I can’t imagine the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts without the San Antonio Symphony and a vibrant season of orchestral programs.

The $203 million transformation of the historic Municipal Auditorium that reopened as the Tobin in 2014 was conceived and designed to be the home of this city’s performing arts organizations – the opera, ballet, the youth orchestra, and others – but the symphony is the bedrock foundation of them all.

The visiting road shows that regularly come to the Tobin offer the public the kind of wide range of entertainment choices available in any major metropolitan city with a lively arts and entertainment scene. Where else can you see the seemingly ageless Engelbert Humperdinck sing his 1960s hits, be captivated by astrophysicist and science genius Neil deGrasse Tyson, and experience the music of violin maestro Itzhak Perlman all in the space of a few weeks?

Those bookings are essential to Tobin’s operating budget, but the heart and soul of the performance hall is the symphony orchestra and its talented musicians under Music Director and Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing. It’s a symphony characterized by two conflicting narratives: outstanding musical and artistic consistency, and episodic fiscal emergencies that border on the dysfunctional.

San Antonio and its symphony are not at a crossroads. This is not business as usual. The latest crisis has the feeling of an ultimatum: fix the symphony, San Antonio, or lose it, an unacceptable outcome, especially at the start of the Tricentennial year celebrations.

San Antonio Symphony Assistant Principal Cello David Mollenauer hands out flyers encouraging concert attendees to take action and call Mayor Nirenberg in support of the symphony.
San Antonio Symphony Assistant Principal Cellist David Mollenauer hands out flyers encouraging concert attendees to take action and call Mayor Ron Nirenberg in support of the symphony before the first of two Tricentennial concerts. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Crisis creates opportunity for change, and this newest funding emergency for the symphony should create the opportunity to establish a new fiscal oversight mechanism to support its annual budget and avoid overspending.

Wednesday’s announcement that recurring financial woes meant the symphony’s Tricentennial Celebration program Friday and Saturday evenings would be its last public performance until further notice quickly became national news – not the kind of coverage San Antonio wants now, or ever.

This was not the first time red ink had silenced the storied Symphony Society of San Antonio, founded in 1939 (with the orchestra’s roots traced back to the late 19th century), but many feared it might be the last.

Happily, at least for the moment, Lang-Lessing announced from the stage during Friday evening’s intermission that funds had somehow been secured to revive the season. There were no details amid swirling rumors of the source of what is said to be an infusion of $600,000 in donations, but Mayor Ron Nirenberg told me Saturday that rumors the City had provided that money are not true.

“It would be unreasonable and irresponsible to release the other half of the City’s annual allocation of funds at a time when people are saying the season might not continue,” Nirenberg said Saturday. “Providing the Council will give its support, the City will continue to keep its funding commitment for 2018, in stages, if the symphony is able to match the funding and keep the season going. I’ve talked to [Bexar County] Judge [Nelson] Wolff about it, and he feels the same way.”

The City has allocated $600,000 for the symphony in its fiscal 2018 budget, Nirenberg said, and a little more than half that sum remains to be paid. The mayor said he expected to attend the Saturday evening performance and might address the audience before the performance to underscore the importance of the symphony to all of San Antonio while emphasizing the need for all parties to agree to confidence-building measures and organizational changes that will avert the need for future financial bailouts.

The Friday evening concert of Spanish compositions, that included the solo performance of Ana María Martínez, an amazingly expressive and internationally renowned soprano, proved to be one of the most emotional programs in memory. The accessible music selections drew a connection to San Antonio’s earliest European roots and, and the audience gave the orchestra, Lang-Lessing, and Martínez so many standing ovations I lost count.

Season ticket holder Margaret Joseph raises a fist in support of San Antonio Symphony musicians during a standing ovation spurred by conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s introductory speech during the first of two Tricentennial concerts. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

A night that began in sadness ended in joy. Readers feeling the effects of whiplash will take comfort in the fact that the orchestra musicians, patrons, donors, and journalists are feeling the same thing.

So, is the San Antonio Symphony in the city’s Tricentennial year in business or teetering on the precipice of financial failure? The answer: it depends on who you ask.

There are no guarantees the entire season is back on, but Lang-Lessing told me Friday night that the scheduled performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Jan. 12-14 are “definitely on,” including a Sunday afternoon matinée. It’s the great composer’s homage to Napoleon, one he later withdrew in a rage when the onetime French revolutionary declared himself emperor. For more information and tickets, click here.

After that performance, Lang-Lessing said, announcements about the rest of the season will be forthcoming.

“We need people to come to the Tobin and hear their city’s symphony,” he said. “Everyone who attends a performance walks away amazed by the orchestra, amazed by our guest artists, and amazed by the performance hall. And that doesn’t even begin to describe what these musicians do for our city and for our culture.”

Those musicians are feeling the pain of the current moment, and for the orchestra veterans, it is not a new experience. It’s happened before, and one way the symphony has survived is by paying the musicians about what they earned 40 years ago, actually far less controlling for inflation.

Many people in this state are strongly anti-union, but make no mistake: the current problems cannot be laid at the feet of the union. The musicians need and deserve a collective bargaining agreement. They have been working for a pittance for decades and the last thing they need now is to lose their representation.

There has been a fair amount of finger-pointing and flaring tempers in recent days, which is predictable, but also impractical.

“You know those movies where everyone has a gun pointed at each other?” asked one of the principals involved in trying to preserve the symphony’s long-term viability who did not want to be named. “That’s how it feels right now.”

Strong leadership can overcome animosity, and that’s probably where Nirenberg has to play the leading role. Good people on all sides want to find a way to move forward. That means the musicians’ union, the Symphony Society of San Antonio, and the recently formed nonprofit Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), the latter representing major donors, will have to find ways to come back to the bargaining table. Everyone will have to give ground.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.