SA Symphony to Suspend Remainder of Season After This Weekend’s Concerts

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

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

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

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.


58 thoughts on “SA Symphony to Suspend Remainder of Season After This Weekend’s Concerts

    • I just purchased 2 tickets in the Grand Tier, last evening, for the Saturday January 13th performance of Beethoven’s Eroica… will I be reimbursed my $221.00?

  1. I just purchased 2 tickets in the Grand Tier, last evening, for the Saturday January 13th performance of Beethoven’s Eroica… will I be reimbursed my $221.00?

  2. Now seems a good time for a larger piece of reporting to explain current debacle and to explain to all participants ( ticket holders, financial contributors such as local governments and others) what they will receive back from their season obligations. I can’t remember when a season has been upended and the players have been put on the street in such a quick turn of events. Surely there is a back story here that will give readers a realistic explanation for the current quandry.

  3. We have season tickets to the Pops series and my biggest concern is what about all of the musicians who are now without a paycheck? These are not the highest paying jobs to begin with, but they are very talented and dedicated professionals who continue come to rehearsals. So sad that a city the size of San Antonio cannot support a symphony orchestra, but yet can appear in the top 5 cities in Texas for liquor sales month after month!

    • The three [executives] who took over the Symphony don’t give a [hoot] about the musicians. They just sought to break the union, and threw the baby out with the bathwater.

      • They should be sued personally and organizationally. They had no business taking over and restructuring like a coup without first understanding all the financial obligations and operating structures of the organization. Those within corporations and organizations should be fired for creating this debacle as it taints the brand of the entity.

        • When you consider that it was HEB, Kronkosky and Tobin who burnt the village down to save it, you’d think there’d have been a little brain power amongst the three of them to understand what they were getting into. Hubris and cupidity ruled, however. Wal-Mart is my new go-to grocery store.

          • you guys are morons, trying to place the blame on HEB and the new non profit. they tried everything they could to work out a deal, with the old non profit(the one that drove it into the ground in the first place). the old non profit refused to let go of the reins. they could care less about, and have no issue with the union. the “three” you mention were never allowed to “take over”. they pulled out because millions of dollars they donated, were being mishandled, and they couldnt do anything about it. at least know the WHOLE story, before you start pointing fingers

  4. Pathetic. All the people worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in SA and nobody will step in to bridge the gap?

      • Alice just resigned,per phone call to Mr. Sorgi during this afternoon’s orchestra meeting.

        She accomplished her purpose.

  5. A very sad day for the arts in San Antonio, especially considering the symphony’s connection with the Tricentennial Celebration and the Tobin Center. Let’s hope that the damage is not lasting. This sends a terrible message to the musicians, guest performers, conductors and the patrons.

    I was greatly looking forward to the Eroica concert next weekend. How does the Tobin plan to fill the dozens of nights of music planned for this season? Seems like a lot of lost revenue.

    • The Tobin, which was built with bond issue money to house amongst others the Symphony, will simply put their usual other vaudeville in to those nights which they have wanted from the git-go. Their mission as a non-profit was to house the Symphony, Opera and Ballet, but “profit” became more important.

  6. The retreat of the Power Brokers with the muscle to liberate the Symphony from financial anxiety, that is normal operating dilemma of ALL historic arts organizations, is of immense concern to San Antonians who count on its Visionary Leaders to champion causes that make a City Great – Outstanding and beyond the ordinary.

    Please, Tobin, HEB, Kronkosky Foundation, Mayor Ron and Judge Nelson, City Council folks, read this and think about it seriously and do your duty and help – GET BACK IN THE GAME————- NOW!

    Remember that Classical Music is like Classic Art and like Historical objects of high significance which we see at McNay and Witte, and is also the core on which All music is based. This is a Serious City and County issue and needs the involvement of its TRUE leaders!!

