Along with colleagues throughout the live performance industry, San Antonio Symphony musicians have endured their share of hardships wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing half the 2019-20 season to concert cancellations, then returning at half capacity and an 80% pay reduction for a reduced-schedule 2020-21 season, the musicians now face a potential 50% reduction in base salary and health care benefits.

In a Sunday announcement to news media, Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Chair Mary Ellen Goree characterized the proposed 2021-2022 season base salary of $17,710, dropped from the originally-agreed upon $35,774 annual salary, as “poverty level” wages. The proposal is the latest challenge for an orchestra beset by troubles in recent years, including a near-dissolution in late 2017.

The symphony had received $1.9 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program funds to offset pandemic losses, but those funds were used to keep musicians and staff on the payroll and will not apply to the 2021-22 concert season.

Symphony Executive Director Corey Cowart said in an email that the continuing pandemic presents significant challenges. “Everyone is eager to return to live performances and bring music back to the stage. To remain a constant in the community, though, the organization must achieve and maintain financial stability. We’ve worked tirelessly to develop a responsible fiscal plan to achieve that goal to strengthen the organization today and for years to come.”

Cowart cautioned that negotiations are ongoing, with another session set for Monday, and that “no final decisions have been made.”

Goree said the proposed pay cut would result in part from a reduced performance schedule during the upcoming season, from a 31-week season to 23 weeks, though she said those numbers could change.

American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23 President Richard Oppenheim said the negotiating committee, which includes him, Goree, and other representatives of the union and musicians, had offered to reopen the current three-year contract first settled upon in 2019, recognizing the probable need to make adjustments because of the pandemic.

However, Oppenheim said he had not anticipated such a drastic reduction in pay for the musicians.

“It’s just a bit unseemly, frankly, and it’s not sustainable,” he said of the proposed wage level. Of the symphony organization in general, he said, “they’re happy to talk about their own sustainability, but nobody seems to want to consider the sustainability of the people who actually create the music. And they can’t live on what they’re being offered. It’s just as simple as that.”

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 poverty threshold for a household with two adults under age 65 is $17,331.

As lines gathered outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to attend the facility’s annual open house, Goree and other musicians and union representatives of Local 23 handed out informational leaflets asking San Antonians to “stand with us in asking for a reasonable salary.”

Oppenheim joined in the effort, which he characterized as “consciousness raising” rather than a protest.

The latest base salary proposal is the third received during negotiations ongoing since March, Oppenheim said, and represents what he characterized as a “daunting gulf” between the level of wages offered by the San Antonio Symphony and payment requested by musicians.

Both Goree and Oppenheim stressed that they respected symphony administration and board members of the Symphony Society Of San Antonio, the primary fundraising arm of the orchestra, for their work restoring the symphony since its near collapse in early 2018 and for recent efforts to establish good relations with the union and musicians.

Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violin for the San Antonio Symphony and Chair of the players committee in San Antonio Symphony Musicians, speaks with an arts supporter in front of the Tobin Performing Arts center Saturday.
Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violin for the San Antonio Symphony and chair of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, speaks with an arts supporter Saturday in front of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“I think that the board sincerely believes that that is the best they can offer us,” Goree said. “I want to make it very clear that we have some extremely hardworking people on our board. And we have some extraordinarily generous people on our board. And this informational leaflet is in no way intended to cast aspersions. But [the current wage proposal] is not a sustainable level for the musicians. We literally cannot stay onstage at that level. It exceeds our ability to subsidize the symphony through our own efforts.”

Symphony Society board Chair Kathleen Vale is credited with rescuing the symphony in 2018 and leading the orchestra through several successful rounds of fundraising including substantive help from Bexar County and the City of San Antonio.

However, Oppenheim criticized symphony leadership for failing to secure adequate funding to support the symphony as it recovers from the pandemic.

“I would say that there was a very good reservoir of goodwill extended toward Kathleen, in particular,” he said. “She really moved heaven and earth to keep this orchestra functioning. But there’s only so many times that you can spend that capital. And I think we’ve reached a point now where it’s not there to be spent. Nobody has any personal animosity towards either Kathleen or Cory, but there are serious questions about their stewardship.”

Goree appealed to “foundations, corporations, and even individuals in San Antonio, who if they only knew how much they already benefit from the presence of the San Antonio Symphony in their city would welcome an opportunity” to offer financial support to keep the symphony functioning at its pre-pandemic level.

Oppenheim said of Monday’s negotiation session that he “would hope that people across the table from us offer some proposals that we can take seriously.”

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...