This weekend was supposed to be the triumphant season finale of the San Antonio Symphony. Instead, the city might be witnessing the final season of its celebrated orchestra.

The 2021-2022 season schedule was to end June 3-4 with Tchaikovsky’s grand Symphony No. 5 led by guest conductor Yue Bao and concertmaster Eric Gratz as soloist. But with no end in sight to the strike called by the orchestra’s musicians in September, on those dates the orchestra’s purpose-built home, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, will go dark.

Years of financial woes made worse by the pandemic led to drastic pay cuts for musicians and the strike that has the orchestra at a standstill. With no sign that anything will change anytime soon, many worry this could spell the end for the San Antonio Symphony.

Another lost season

The symphony’s lost season recalls past years when the music stopped, from a 1984 strike to lockouts in 1987 and 1998 to bankruptcy in 2003 and subsequent season cancellation.

In early 2018, Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, was heralded as a savior. Vale stepped in to rescue the symphony from a failed takeover by a new board of major donors and subsequent canceled season, to resuscitate the orchestra and its community with optimism and substantial financial contributions.

That effort was met with a challenge the following season that echoed a litany haunting the organization for years: a massive year-end deficit that threatened the very existence of the orchestra.

Then the coronavirus pandemic put a pause to the following season, with financial concerns allayed by a $2.4 million infusion of federal aid to keep musicians and staff employed even as concerts were canceled.

Reality returned with the onset of the 2021-2022 season in September. The positive energy of a free public concert on Main Plaza quickly dissipated by a restrictive contract imposed on musicians, who would be split into two tiers and have their compensation substantially reduced.

The musicians responded by calling a strike, which continues indefinitely after their union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23, withdrew from negotiations citing bad faith on the part of orchestra management, the Symphony Society of San Antonio.

AFM Local 23 subgroup the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) found support among community members who independently mounted concerts March 3-4 at First Baptist Church, partially to lend financial support to the struggling musicians, and also to get the orchestra back onstage.

Those concerts resulted in a series of concerts in May and June, one pair of which saw the return to San Antonio of Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing, music director emeritus who had led the symphony for more than a decade.

The Symphony Society responded by firing Lang-Lessing, citing a breach of contract.

MOSAS called the firing a betrayal of the community, which management denied, saying “actions were taken to ensure that symphonic music could return to the San Antonio community as quickly as possible once an agreement was reached.”

The statement echoes language from the late 2017 dispute that nearly saw the end of the symphony: the faction that split from the Symphony Society board was named Symphonic Music in San Antonio (SMSA), with a mission to eliminate annual budget deficits in part by implementing terms similar to the contract imposed five years later by the Symphony Society.

Vale and Corey Cowart, the symphony’s executive director, declined to be interviewed for this story but responded with an email stating a need for the board to “[remain] steadfast in its fiduciary duty” and “focus on realistic budgeting” that avoids repeated budget deficits and emergency funding to close them. They also emphasized management’s commitment to “constructive, transparent, and respectful public dialogue” throughout the negotiation process.

While speaking positively on his hopes for a meaningful resolution, Lang-Lessing said he sees a clear need for a wholesale change of board leadership.

“If you ask me, it’s game over for this group of people. You can quote me on that,” he said. “If you need to turn the page, the board needs to resign. And I say it publicly because the trust is not there.”

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, former Music Director Emeritus of the San Antonio Symphony, is leading the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony in a performance of Beethoven at the First Baptist Church of San Antonio this week. Lang-Lessing is seen here sitting on the front steps of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts which is not currently hosting the symphony.
Sebastian Lang-Lessing, former music director emeritus of the San Antonio Symphony, sits on the front steps of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, which is not currently hosting the symphony. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Burning bridges

Privately, San Antonio funders will say that bridges have been burned by the San Antonio Symphony over the years, that too many times has the organization asked to be bailed out to close deficit after annual deficit.

During negotiations, symphony management has repeated as much publicly in stating on its website the need to reduce the orchestra’s annual budget.

“Between the five years of our 2015-16 through 2019-20 seasons, we averaged needing one million dollars in emergency fundraising — each year. Even with the emergency funding, many of those years still ended in deficits. These were gifts that donors informed us to not expect to be given again for the same purpose, i.e., making up for budget and cash shortfalls. We are at the point that we must restore confidence in our ability to live within our means if we are ever to have an opportunity to build something stronger in the future.”