  7. Symphony players seem to be out of touch with reality in terms of the modern world. They rely on the generosity of others to pay their salaries, and they don’t seem to have learned from the previous bankruptcy. If that generosity is not enough to sustain the operation, no matter how hurt or upset they are, there are negative consequences. Plus, the days of guaranteed pension plans have ended. It’s mainly the back debts to the pension endowment that are the problem right now. What would be best is a quick bankruptcy process for the present symphony while the organization that planned to take it over starting a totally new symphony with a new name (without liability for debts of this present one), and without a guaranteed pension plan but with a 403(b) program where the new organization matches whatever each player pays into their plan up to a limited percentage of their symphony salary that would be sustainable in terms of the group as a whole. And because this is the second symphony bankruptcy, the new group needs to hire more part-time players (without full-time benefits) until it is healthy enough financially to afford to have a totally professional orchestra.

    • There is no pension debt. That was an excuse for the SMSA funders to walk away from the Symphony after they wrecked it. What you propose may well be what the founders of SMSA had in mind from the start, as it is the only rational explanation I can see for the two entity structure they set up.

    • Ohhh ho. Beautiful. This is one of the most out-of-touch remarks I’ve read.
      Are you aware, “DANSK TEX” (lol) of how many orchestras pay their musicians even higher than in San Antonio?

      US orchestras by budget:
      Los Angeles Philharmonic $120M (2017)
      Boston Symphony Orchestra $84M (2013)
      San Francisco Symphony $78M (2017)
      New York Philharmonic $75M (2016)
      Chicago Symphony Orchestra $73M (2016)
      Cincinnati Symphony $47M (2015)
      Philadelphia Orchestra $46M (2011)
      Cleveland Orchestra $42M (2012)
      Atlanta Symphony $38M (2014)
      Houston Symphony $34M (2017)
      Dallas Symphony $32M (2013)
      Pittsburgh Symphony $31M (2013)
      National Symphony $30M (Washington Post, 9/05)
      Minnesota Orchestra $29M
      St Louis Symphony $29M (2016)
      Baltimore Symphony $28M (2016)
      Seattle Symphony $28M (2015)
      Detroit Symphony $27M (2014)
      Indianapolis Symphony $27M (10/2006)
      San Diego Symphony $20M (2011)
      Metropolitan Opera Orchestra $19M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      Pacific Symphony $18M (2013)
      Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra $17M (2016)
      Utah Symphony & Opera $17M (Salt Lake Tribune, 2002)
      New Jersey Symphony Orchestra $14M (NY Times, April 2006 )
      Toronto Symphony $14M
      Oregon Symphony $14M (2010)
      Vancouver Symphony $13M (2011)
      Colorado Symphony $12M (2010)
      Kansas City Symphony $11.1M (Kansas City Star 2008)
      North Carolina Symphony $11M (2012)
      Orchestre symphonique de Montréal $11M
      Florida Orchestra $10M (2015)
      Fort Worth Symphony $10M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      St Paul Chamber Orchestra $10M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      Nashville Symphony $9.9M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      Columbus Symphony $9.5M (Columbus Business First, 2009)
      Buffalo Philharmonic $9.1M (2010)
      Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra $9M (2012)
      Edmonton Symphony $9M (2012)
      Phoenix Symphony $8.5M (2012)
      Grand Rapids Symphony $8.5M (2009)
      Charlotte Symphony $8.5M (2011)
      Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra $8.4M (2015)
      Rochester Philharmonic $8.1M
      Honolulu Symphony $8M (Honolulu Advertiser 2008)
      Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra $8.0M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      Jacksonville Symphony $8M (2012)
      New York City Ballet Orchestra $7.8M (Orchestra Facts, 2003)
      San Antonio Symphony $7.6M (2017)

    • Since the days of Bach or earlier, symphony orchestras have always relied on generous donors to survive. The alternative would require raising ticket prices to levels that would make the orchestras inaccessible to all but the most wealthy. It would be the kiss of death.

