, I appreciate what all those people who are much more talented onstage have to do to keep it up. But yes, I’m intimately aware of a lot of aspects of it.

RR: Do you have a good relationship with Sebastian?

Cowart: For two months, yes. The one thing that’s not great about the job right now is that I’m not able to go over [to the concert hall] to just enjoy his rehearsals as much as I’d like to. But it’s been good.

RR: And do you feel you’re on good footing with the musicians?

Cowart: I think so. Obviously the biggest hurdle for me to overcome — and I completely get it — some members of the orchestra have probably been through five or six of me in not quite as many years. But now, from meeting with the orchestra, from orchestra committee meetings, and one-on-one business from musicians, from my point of view, I think so.

RR: Last question: What are you most looking forward to?

Cowart: I really like Pictures at an Exhibition, and am really excited to hear that at the end of the year (June 7-8). And other than that, just continuing to meet people in town and learn more about the city.

The Symphony begins its Symphony of Flavors Festival each weekend from March 28 through April 13, with regionally themed Thursday prix-fixe dinners followed by weekend performances featuring music from Italy, France, and Spain. 

More information on the Symphony of Flavors Festival, the Visual Tapestry: Pictures at an Exhibition concert weekend, and other concerts is available on the Symphony’s website. Tickets also are available at the Tobin Center box office.

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