Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
As the San Antonio Symphony prepares to embark on its momentous 80th season, the final year with music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing at the helm, the turmoil of recent years appears to be in the past.
On Thursday, the Symphony announced a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with American Federation of Musicians Local 23, which represents its musicians. The agreement, fully approved and signed last week, includes an increase in wages, in work weeks, and a provision for exploring a new retirement plan option.
The agreement also represents the hopeful beginning of an era of stability for the organization, said Corey Cowart, its first-year executive director. “Obviously, for any sort of organization, stability is one of the more important things, as far as planning purposes. Patrons, donors, and everyone involved really have a sense of looking forward, and optimism about the organization,” he said.
David Reinecke, assistant principal percussionist and a lead negotiator as orchestra committee chair, agreed. “It’s at least the first step in the right direction,” he said of achieving the three-year contract. “This is the direction we need to go to be successful.”
Though the contract freezes musicians’ wages for the first year, it includes a modest wage increase in year two, and adds an extra week for performance, from 30 weeks to 31, in the third year. The extra week essentially equals a pay raise, Reinecke said. “We want to be playing our instruments, we don’t want to be hanging out at home 20 weeks a year. Anytime we can play more, that’s what we want to do,” he said.
Reinecke also highlighted the sense of stability for the musicians, now that they are able to plan three years out after undergoing persistent instability over the past several years. “The three-year agreement is super nice for the musicians,” he said, crediting board chair Kathleen Weir Vale – largely responsible for reviving the orchestra after its near-collapse in early 2018 – for setting a positive tone for negotiations.
Vale took over as board chair in January 2018, after the remainder of the 2017-18 season was cancelled by previous chair Dr. Alice Viroslav. Failed contract negotiations between the musicians and a failed administrative transition from the Symphony Society of San Antonio to the Symphonic Music for San Antonio, an organization of major funders, set the stage for the orchestra’s near collapse.
The new contract “means the world to them,” Vale said of the musicians. “It was a collaborative effort. Our purposes are aligned.”
Musicians and the administration are not adversaries, Reinecke said. “We’re all dependent on each other. In part, with Corey’s and Kathleen’s leadership, we’re much more transparent and open and in a collaborative mood than maybe in the past with other managers,” he said. “We’re all on the same page. We have similar goals and visions for the organization, which is to make it a bigger, more vibrant part of the San Antonio community. It’s a unified vision right now.”
Cowart also credited the groundwork already laid by the board and the musicians before his arrival in January 2019 and said of negotiations this summer, “Each group across the table was … honest and transparent about where we’re going,” he said. “It was all about, how do we ensure the stability and growth for the organization for everyone involved? For San Antonio, for our patrons, for the community, for the instrument that is the orchestra.”
The contract also sends a message to a wider audience, Vale said. The contract “sends a message nationally and internationally that we’re here to rebuild and be sustained. This will help us tremendously in our music director search. It’s something that’s very attractive to [potential candidates].”
The Symphony begins its season Sept. 20-21, by revisiting a key moment from its recent history. To open his final year as conductor, Lang-Lessing programmed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, popularly known as the “Resurrection Symphony.” The Mahler work was also the first piece the orchestra performed when it began its tenure at the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2012.
“It is just an amazing piece of music,” Cowart said. “And I can guarantee there’ll be goosebumps.”