      There is no “back pension debt” and there is no reason why current pension contributions cannot be made. The only thing that would trigger a huge pension liability would be pulling out of the pension plan. There is no reason to do that. It would be most unwise for all parties involved.

      Bankruptcy is not an option. The last bankruptcy was a Chapter 11 reorganization. If there is another bankruptcy, it would probably be a Chapter 7 liquidation and that would be the end of orchestral music in San Antonio.

      Failure is not an option!

      Many orchestras around the country have demonstrated a model to rebuild, succeed and even thrive. The San Antonio Symphony board and management need to study up and get cracking! If they aren’t up to the task, they should step aside and let others who can do it get the job done.

      • Your stats seem to show more of a revenue issue than a pay issue. It’s pretty hard to negotiate for anything close to market compensation when the revenue is so low. Seems there isn’t enough demand for the product. Not sure if that means the product is sub par or it’s just an extremely niche product.

    • Dansk Tex, your comments show a lack of understanding. First of all, the SA Symphony has no pension debt. The national AFM pension has some problems. This is the pension that covers all musicians from New York to Nashville to LA. There is nothing that the city of San Antonio needs to do about this.
      Bargaining with the AFM keeps this process streamlined, as opposed to management having to work out individual contracts with musicians. This is one good thing about having the Union. The other thing the Union does is help to dispell misinformation people cook up about musicians. Believe me, the people in your orchestra work long hours under high pressure conditions. The union in San Antonio is the only reason you still have an orchestra. It has kept the orchestra together, and helped the musicians deal with getting less than the stellar treatment they deserve. These people are the stars of our profession, the major league players! You cannot treat them like gig economy workers. By the way, the orchestra members do have a 403b plan. The orchestra does not pay into it or match contributions.
      The real responsibility here lies with the community in San Antonio. The members of the new board bought into the same drama that the boards have created here since. . .The myth that the city can’t support the orchestra. The myth that all unions are bad. The lack of understanding that running a not for profit organization is not like running a business. The leaders of this city need to buck up, strengthen their resolve, and go out and raise the money that would support great art in their community. That’s all there is to it.

  8. San Antonio requires two area codes but cannot support a symphony orchestra?
    Maestro Lang-Lessing has increased the reputation and caliber of the SA Symphony significantly. His programming allows the SA public to hear works seldom performed as well as the standard repertoire. Musicians hired since Lang-Lessing became conductor have all been stellar top-notch instrumentalists that any symphony would be fortunate to have.
    This turn of events is a colossal embarrassment for San Antonio.
    Some blame should be extended to the Republican-run TX state government which, by slashing public education budgets over the decades, has deprived the general population of educational experiences sufficient to instill an interest in serious art and music in more of us.

  9. One more comment: It sounds a bit as if the union is doing to the symphony what unions did to the automobile industry in Detroit–pushing so hard and demanding so much that they are contributing to killing the organization that feeds them.

    • Dansk Tex, have you read the collective bargaining agreement put forth by the musicians union? I have. It seeks minor increase in pay (which is quite low for someone who has been preparing for the job literally since childhood) (show me a doctor or lawyer or politician who has been focused on “their art” since childhood) and a slight lengthening of the season. They weren’t asking for a lot.

      • But the large pension commitment that hasn’t been funded is asking a lot. The union didn’t do it’s job by disclosing that last summer. If the union didn’t know it was their then they are incompetent.

        • The Symphony has met all its pension obligations. There is no commitment that hasn’t been funded. So long as the Symphony continues its modest annual contributions to the American Federation of Musicians multi-employer fund (around $100 thousand/year for 72 musicians) nothing more can be extracted from the Symphony. It is only if the Symphony want to go non-union and withdraw from the plan the federal law requires a make-up payment.

    • “Demanding so much”?? Do you have any idea how many pay cuts they have already taken?

      It’s sad to see so much mis-information thrown around. It doesn’t help the discussion.

      It does point out how much work the musicians have to get the facts straight with the public now that these “red herrings” have been tossed out into the street for all to see.

