Working with people is not always easy. However, when there is a sense of purpose, together you find a way to accomplish great things. Unfortunately, sometimes it can seem there is no hope left as the cards are meticulously stacked and obstacles get in the way of accomplishing anything. Earlier this year, Sebastian Lang-Lessing who held the title of music director emeritus since 2020 with the San Antonio Symphony was stripped of that title for conducting a set of Musicians of San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) performances in support of the striking musicians.
However, from this very low point, these very musicians decided to work together, to collaborate in an unprecedented way, to make personal sacrifices, to chart a new destiny together which can create high-quality and sustainable philharmonic music for our community.
Despite these efforts, there remain some obstacles that our community should remove from their shared end goal. Their request for support from the city’s arts and culture department was denied because the San Antonio Philharmonic, with the same professional musicians who have performed in our community for decades was seen as a new organization. This can be easily resolved in the same manner as in 2017 when a new organization called Symphonic Music for San Antonio was established and planned to operate the 2017-2018 season with the support of many and the City of San Antonio. This was a new organization presenting the same orchestra and getting city support.
Currently, the San Antonio Philharmonic plays most of its concerts at the First Baptist Church downtown a block away from the Tobin Center. The choices in venues are limited by the current budget realities. It was disappointing that the request for resident status to the Tobin Center, which would have reduced the performance venue costs, was denied citing a three-year requirement parallel to the City of San Antonio’s denial to recognize the San Antonio Philharmonic.
As a result of this year’s bankruptcy filing of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the assets including the music library, instruments and equipment were to be auctioned off. The board of the Philharmonic prioritized the purchase of these assets to keep them in this community and, through a generous private donation, were able to secure them. Except for the music library, the board was informed that these assets would have to be removed from the premises in 10 days.
In between organizing concerts, musicians and volunteers worked quickly to comply with the Tobin’s request. The music library, however, is a more sensitive and difficult move. The music library has been this orchestra’s most valued hard asset uniquely archived in a room designed for this music library, with custom shelving and environmental controls at the Tobin Center. Unfortunately, it will cost thousands of dollars to remove the shelving system and find a suitable home with the hope of someday returning to the Tobin Center. A request was denied to keep the music library at the Tobin Center, where it has been for many years.
Last week a $300,000 proposal was approved by Bexar County Commissioner’s Court to fund performances with resident companies of the Tobin Center led by the Classical Music Institute, the first part of what Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said would be a total of $580,000. This level of support is a massive increase from previous years and much larger than the organization’s prior total operating budget. They plan to bring musicians from outside the community on a contract basis and with limited scope, seemingly to replace the musicians who live in our own community. This proposal is like the jilted plan of 2017 by the Symphonic Music for San Antonio group. The San Antonio City Council will likely soon receive this same proposal seeking a similar level of support.
The musicians are showing true grit, and I think this community supports them. “Forward Together — Adelante Juntos” is this season’s motto, but it’s more than an expression, it’s a plan for success. Musicians of the San Antonio Philharmonic have taken control of their destiny and are facing difficult truths. The old plan didn’t work but today a new plan is being shaped largely by the artists. This plan incorporates the Symphony Task Force recommendations of 2018, creating a family of donors, expanding the marketing reach, creating a more realistic budget and reinforcing its commitment to education. Organizationally, the Philharmonic will continue its history of gender diversity and inclusion as seen in its blind audition protocols.
The San Antonio Philharmonic should be recognized by the City of San Antonio, Bexar County and the Tobin Center as an established arts organization. They should play in the building designed to be their home. Our investments should prioritize artists that call San Antonio home. Like all art, the Philharmonic needs champions and justice to get them through bureaucracies and red tape that create obstacles. We should help bring all arts organizations together for the benefit of all. Our community has a professional orchestra, and its name is the San Antonio Philharmonic.