After ratifying a new contract with the players of the San Antonio Symphony Friday, the orchestra’s governing board pledged through its new chairwoman to develop a plan for long-term financial viability and to better serve the broader community.

Kathleen Weir Vale, new chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, speaks to City Council.
Kathleen Weir Vale, new chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, speaks to City Council. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We are going to do our level best to preserve and promote this treasure that we have,” said Kathleen Weir Vale, recently appointed chairwoman of the Symphony Society of San Antonio. “It belongs to the whole city, and the whole county, and the whole community. It belongs to the people.”

Nobody can stand back and be a spectator, Vale said. “Everybody has to be a participant. People have to buy tickets, go to concerts, and donate. That’s what the public must do.”

The Symphony Society has released a new season schedule, which preserves most of the original 2017-2018 season. Click here to download a list of remaining performances.

Vale said she also recognizes the board’s responsibility to create a sustainable organization while serving its community, she said.

The first step is a big one: “I can tell you that we are now debt-free,” she said.

Vale said achieving debt-free status is due in part to support from major donors H-E-B, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and the Tobin Endowment, who comprise Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), a nonprofit organization once positioned to take over Symphony operations.

With the Symphony Society restored to leadership of the orchestra, Vale said the board  “must take that responsibility of governance very seriously, and be sure that all the people have access” to the Symphony’s programs.

Along with a guarantee that the Symphony’s 2017-2018 season will go through early June as originally scheduled, and that neither the orchestra’s size nor players’ weekly salaries will be reduced during that time, the new contract includes an “electronic media guarantee” that allows for recording, live-streaming and other possibilities to reach potential audiences in innovative ways.

Of the guarantee, “This is the thing I’m the happiest about,” said Conductor and Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing in an interview with The Rivard Report Friday afternoon.

“There’s a lot we could do,” Lang-Lessing said, including live-streaming of concerts on the Tobin Center’s River Walk Plaza screen, outdoor Symphony concerts, and recordings of the hometown orchestra.

Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts his orchestra during the groundbreaking of the San Pedro Creek improvements project.
Sebastian Lang-Lessing, music director of the San Antonio Symphony, conducts his orchestra during the groundbreaking of the San Pedro Creek Improvements project. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Recordings could benefit the Tobin Center, Lang-Lessing said, with sessions scheduled when the building is not otherwise being used. “The San Antonio Symphony has a great recording venue,” he said of the performing arts facility specially designed to house the Symphony.

“There’s a big need” for recording, he said, which “quite frankly makes us commercially viable.”

Viability is a major issue for the Symphony, which has struggled to recruit and maintain large corporate and individual donors in its recent past, as well as develop audiences among key demographics, including patrons between 30 and 40 years old, Lang-Lessing said.

“Sometimes you reach the kids, but you don’t reach the parents,” he said. This morning, for example, the conductor set aside time for 600 students and their teachers after rehearsal to answer questions. One teacher asked how they might support the Symphony.

“You come to the concerts, and you schlep your parents with you,” Lang-Lessing instructed the students.

“Going to a concert is a reflective moment in a busy day,” he said later, “and to share that with the family is fantastic.”

The Symphony has incentivized that proposition, lowering its normal student ticket price from $12 to $5, and offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal on regular tickets for this weekend’s concerts. The reduced pricing also applies to members of the military, said Christopher Novosad, Tobin Center director of Marketing.

“We need each and every citizen of our community to take an interest in our Symphony,” Vale said, and several are responding, with strong ticket sales for rescheduled performances, and large donations from anonymous givers. “A few very courageous people step up to give, and others follow,” Vale said.

Students of Trinity University plan a show of support this weekend, buying tickets en masse for Friday night’s performance. A group of 85 music students (and counting, according to a news release) were expected to gather outside the Tobin Center prior to the concert, wearing the signature turquoise color of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.

Beyond the excitement of the moment, Lang-Lessing said, “we need to find a sustainable plan, also resources. Donations that we haven’t tapped into before.”

Lang-Lessing also suggested that a major endowment is necessary, similar to the combined City-County San Pedro Creek Improvements Project, which tallies at $175 million. “If San Antonio had an arts trust fund, let’s say the same size of San Pedro Creek project, none of our arts organizations would be in any financial struggle.”

The funding for such an endowment would be a mix of donations from corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals, Lang-Lessing said, “but I would include also the City and County pitching in as well, if that’s possible.”

The Tobin Center, he said, “is a great example of this joint public-private investment.” City and County leaders, he said,  are “visionary, open and creative,” and mirror his own “strong belief that the infrastructure doesn’t stop with streets and buildings, it needs the people.”

For the moment, one of those leaders will actually be joining the Symphony on stage. For the Saturday night concert, County Commissioner Tommy Calvert will read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set to music by American composer Joseph Schwantner.

Precinct 4 Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert gives entrepreneurs a pep-talk during the activation event. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I’m a classically trained piano player and singer,” Calvert said via text message. San Antonio mezzo soprano Veronica Williams will read the text for the Friday and Sunday concerts, while Calvert reads for the Saturday show.

Calvert credits his musical training for making him a more creative person. Asked if he had been worried he might not get to perform, given the Symphony’s recent troubles, Calvert said, “It would have been depressing not to have our Symphony. I hope the public comes out in a big way to financially support them.”

Former Symphony Society of San Antonio board member Taddy McAllister has rejoined the current board as development chair. In a text message comment, she said, “It is our plan to bring the entire city into the fold,” and that “We have an extraordinary opportunity to … create a true people’s orchestra.” Major donors will help, too, she said, and that she is “very optimistic about the future of the Symphony.”

(From left) Bruce Davidson, Taddy McAllister, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg enter the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts before the second of two Tricentennial concerts.
(From left) Bruce Davidson, Taddy McAllister, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg enter the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts before the second of two Tricentennial concerts. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...