On Sept. 30, the vaunted Cleveland Orchestra celebrated a record $50 million gift, the largest in its 103-year history. That same day, the lesser-known Phoenix Symphony landed a record $7.5 million from a local charitable foundation.

In stark contrast, the Symphony Society on Tuesday announced the cancellation of the San Antonio Symphony’s first two concerts of the season, Oct. 29-30 and Nov. 5-6.

With its musicians on strike and its 2021-2022 season imperiled, the symphony appears to have no savior on the horizon to rescue it from ongoing financial woes, including a $2 million budget deficit in 2019 and a $3 million shortfall for 2020.

As a result of those shortfalls, on Sept. 26 the board imposed a new contract on its musicians that would cut wages and nearly halve the full-time complement of the orchestra from 71 to 42 players, with the remainder to be made up of 26 even lower paid part-timers — known in the industry as an “A/B” structure.

The next day, the musicians declared the strike.

Symphony Society board chair Kathleen Weir Vale has said the orchestra’s current $8 million annual budget is unsustainable, in part because major philanthropic donations and corporate support are not forthcoming.

Corey Cowart, the symphony’s executive director, has said that a $5 million annual budget would create conditions for stability, and better fundraising prospects for the future.

But even that amount appears out of reach. So rather than preparing to enjoy a full season of orchestral concerts, San Antonio now faces the possible end of the full-time professional symphony it has known since 1939.

Other orchestras around the country have survived near-fatal blows, however, and their various strategies for survival offer potential ways forward.

A look at an A/B orchestra

While the musicians in San Antonio are vehemently opposed to an A/B structure with deeply reduced wages, that strategy saved the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky.

A 2011 article in the New York Times headlined “Survival Strategies for Orchestras” recounts the rise and fall of Louisville’s orchestra, which reached its heyday in the 1960s by commissioning new works and releasing recordings, but suffered during the economic difficulties of the 2000s and declared bankruptcy in 2011.

A passage in the article reads as though it could equally apply to the current situation of the San Antonio Symphony: “… perennial instability has stemmed in part from an overreliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large corporations, some of which reduced donations during difficult economic periods or moved out of town.”

The 84-year-old orchestra found stability by resorting to an A/B structure, using a smaller number of full-time musicians complemented by freelancers — a plan nearly identical to the current contract change that initiated the strike in San Antonio.

The Louisville Orchestra went from 71 full-time musicians to 55, which at the time was called “not a calamity” by then-music director Jorge Mester. The orchestra’s director of marketing disagreed.

“The ‘calamity’ was indeed felt in the lives and careers of those who were disrupted by the tough situation,” said Michelle Winters. However, “the structure allowed time for the Louisville Orchestra to begin to rebuild,” she said.

Since then, the number of musicians has increased to 60, along with increased annual wages, and “our goal is to build that even further,” Winters said. “These increases go hand-in-hand with cooperative fundraising efforts, increased support by musicians of community outreach programs, and careful financial management.”

The population of Louisville is 246,000, about one-sixth of San Antonio’s population of 1.43 million.

A musician-led model

Another option is becoming a musician-governed entity, like the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) based in New Orleans.

The LPO was formed in 1991 after the collapse of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, which had cut its season from 40 weeks in 1980 to 23 weeks in 1990, but still failed to keep up with its $3.8 million budget (roughly equal to $7.8 million in 2021 dollars).

Comprised of the collapsed orchestra’s musicians, the LPO adopted an unusual organizational structure and now bills itself as “our nation’s longest-standing musician-governed and collaboratively operated orchestra.”

Most nonprofits are run by boards, but in the case of the LPO, the sole corporate members are its full-time musicians.

As the group notes, “the LPO began in 1991 with nothing but sweat equity and a small amount of cash support from the orchestra musicians and a few donors.”

While San Antonio’s orchestra doesn’t lack for individual donors — Vale has cited 150% growth in the past year — corporate giving has fallen. A quick glance at a concert program from the 2017-2018 season shows corporate donations of nearly $400,000, while current giving and future projections are mired at $90,000 annually.

“As the city of San Antonio has gotten bigger and bigger, the symphony has gotten smaller and smaller. And I would like to know why that is,” said Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violin and member of the negotiating committee for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. As she spoke, she and other musicians distributed leaflets outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as audiences assembled for Opera San Antonio’s performances of Don Giovanni, during which San Antonio Symphony musicians would normally have been playing.

Goree said that before negotiations reached an impasse, musicians had suggested strategies to raise emergency funds to cover the season deficits, but were rebuffed.

Vale and Cowart say they and the board have asked San Antonio’s corporations, but “no one likes to fund debt,” Vale told the San Antonio Report.

“Everybody’s put through the wringer when the numbers aren’t right. Because if we don’t have the resources to finish the season, look what happens to the musicians, look what happens to the public, look what happens to the community, the ticket holders, the donors, they’re like, ‘Whoa, what am I doing giving money to this organization? They can’t even finish their year,’” she said.

Lauren Eberhart, a trumpeter with the San Antonio Symphony, hands out a flier to a couple attending Opera San Antonio’s performance of Don Giovanni at the Tobin Center on Thursday.
Lauren Eberhart, a trumpeter with the San Antonio Symphony, hands out a flier to a couple attending Opera San Antonio’s performance of Don Giovanni at the Tobin Center. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Financial viability is key to fund-raising, she said, which is the primary motivation for imposing the new A/B model and its more sustainable budget.

“We’re trying to get to the point from which we can grow,” Vale said, while expressing optimism that corporate giving could rebound once sustainability is proven.

“I believe we’ll be able to raise more money from the corporate community, when the corporate community understands that we are going to be a financially viable organization,” she said.

A matter of a trust

The San Antonio Symphony is not alone in its persistent struggles. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachussetts is currently locked in a lawsuit with its musicians, who have broken from management and scheduled an Oct. 15 concert on their own, supported by grants and donations.

An effort by one longtime supporter of the San Antonio Symphony could help produce a similar result here.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony’s music director emeritus, is in South Korea guest conducting for the Korea National Opera. While overseas, he is organizing a trust to benefit the San Antonio musicians he has conducted for the past decade. The trust will accept donations from anyone asking, “What can we do to help the musicians?,” Lang-Lessing said, but who are hesitant to donate to the board during the current impasse.

Funds would go directly to the musicians, Lang-Lessing said, first in an emergency capacity, then for other possibilities — including potential concerts.

Whether a trust could lend financial independence to the San Antonio musicians, enabling them to establish a musician-led orchestra similar to the LPO, is no guarantee, Lang-Lessing said.

His former teacher Klauspeter Seibel left Germany to become the first music director of the LPO. Initially, Seibel was impressed with the musician’s initiative. “He totally fell in love with it,” Lang-Lessing said. “It had amazing energy in the beginning, but it’s also not a guarantee for success,” he cautioned, as the organization still struggles to find funding.

Whatever the case, Lang-Lessing said, “We should not go back to status quo. And I think everybody agrees on that. There needs to be major reform.” Of the forthcoming trust, he said, “This is the first step in the right direction.”

Nicholas Frank

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 an indie rock...