Discussion of a proposed $300,000 in funding for the Classical Music Institute struck notes of discord at Bexar County Commissioners Court Tuesday. With the funding, the Classical Music Institute (CMI) would replace the former San Antonio Symphony as orchestra for Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio performances at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Before the court voted 4-1 in favor of the proposal, with Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) voting against, a contentious discussion pitted CMI against the fledgling San Antonio Philharmonic, the new city orchestra that arose from the membership of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.

Paul Montalvo, CMI founder and artistic director, said he initiated the funding proposal in late June, to fill the gap left by the June 16 dissolution of the symphony, to ensure that fellow Tobin Center resident companies Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio would have live music for performances.

“We’ve never sought out to take the place of anyone. We saw that the gap was there,” Montalvo said. “It’s not about replacing anybody.”

Montalvo added, “Anybody could have made this proposal,” and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff later said during the discussion that no such proposal had been made by the Philharmonic, which has sought but has not been granted resident company status with the Tobin Center.

The CMI shares Tobin Center resident status with the opera and ballet companies. Montalvo said the county funding would cover orchestra expenses for both companies, freeing up their funds for other uses.

A ‘scab’ orchestra?

As word spread Monday among the local music community, consternation grew that Bexar County administration would fund a nonunion group over the Philharmonic, with its membership long affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians union Local 23.

Montalvo was first among a series of speakers at Commissioners Court and adopted a defensive mode. After a brief introduction about CMI’s history and mission and his own background as a 26-year San Antonio firefighter and union member, Montalvo announced, “I’m going to make the assumption that you’ve heard and will hear that CMI is anti-union, that we are a scab orchestra. That is untrue. We are not anti-union. We are pro-employee. We are pro-musician.”

Local labor luminaries lined up to speak against the proposed funding and in support of the San Antonio Philharmonic musicians.

Paul Montalvo, artistic director for the Classical Music Institute, speaks during a Commissioner’s Court meeting at the Bexar County Courthouse Tuesday.
Paul Montalvo, artistic director for the Classical Music Institute, speaks during a Commissioners Court meeting at the Bexar County Courthouse Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Tom Cummins, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), said the action “is union busting, as simple as that. That money should be going to the San Antonio Philharmonic.”

Hispanic labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president emerita, recalled working with Wolff as a member of the 2018 task force charged with helping the ailing San Antonio Symphony forge a stable path forward.

“In this particular case, I don’t know that the dignity of workers will be justified” if the county funds a nonunion company rather than the Philharmonic, Thompson said.

AFM Local 23 President Richard Oppenheim adopted fierce rhetoric, characterizing CMI as a “third-tier quality” company that hires “weekend warriors” and “imported mercenaries” as musicians, and of having a “virtually negligible” impact on the communities it’s charged to serve.

Former District 1 councilman and current San Antonio Philharmonic board member Roberto Treviño took the podium as a representative of San Antonio Philharmonic bassoonist and board president Brian Petkovich, who was on jury duty.

“This is such an important vote,” Treviño said. “We ask that this vote not divide arts organizations, but unite them.”

CMI Executive Director Donald Mason said the proposal is meant to unify arts companies. “We presented a proposal that unifies Tobin resident companies … as a way to show a unified front for the arts and as a new model moving forward into the future.”

‘A different type of music’

Eight additional speakers voiced positions in favor of and against the proposal before Wolff offered further context.

“I’m very sorry it’s come down to this, where one arts organization is attacking the other one,” Wolff said.

He pointed out that the court has not received funding requests from the Philharmonic, but expressed support for the organization and indicated that the potential for future support exists should such a request be made.

Wolff cited the ethnic makeup of CMI staff and musicians as a reason for supporting the group.

“One of the major things that attracted me to follow Montalvo is the fact all of the leadership for that organization is Hispanic. And the fact that over 40% of the musicians that play in that will be Hispanic, and they’re bringing a different type of music, one that focuses on the music of the Americas,” he said.

Wolff took issue with whether the proposed funding would be divisive. “I think there’s room for all of us here. … I don’t think it’s one against the other, I think there’s room for everything.”

In raising objection to the proposed funding, Calvert said nearly doubling the annual budget of a small nonprofit organization, which Montalvo estimated at $380,000 to $400,000, was “not normal,” and that he would rather support a major infusion of American Rescue Plan Act funding to support the Philharmonic.

Montalvo said the proposal was part of CMI’s four-year growth plan, which includes a proposal for matching funds from the City of San Antonio to double the county’s funding over a two-year period.

Such funding would help attract 40 regular CMI musicians to San Antonio as faculty artists to help fulfill CMI’s educational mission, Montalvo said. CMI currently draws its faculty and performers from around the region, though Montalvo said the group would welcome San Antonio Philharmonic musicians. Oppenheimer said that the national AFM has placed CMI on its International Unfair List, which prohibits union musicians from performing with the group.

After the vote, San Antonio Philharmonic violinist and board treasurer Karen Stiles acknowledged that CMI’s pay scale for individual musicians was higher than the current union scale, but said the issue is deeper than simple “per-service” pay figures.

Karen Stiles, violinist and board member with the San Antonio Philharmonic speaks during public comment during a Commissioner’s Court meeting at the Bexar County Courthouse Tuesday.
Karen Stiles, violinist and board member with the San Antonio Philharmonic speaks during public comment during a Commissioners Court meeting at the Bexar County Courthouse Tuesday. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

For the $90,000 figure CMI proposed to pay for one upcoming Opera San Antonio performance, Stiles said, “they could have hired the San Antonio Philharmonic in full. And we are local musicians. They would not have had to pay travel and hotel and meals and all those other expenses that come along with bringing people from out of town.”

With the successful vote, CMI is moving forward with plans to provide orchestras for six upcoming Opera San Antonio performances and eight Ballet San Antonio performances.

Emerging from jury duty after the vote, Petkovich said he will remain focused on moving forward.

“We’re excited about what we have going … with our performances and our outreach,” he said. “We’re focusing on what we’re doing, and not focusing on what other people are doing.”

Senior Reporter 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...