  10. This is preposterous. We can now officially consider SA a third tier city more bent on bringing in tired 80’s acts than on trying to create a legitimate vibe in the city that reflects the arts. So many lost opportunities here.

  11. This is a tragedy for SA in a year celebrating our 300th anniversary. Why has the DA not investigated the apparent mismanagement of the finances of the symphony not to mention the contract and actions of the former manager. With all the city negotiations to bring new industry to SA there is never included a stipulation that in lieu of those tax deferrals that the companies must agree to support an agreed percentage or amount to the arts…. now that would be innovative and productive since the companies would still get a federal tax right off from the contribution.

  12. During San Antonio’s Tricentennial Celebration? The Arts should be celebrated, always, especially now. Worst news since November 2016!

  13. The new “board members spent months proclaiming themselves the saviors of the San Antonio Symphony,” the union said. “Now, like spoiled children, they have decided to pick up their marbles and leave because they couldn’t get their way on everything, including having to deal with a pesky union that didn’t think reducing outstandingly skilled musicians’ already-low pay scales was a very good idea.”

    Perhaps the symphony should find different way to work with the situation. I’m a musician. If my union said a group trying to help keep music in my city moving forward were ‘like spoiled children’ and decided to ‘pick up their marbles’ I would be livid. The city just supported the construction of a performing arts center that required money, commitment and time. Many people and foundations have supported the symphony with large monetary gifts. That seems to be forgotten, which means not appreciated.

    Perhaps there should be an understanding from the musicians that society is not required to pay you because you play the oboe. Perhaps the oboe player could realize he/she is not required to accept being paid $30,000 annually to play the oboe.

    And, perhaps San Antonio doesn’t want a symphony. If calling the behavior of people spending time and money to save the symphony ‘spoiled children’ is the media response, then perhaps the union doesn’t deserve to be supported.

    • Oh brother, where do I start??!! The three [executives] came riding in like knights on white horses to “save the Symphony” only to discover that a Symphony is a very expensive and complex thing to run. They took over last summer and DID NOT DO ANY FUNDRAISING OR MARKETING. Those of us who do fundraising for the Symphony, including the staff, have lost SIX MONTHS to these hubristic [people] who have indeed “picked up their marbles” and gone home. I would suggest that their homes maybe ought to be in some other city now that they are all walking around with dead dogs hanging from their necks. If you see any of them anywhere near the Tobin, call Security.

    • $200 million for an auditorium and the city can’t afford to pay the musicians their salary, which is among the lowest in the industry?

      A $200 million building with no orchestra to play in it?

      It’s really disgraceful. San Antonio can do better!

  14. People pouring into San Antonio daily making it somewhat over populated now, not to mention within 10 years. This says it all about the caliber of this population; not very sophisticated by any standard. I overheard one adult tell another that what we need is more country western concerts instead of so-called “classical music”. These observations are both saddening and pitiful. Yes, this is a big city. But that’s about it. A paucity of artistic patrons does not a great city make. Admittedly, we have one of the best NBA teams in America, the San Antonio Spurs. There is a great deal of monetary wealth spread about here, yet where are the philanthropists who raise our brows? Pitiful.

  15. This, scrounging for funds, has been a repetitious event since the Symphony under former musician turned manager Nat Greenberg got rid of the Opera part of the San Antonio Symphony. The largest consistent donors who were huge opera donors took their money and interests elsewhere – the Margaret and son Robert Tobin family as starters, left to head first toward Santa Fe and then the MET in NYC. From that time forward the symphony has not had funds to support the level of the participants. Opera lovers left, likewise, heading toward Houston, Dallas, Austin and out of state. Dual spouses in the symphony had one leave to get dependable jobs with insurance for growing families. Symphony members and their families are entwined in education at all levels in S.A., private teaching and with various institutions from elementary through universities. The symphony members formed quartets, trios, you name it, whatever it took, to supplement dwindling salaries and basic job security, including medical insurance. It is unconscionable that a city that touts itself as progressive, growing and “culturally” attractive to prospective businesses cannot and does not fund and support a body of musicians whose professional talents affects all walks of life in our community beyond the performance stage.

