The future of the San Antonio Symphony is in limbo after three of its largest donors on Wednesday pulled out of a transition agreement to take over operations and budget of the city’s 78-year-old symphony.

When leaders of the Symphonic Music in San Antonio (SMSA), a nonprofit formed earlier in the year to take over symphony leadership, learned of a pension fund liability, there was “no appetite for completing the transaction …,” said Tom Stephenson, SMSA’s executive director. “That’s a deal breaker.”

As for the future of the Symphony, he said: “I think only time will tell how all this will evolve.”

Leaders of the musicians’ union expressed deep disappointment at the latest roadblock in contract negotiations, with one calling SMSA’s citing of the pension liability as a “false excuse.”

SMSA began the transfer of leadership on Sept. 1 from the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which has led the Symphony since its founding in 1939. In evaluating the Symphony Society’s assets and liabilities prior to takeover on Nov. 22, SMSA received a letter from the American Federation of Musicians & Employers’ Pension Fund.

The letter, dated Nov. 21, detailed the pension fund liability, which had been undisclosed in a prior audit report from the Symphony Society, SMSA Board Chair J. Bruce Bugg Jr. said.

“We made it clear from day one that SMSA would not be in a position to assume any liabilities of the Symphony Society,” he said. “Our charitable contributions were designed to pay for the musicians’ salaries and operating expenses.”

The SMSA board is comprised of Bugg, who also serves as the chair of the Tobin Endowment; Dya Campos, H-E-B director of public affairs; and J. Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation.

The SMSA released a statement on Dec. 27 referring to an underfunding of the pension fund by the Symphony Society. However, the Symphony “was and has been current on its payments to the pension on the musicians’ behalf,” Symphony Society Board Chair Alice Viroslav stated in an email. Stephenson confirmed that the pension contributions are up to date.

SMSA would not be making any further contributions to the Symphony Society, Bugg said, adding that the Symphony Society leadership “has some decisions to make as to how they deal with their legal and financial issues.”

“The Symphony Society board will be meeting early next week to discuss next steps,” Viroslav said, and will then issue a statement regarding implications for the rest of the season.

Negotiations for a new contract with Symphony musicians, whose current contract expires Sunday, Dec. 31, were put on hold after management reportedly walked out of a meeting on Dec. 18.

At a news conference held outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 21, Craig Sorgi, Symphony violinist and negotiating chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, said of the looming deadline, “We’ll have to see what happens then. It’s situational, very fluid. Right now, we’re taking it one day, sometimes one hour at a time.”

Sorgi and Brian Petkovich, secretary-treasurer for the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), had been negotiating with Viroslav, Stephenson, and a lawyer representing both parties. Sorgi said the musicians’ union’s lawyer sent a letter to symphony management negotiators Tuesday, asking for contract negotiations to resume as quickly as possible.

“The board members of [SMSA] are attempting to excuse their abandonment of the San Antonio Symphony by using the AFM pension plan as their scapegoat,” Sorgi wrote in a statement Wednesday. “This is a false excuse.”

The Nov. 21 letter stated that if the Symphony Society pulled out of the pension plan, it could trigger a withdrawal penalty of more than $8.9 million.

If the two organizations involved in the transition of symphony leadership were to “merge and maintain the pension plan, there would be no withdrawal liability,” Sorgi stated.

The $8.9 million withdrawal liability would be incurred if the Symphony Society “experienced a complete withdrawal” from the fund, the letter stated.

Asked whether H-E-B will continue its role as the largest corporate donor to the current Symphony, SMSA board member Campos wrote in an email on Wednesday: “After months of going through the exercise of unraveling this complex situation, one positive thing we discovered is that the San Antonio community and our corporate peers are very dedicated to supporting quality symphonic music in our city.”

Responding to whether he has a clearly defined role going forward, Stephenson said, “I’m work[ing] right now at the same office I’ve been in for three months.”

The Symphony’s Tricentennial Concert at the Tobin Center is scheduled for Jan. 5-6, under the baton of conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

“The Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony stand ready, willing, able, and enthusiastic to present the rest of the 2017-18 season,” Sorgi said.

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Nicholas Frank

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...