Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
The Symphony Society of San Antonio said late Wednesday it would cancel the remaining portion of the San Antonio Symphony’s 2017-18 season following this weekend’s Tricentennial Celebration concerts, set for Friday and Saturday.
The failure to resolve management issues and complete negotiations with the musicians’ union means that nearly two-thirds of the symphony’s season – more than four dozen concerts, by a count of performances on its website – will not occur. The orchestra’s current calendar lists performances through June 10.
“[Twenty] weeks of work in a 30-week season have just been wiped out of existence. This is only week 10,” Craig Sorgi, negotiating chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, wrote in a text to the Rivard Report.
The Symphony’s administration said Thursday that it will refund all tickets previously purchased for performances after this weekend. That includes performances through June 10.
The Symphony Society board met late into Wednesday evening “to determine whether there was a path forward for the Symphony Society,” said Board Chair Alice Viroslav in a statement issued following the meeting, which came after several weeks of uncertainty about symphony management and its contract negotiations with the 78-year-old orchestra’s musicians.
“To be clear, this is not the end of the symphony,” the statement continued. The Tricentennial “is the perfect time to recognize and celebrate the role that the fine arts have played in shaping our city, and to begin a true collaborative effort to firmly establish the symphony as the cornerstone of the arts in our community.”
What that will take is not clear, with decades of financial difficulties and an attempt on the part of major donors to take over the Symphony’s operations having failed. A new nonprofit organized last summer, Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), pulled out of a planned transition agreement on Dec. 27.
Viroslav, the lead negotiator for management during contract negotiations, resigned from her board position Thursday afternoon, a move announced at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as musicians were in rehearsal.
“It’s time for others to take the lead,” she said. “I wish the Symphony great success.”
Musicians greeted the news of Viroslav’s departure “with thunderous applause,” Sorgi said.
“We’ve still got a fighting chance,” he said. “There are other people on the board that want to step up and try and salvage the situation and try and do better by the musicians.”
Former Symphony Society board member Taddy McAllister, a vocal critic of the current board and the aborted takeover by SMSA, confirmed the effort Thursday.
“We are going to reconstitute it,” she said of the Symphony. McAllister mentioned other former board members whom she declined to name until their participation can be confirmed.
Speaking Wednesday night, Sorgi did not dismiss the possibility of legal action. “We’re already pursuing [National Labor Relations Board] charges against the SMSA and the [Symphony Society], and the union needs to consult its lawyers about any other possible legal options.”
As late as last Friday, Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing held an optimistic view that the entire Tricentennial Festival, comprising three concert weekends over January and February, would happen. “We go on because there’s no other solution,” he had said in an interview from his home in Berlin.
On Wednesday morning, orchestra musicians reported for regularly scheduled rehearsals, said Sorgi, a Symphony violinist. The musicians’ labor contract official expired on Sunday, Dec. 31.
“The passion and dedication of the musicians to show up at 10 a.m. for the first rehearsal with smiles on their faces and ready to perform, that’s exactly what we should be focused on,” Lang-Lessing said.
“The art we play on stage won’t be compromised,” the conductor said.
But after learning of the Symphony Society’s decision late Wednesday, Sorgi sounded unsure. “At the moment I’m not terribly in the mood to go play music all day long,” he said of Thursday’s rehearsals, “knowing it will be the last performance of this season, having to wonder this will be the last performance ever. Is this the way it ends?”
On Tuesday, union negotiators and Symphony Society leaders met for the first time since Dec. 18 to discuss a contract. The musicians had offered to consider a proposal by the Symphony Society to shorten the season to an unspecified number of performance dates, “because we are trying to do whatever we can to save the institution from the damage that has been done,” Sorgi said.
Now, Sorgi said, “After our conversations yesterday at the bargaining table, this is not the direction we expected this to go at all. I can think of better ways to celebrate the 300th anniversary of San Antonio than putting the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony out of work and into hardship.”
In earlier interviews, Lang-Lessing had expressed admiration for Symphony donors, including Symphony Society board members and members of the new board, Symphonic Music for San Antonio, who pulled out of a planned transition agreement on Dec. 27.
“Everybody who put money into the Symphony did so with the best intent to make it work. I strongly believe that,” Lang-Lessing said. He also said, “I’m totally convinced that all the leaders in the City understand” the importance of the Symphony.
Members of the union had already met with several City and County officials, and had planned a meeting with Mayor Ron Nirenberg this week, along with other officials.