    • I’m curious what motivates you, a musician, to come on here and bad-mouth the symphony orchestra musicians? Did you blow an audition or something?

      I mean, seriously, why are you here to keep ranting against the musicians?

      Does San Antonio want musicians such as yourself? If so, what kind of musicians does San Antonio want?

      • I’m not bad mouthing the musicians. The statement put out by the union hurts the cause of music and the need for great music to be a part of the community. I support musicians and their passion for what they do with their lives. As I’ve said, I’m a musician and in no way do I disrespect other musicians. Nor do I disrespect music supporters by trying to shame them into giving money to any endeavor. The union statement would not be something I could defend.

  16. Went to the gym where mostly college students go. MTV blaring: Each song is about 3 minutes and this is added and abetted by visual changes every 3 seconds. Beethoven Eroica is about 45 minutes, with no titillating images. (At least we hope there are none!) Ladies and gentlemen, our problems are not just union busting, financial corruption, and plebian populations. We live in a society that has an increasingly inadequate and even perverse view of beauty. My answer? Unfortunately, it’s a much deeper human need than collective bargaining and altruistic donors.

  17. Have been following this story for a while. It seems to me that cancelling the remainder of the current season and to refund the money to ticket holders is the EASY WAY OUT OF THE PROBLEM!
    There is no determination to preserve this valuable cultural institution!!!!

    Have supported the SA Symphony since 1968 by purchasing tickets. This is the second time the second half has been cancelled for me. Why would anyone in the future want to purchase season tickets based on this history? This is the reason that all differences need to be worked out NOW because the uncertainty of a future. The SA Symphony is a most valuable asset for SA and the entire region. IT WOULD BE MAJOR LOSS FOR ALL OF US IF THE DISPUTE COULD NOT BE RESOLVED NOW!!!

  18. This is a sad day for the San Antonio Symphony and the people of San Antonio. The arts can help cities attract talent, spur innovation, and grow their economies. Many professional musicians are also teachers so this will also impact educational outcomes.

  19. im not a musician, in fact music is an irritant(im on the spectrum, and auditory sensation is an issue for me.) however being married to a music teacher, i have followed this closely. before you bad mouth HEB you should consider their track record for giving back to the community, both as a business, and a donor. after Harvey, who was the first company there, helping? you wanna talk about help? and pointing fingers? HEB. they hire special needs folks at nearly triple the rate of any other business, and pay them well. yes they started the new non profit, but were never given control…. they pulled out after 6 months of having smoke blown up their collective skirts. they FUNDED the extension, yet had little, to no say so, only to find themselves STILL at the negotiation tables with another non profit(one who already has a horrible track record, and has been steeped in misappropriation rumors for decades, and already has a bankruptcy under their belt) who refused to cede control. i would have thrown up my hands in disgust too…. and the mayor? he literally has nothing to do with the situation, since its a private non profit. you blame him for not getting involved?(never mind he would have gotten just as much crap, for sticking his nose where it didnt belong, from the other half of the crowd) his job is to run a city, not babysit a corrupt failing nonprofit. i think the city and county did enough by funding 3/4ths of the tobin center in the first place(county paid for half of tobin. the city put in another 41 mil.) considering HEB alone often an frequently makes up as much as 25% of all donations made for various tobin projects, i really think you guys should rethink your current line of attack.

    • Too bad that they announced the deal before having the ink dry. It is one thing to take over a nonprofit, but you nedd to look at the entire infrastructure. What database do you use, how will you market it, how will you sell tickets, what financial systems, etc. , how do you get names, etc. What happens with staff. How do you pay them? That should all be in place and thought about and documented in the contract.. It seems the due diligence was not done.

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