In January, Brian Petkovich came to a personal decision. The San Antonio Symphony assistant principal bassoonist resigned his position as a musician’s representative on the orchestra’s board of directors.

Facing an ongoing strike with little resolution in sight, Petkovich decided “to not spend any more effort being morose about anything,” and to focus instead on “getting everyone back on stage.”

Joined by four other of the orchestra’s musicians — Peter Rubins, James Seymour, Karen Stiles, and Stephanie Westney — Petkovich led an effort that resulted in a series of public concerts by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) at First Baptist Church, organized independently from symphony management.

Twelve days after that concert series ended, the Symphony Society of San Antonio announced the dissolution of the 83-year-old San Antonio Symphony.

In the days since, the MOSAS concerts have become a template for a new organization that might lead San Antonio into a new future of orchestral music, starting with more planned MOSAS performances in the fall.

As president of the new nonprofit MOSAS Performance Fund, Petkovich is realistic in his expectations and the complications he and his fellow musicians must confront, including the logistics of organizing a season, the ongoing challenge of fundraising, and the loss of several members of the orchestra to jobs in other cities.

“We can’t replace the organization immediately unless we have a windfall. But we can hopefully keep enough people in town that it’s going to be the start of something new, and who knows where it goes” from there, he said.

‘World-class, full-size, fairly paid’

While Petkovich is busy working on logistics, others are working behind the scenes on behalf of a potential new orchestra organization.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the former music director emeritus who lost his job for supporting the musicians’ efforts, flew back to San Antonio from his work in Seoul with the Korea National Opera to continue his talks with city leaders.

Lang-Lessing insists that the prior model of board leadership by private individuals does not work, and is looking to help fashion a new leadership and funding model that includes musicians, funders, and the community in decision-making.

Most importantly, it would include substantial city and county funding at a level not previously seen, at least by the orchestra.

“When we think about how the Tobin Center came to life with a private/public venture, where actually most of the money came from the taxpayer, I think that should also be the model of the [new] San Antonio symphony, especially right now,” Lang-Lessing said, referring to how pandemic recovery efforts have reshaped government support of the arts sector.

The city’s aging Municipal Auditorium became the revamped Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in 2014 with $100 million from the 2008 Bexar County bond program, $40 million in property deeds from the City of San Antonio, and $50 million in private funding raised by J. Bruce Bugg Jr., co-founder of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, which owns and operates the Tobin Center. At the time, Bugg called it “the most successful public and private partnership ever in the history of this country.”

In recalling the success of the project, Lang-Lessing said, “All these things have to come together to construct one plan that actually has the whole community being the owner of symphony.”

Though Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff were unable to weigh in during negotiations between musicians and management, both leaders have voiced support for continuing a symphony with a new organizational model.

Wolff told the San Antonio Report that he had spoken with Bugg, now chair and trustee of the Tobin Endowment, a major symphony funder in past years, and the two concluded that “we’re gonna have to work to stand up a new organization to support the symphony. I imagine there’ll be some ongoing talks over the next several months about how we do that.”

Nirenberg said he also supports the idea. “I believe that a major city like San Antonio deserves and should have a world-class, full-size, fairly paid symphony orchestra. And that is a vision I am still committed to.”

The failure of the now-dissolved board and the musicians to reach an agreement “speaks to the structural deficiencies of the old model,” he said.

“Without a doubt, musicians can’t be expected to play for poverty wages. And the symphony board obviously couldn’t afford to pay them adequately. How we reconcile those things is the challenging next step,” Nirenberg said.

Facing hurdles

Concerned arts leader George Cisneros, music and media director of the Urban-15 performance troupe, called the end of the 83-year-old San Antonio Symphony “a tragedy,” and pointed out that any new nonprofit group would face a significant potential hurdle. Department of Arts and Culture rules require three years of public programming before a nonprofit becomes eligible to receive city funding.

Referring to the Internal Revenue Service code number for nonprofit organizations, Cisneros said, “the loss of that 501(c)(3) number is deadly.”

Nirenberg said the rule is meant for organizations to demonstrate stability, which the symphony was unable to achieve.

“Whether it’s the current rules or something other, the most important element is the sustainable path forward,” he said.

Nirenberg said getting there will require cooperation and understanding on the part of multiple stakeholders. “I would expect that there will be a role for the city and the county to play, provided that there’s a sustainable financial foundation that we’re building on,” he said.

“There needs to be strong corporate interest, and I’ve had enough conversations with business leaders around the community who believe in the importance of symphony orchestras. There’s a role for membership and growing audience participation. The proportions of all those pillars, though, deserve a lot of discussion.”

One feature of future discussions will be cementing the importance of continuing the symphony’s Young People’s Concerts, which traditionally brought more than 40,000 students per year to the Tobin Center. Petkovich said the new orchestra will prioritize bringing music to schools, rather than the other way around.

“We have to show that we’re willing to meet people where they are,” he said.

Institutional memory

Christopher Wilkins conducted one of two recent free public Young People’s Concerts at First Baptist Church. Though Wilkins lost his status as music director emeritus with the Symphony Society’s decision to dissolve the orchestra, he believes the musicians are looking toward a brighter future.

“I found the orchestra in tip-top form,” he said. “They’re playing great, which says a lot about them, and also the leadership they’ve enjoyed for the last decade. … It was really heartening, and I felt nothing but goodwill. I didn’t know what I’d expect in terms of morale and their orientation toward the future, but I found that also entirely positive.”

Wilkins said preserving the group’s 83 years of institutional memory is crucial, in particular the decades of musical information contained within the music library.

Sarah Donaldson wears a hat showing support of the San Antonio Symphony during their free concert in Main Plaza last September.
Sarah Donaldson wears a hat showing support of the San Antonio Symphony during their free concert in Main Plaza last September. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

“That’s the DNA of the music-making,” he said. “It’s decades and decades of careful preparation, careful work, and the investment of time of the people who are on stage. … An awful lot of the markings that are in those parts represent the hard work of the very musicians who are still performing.”

Presumably, the music library will be considered among organizational assets, the fate of which will be decided by the Bexar County bankruptcy court.

Meanwhile, the orchestra will undergo a transformation. Lang-Lessing compared the situation to the metamorphosis phase, wherein a caterpillar creates a chrysalis then emerges as a butterfly. Wilkins also chose a nature metaphor, the molting of a hermit crab searching for a new shell.

Casting off the old shell — the board’s 83-year history of successes and resentments built on failures — might smooth the way to renewed community relationships, he said.

“They have to find new means of support or reinvigorate former means, and maybe that becomes more possible now,” Wilkins said. “Because it’s not a matter of choosing sides. You can just say, ‘Alright, let’s move into the present tense and just say San Antonio does have a great orchestra still, and it deserves support.”

Nirenberg said San Antonio is ready to move forward. “I have faith that our community is up to the challenge of determining what the new structure should be, and I am confident that the loss of the symphony orchestra in San Antonio is not permanent.”

Reporter Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.

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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...