The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center.
The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center. Credit: Courtesy / Juan Martinez

Symphonic Music for San Antonio, a new nonprofit, announced “a fresh start and an innovative management plan” Wednesday for the San Antonio Symphony. The local orchestra has been struggling financially for years. SMSA will take over on Sept. 1., the first day of its fiscal year.

The organizers of SMSA represent three of the Symphony’s major funders: Tobin Endowment Chair J. Bruce Bugg Jr.; J. Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation; and Dya Campos, governmental and public affairs director at H-E-B.

“What we’re doing is trying to work with Alice [Viroslav, San Antonio Symphony board chairwoman] and the board to try to have as smooth a handoff of the baton as possible,” Bugg said. “The goal is to keep the 2017-18 season on track.”

Assets of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which has operated the symphony since it was founded in 1939 by conductor Max Reiter, are being assessed.

“After our obligations are met, we expect to eventually transfer any remaining assets to SMSA,” said Viroslav.

In May, representatives of the Tobin, Kronkosky, and Santikos Charitable Foundation, along with H-E-B, Frost Bank and Valero Energy Corp., all major donors to the Symphony, expressed concern that the organization was not taking steps to ensure it would break even by end of the 2016-2017 season. Breaking even was the linchpin in the donors’ pledge to continue the following season, then a third year, totaling $2.5 million.

The pledge also was contingent on the Symphony’s reducing its annual budget from $7.6 million to $7.2 million.

After the May meeting, Symphony Board Chairman David Kinder stepped down, citing other time commitments, and Viroslav stepped in as chair. Since then, she said, the board has been meeting with “the new group” to hammer out details before the end of the Symphony’s fiscal year, Aug. 31. When that is accomplished, she said, the board will vote on a timeline “for dissolution of the Symphony Society.”

The Symphony’s largest donors, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, are both on board, Bugg said. He kept Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Assistant City Manager Lori Houston apprised, and both attended a meeting at which the reorganization was announced to news media.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony’s music director and conductor, also supports the plan, Viroslav said.

“I have talked to him frequently. He’s met with the new entity’s leadership,” she said. “He’s very involved and aware, and he’s 100% behind it.”

At a donor party held at Lang-Lessing’s home, Campos explained the reorganization to donors.

Musicians have been kept informed via email since the Symphony is on summer break. Bugg and Viroslav both stressed that musician livelihood and job security are central to the stabilization effort.

“The musicians have been on a rollercoaster for years, wondering if their paychecks would clear, would the season be cut short,” Bugg said. “We want to build an organization that will bring stability to the musicians so we can have a sustainable symphonic art form in San Antonio.”

Some members of the Symphony board told the Rivard Report they have trepidation about such a drastic move. One commented that it’s a basic management precept that “donors never take over the business of beneficiaries.”

This observation was echoed on the “orchestra business” blog Adaptistration. In a post on Thursday, Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus called it “a highly irregular” handoff.

Viroslav wholeheartedly endorses the plan.

“I believe that the Symphony needs a fresh start,” she told the Rivard Report. “Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to come up with sustainable solutions to our problems. The community has only seen our Symphony in crisis mode, and this has created a negative atmosphere that detracts from the excellence of the orchestra.”

Concerning the irregularity of the arrangement, Viroslav sees donor involvement as essential and application of a donor’s business acumen to one’s organization as a gift of inestimable value.

“I’m thrilled that the people supporting us financially are supporting us with their business expertise,” she said, “and if they have influence to bring others with them, fantastic.”

An unanswered question is the size of SMSA’s budget, which affects the size of the orchestra and length of its season.

“There are those on the board who would like a commitment that the new model will include a full symphony,” said Frank Stenger-Castro, a Symphony board member who resigned last week after hearing details of a plan he described as having “no meat on the bones.”

He and others, including some musicians, are concerned the new organization could reduce the size of the orchestra from its minimum of 72 musicians (one of them a music librarian) to about 40, and contract the rest through a “per service” agreement used by smaller orchestras. Such a freelance arrangement, rumored to interest the new leadership, obviates employee benefits.

When the Rivard Report asked Bugg what SMSA’s budget would look like, he declined to answer.

The chairman of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, violinist Craig Sorgi, presents a boldly optimistic face to the unknown future as conducted by SMSA. As president, he also heads the committee that negotiates contracts on behalf of the orchestra members.

“If this [a new regime] is what it takes to have longer prosperity and be a healthy asset for the city, then this is what needs to happen,” he said, “and we’ll do what we can to make sure it has a successful launch. We plan to be around for a long time.”

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.