A new organization started by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) would seem to be the natural inheritor of the defunct San Antonio Symphony’s position as a resident company of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.
However, facing resistance from the Tobin Center, the path forward might not be so clear-cut.
Tobin Center representatives have not spoken publicly about the loss of their main tenant, which, in a typical pre-pandemic concert season would have appeared in the H-E-B Performance Hall for up to 28 weeks including rehearsals and concerts.
While on strike and unwilling to perform at the Tobin since last September, a group of orchestra musicians formed the nonprofit MOSAS Performance Fund to independently produce a series of spring concerts at First Baptist Church with the help of community donors. The nonprofit is now working to put together a concert season starting in the fall.
Though the musicians have praised First Baptist as an available venue, MOSAS has expressed a desire to return to its home in the Tobin Center, purpose-built in 2014 as a permanent home for the San Antonio Symphony with significant public and private investment .
“It was a lot of money that the city gave, the county gave, the taxpayers gave,” said MOSAS President Brian Petkovich. “It just kind of begs the question of who’s benefiting from this huge public investment in the performing arts center. What are the priorities for the performing arts center? I think that’s the bigger question.”
So far, the Tobin Center has resisted welcoming MOSAS as a resident company, which would confer the special status previously given to the San Antonio Symphony.
In an email to the San Antonio Report, the Tobin Center said of the MOSAS Performance Fund, “This organization is not a resident arts organization at the Tobin Center. To provide resident benefits and rates to non-residents would not be fair to our other resident arts organizations which have gone through the proper rigorous steps to become a resident arts organization.”
What those proper steps would be wasn’t specified, other than to say, “Decisions about any new resident companies are made by Tobin Center management after conferring with a collection of community arts professionals along with the Tobin Center Board of Directors.”
As to the potential for MOSAS to receive resident company status on a temporary basis, the Tobin replied, “We do not have temporary resident companies, in respect to our current resident arts organizations who have a proven long-running record of being the best in the city.”
Given that MOSAS is a new organization essentially raising money from scratch, MOSAS would benefit greatly from resident status, Petkovich said.
Resident companies receive first right of refusal for scheduling performance dates, and discounted performance hall rental rates for rehearsals and concert weekends, costs which are not insubstantial.
For example, in April 2018 the San Antonio Symphony, with an annual budget of $8 million, was charged rent in the amount of $15,000 for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including two rehearsal days and two concert weekend days.
However, if MOSAS attempted to perform at the Tobin Center in an upcoming concert season, the organization would be charged regular nonprofit rates, rather than resident rates. The equivalent of two rehearsal days at $7,000 each and two concert days at $6,000 each would equal at least $26,000, not including other expenses.
By contrast, the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera will enjoy resident rates at its home in Abravanel Hall of $460 per rehearsal day and $1,620 per performance day. The combined Salt Lake City nonpofit has an annual budget of $24 million.
Despite the former San Antonio Symphony musicians having played in the Tobin Center hall since its inception at a level of quality widely acknowledged as excellent, the question of whether MOSAS should qualify as a Tobin Center resident company is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who played an instrumental role in dedicating $100 million in county funding for the renovation of the old Municipal Auditorium through a 2008 bond to create the new venue, said any new orchestra needs to prove fiscal and organizational stability before resident status, and more public funding, would be considered.
“When the city and the county make a decision on what to support, what we’d be looking for is sustainability, credibility, [and] a plan that’s achievable,” Wolff said. “At this point, I think the Tobin Center is also waiting to see what group emerges that has the best opportunity of sustainability. … I think they just don’t want to create another resident company that’s going to be in trouble.”
Wherever MOSAS continues to perform, it faces logistical challenges because of the Symphony Society’s abrupt bankruptcy declaration of June 16, which put the status of the orchestra’s equipment and music library in limbo.
Such basics as the chairs musicians sit on and the music stands that hold their musical scores — with a combined approximate value of $25,000 — are currently locked away inside the Tobin Center, along with $165,000 of musical equipment including cymbals, timpanis, and a boat whistle, and many other instruments and accessories obtained over the symphony’s 83-year history.
Randolph Osherow, the trustee of the case for the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, did not answer questions regarding how assets belonging to the Symphony Society would be handled, or a potential timeline for resolution of the bankruptcy proceedings.
Auctioneer John Fisher of Killeen has been enjoined to liquidate the musical equipment. Fisher said it’s too early in the process to provide specific details or a timeline on the upcoming auction, but it’s his general understanding that items up for sale will include sheet music, horns, strings and instruments belonging to the Symphony Society. The auction will be simulcast online, allowing bidders from all over the world to tune in for a chance at purchasing the items.
“Our job is to disperse the merchandise and obtain the largest return we can on behalf of the bankruptcy court,” Fisher said.
Petkovich said MOSAS did not expect to have to raise money to purchase all the equipment, in addition to planning a concert season and securing concert venues.
“Frankly, we weren’t expecting the bankruptcy, and we weren’t expecting to have to raise money to buy all this stuff,” Petkovich said. “I don’t know what we can do in such a short amount of time.”
Faith and support
One thing MOSAS enjoys is support from First Baptist Church. Aaron Hufty, associate pastor of worship and music and now a board member of the MOSAS Performance Fund, said dates for upcoming concerts are already in the planning stages.
The shape and scope of a concert season is yet to be determined, he said, in part to keep a close eye on costs. “One of the things that we are dogmatic about is that we are funded, and so we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves,” Hufty said.
The church does charge MOSAS a rental rate, but at a fraction of what the Tobin Center would charge.
Hufty acknowledged that though First Baptist is not a concert hall purpose-built and acoustically tuned for a full orchestra, it provides an adequate stage, chairs, stands and lighting, and even offers some advantages, including audience proximity and sound quality.
“I was impressed with how softly the orchestra could play and still have integrity to the tone,” Hufty said. “The woodwinds sound particularly good in our room. It’s neat to hear world-class musicians in that space to evaluate the sound [quality].”
As a leader of a faith-based organization, Hufty said he maintains faith that MOSAS will succeed in its attempt to carry on the symphonic tradition in San Antonio.
“It’s not going to be for lack of effort,” he said, on the part of Petkovich and his team of musicians who have taken on the task of building a new organization in addition to continuing to perform. “I think what will come to light in the next couple of months is the incredible, herculean effort that has gone on behind the scenes in the last four months.”
Hufty said the musicians “feel very strongly that they want to play in San Antonio, they feel like San Antonio deserves it. So if — no, I’m not going to go with ‘if’ — it will survive, and it will thrive,” he declared. “We’ll look back on this in 20 years, and no one will know the effort that these people devoted, but we’re all going to reap the benefits of it.”
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Utah Symphony and Utah Opera Senior Vice President David Green as former CEO of the San Antonio Symphony and onetime interim managing director of the Tobin Center. He is not affiliated with either and the reference has been removed.