Management backs up its claims with audited financial statements posted on its website that state, “Management and the Board are dedicated to the survival of the Symphony but, under the current economic environment there is substantial doubt about the Symphony’s ability to continue as a going concern,” a statement included in audits since at least 2010.

Musicians and their union claim that the board is simply failing to live up to its responsibilities to raise enough monetary support from the city’s growing population, and repeatedly cite the examples of orchestras in other cities that have bounced back from the pandemic in good financial health.

Their positions have the two sides locked in a standoff, trading charges of negotiating in bad faith with the National Labor Relations Board. The inclusion of federal mediators in negotiations appears to have failed, with AFM Local 23 walking away from negotiations on April 29, resulting in the cancellation of remaining concerts in the current season.

Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony attend a San Antonio City Council meeting seeking support during their labor strike which has been ongoing since September, 2021.
Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony attend a San Antonio City Council meeting seeking support during their labor strike which has been ongoing since September 2021. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

MOSAS has replaced the scheduled season finale with concerts of its own, independently produced by the group’s new MOSAS Performance Fund nonprofit, scheduled for June 2-4 at First Baptist and led by the symphony’s remaining music director emeritus, Christopher Wilkins.

Meanwhile in Lubbock

Meanwhile, other U.S. orchestras are enjoying substantial rebounds from the pandemic’s negative effects.

One example from a much smaller city nearby provides either a sterling template of effective fundraising toward a bright future or a painful comparison that highlights San Antonio’s failure to marshal support for its flagship orchestra.

David Cho, music director of the 75-year-old Lubbock Symphony since 2011, set a goal to raise $30 million toward an endowment that would enable his orchestra to evolve from a freelance ensemble to a complement of 72 well-compensated musicians, while nearly doubling its 14-week season schedule.

Not only is his goal realistic, he said, but Cho and the group of supporters around him have so far raised nearly $5.2 million, and he expects to reach his fundraising goal within two years.

Cho cites the example of previous and current orchestra presidents Mary Saathoff and Galen Wixson, respectively, who left the organization budgetarily in the black and fostered goodwill among its community of supporters.

“We carry the torch, and continue to do what we’ve thought was successful in terms of fundraising and keeping expenses to the minimum without sacrificing the art,” Cho said. “And we have had tremendous support from our community.”

Unlike the San Antonio Symphony, which has enjoyed substantial support from the City of San Antonio and Bexar County over the years, the Lubbock Symphony receives no government support, dependent on private donations from individuals and corporate sponsors, and ticket sales that comprise around 15% of its annual budget.

Close contact and vocal appreciation are essential to garnering community support in the city of 270,000 residents, Cho said, “whether you’re a $5 donor to whether you’re a $50,000 donor.”

Dark years

Having been resident conductor for the San Antonio Symphony from 2004 to 2007, Cho holds a perhaps unique perspective on the future of both his current and past orchestras.

The San Antonio Symphony declared bankruptcy in 2003 and canceled its 2003-2004 season just before Cho was brought in by then-Music Director Larry Rachleff, who began his tenure with artistic fervor and fundraising optimism.

After the “dark year” of inactivity, Cho said, “the musicians were hopeful. The community was ecstatic that the Symphony came back. And slowly, but surely, we increased the … audience. … By the time I left, the orchestra was playing spectacularly and, I believe, had developed and nurtured a good relationship with corporate sponsorships and individual donors and foundations who believed that a world-class Symphony would be an absolute necessity for the community.”

Cho carried the optimism he experienced here to the orchestra in Lubbock, with the intention of cultivating artistic excellence and a growing budget. “In order to make an exponential improvement in our artistic standard, I felt that we needed to raise $30 million to attract great players and also be able to compensate our musicians on a respectable level,” Cho said.

Amid the San Antonio Symphony’s latest collapse, the Symphony Society claims artistic excellence is only possible once a sustainable budget is established — and has lost at least one season in its effort to achieve that balance. With no talk of raising funds for an endowment on the horizon and its two dueling sides far apart in negotiations, the immediate future of the San Antonio Symphony appears to be a repeat of the “dark year” Cho mentioned.

Rather than the “triumph over fate” captured by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, written after the composer experienced his own artistic crisis, another piece on the intended season finale program might better represent the symphony’s fate. Living American composer John Corigliano’s The Mannheim Rocket tracks a mighty starship’s ascent to the heavens before its “inevitable crash” back to earth.

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...