For San Antonio Symphony assistant principal trumpet Daniel Taubenheim, “the trumpet shall sound.” Just not in San Antonio.
Taubenheim is one of at least two dozen among 68 San Antonio Symphony musicians who have found work with other orchestras across the nation as their strike continues, provoked by symphony management’s imposition of a contract that would reduce pay and the number of full-time musicians.
Since the strike began Sept. 27, orchestras have reached out to hire San Antonio musicians for substitute or longer-term contracts, and some players are unlikely to return even if the labor dispute is resolved.
“I moved,” said Taubenheim, who took a one-year contract with the Phoenix Symphony. “I literally have no ties to San Antonio anymore. I’m gone.”
An empty stage
Taubenheim is in rehearsals for Handel’s Messiah with the Phoenix Symphony. The phrase quoted above is the title of a trumpet solo in the 18th-century piece, a holiday season favorite that will be performed this month by orchestras across the nation.
In San Antonio, the symphony stage will be silent. The Messiah, originally scheduled for Dec. 22-23, is one of eight 2021-2022 season concerts canceled so far by the Symphony Society of San Antonio, which manages the orchestra, because of labor strife tied to ongoing budget shortfalls. Possibly due to understaffing during the strike, the Symphony’s website still shows at least two canceled concerts as “upcoming events.”
“I could be doing that in San Antonio,” Taubenheim said of sounding his trumpet, “but they're choosing to make that choice of putting us in sub-poverty wages, and that's why I'm not there anymore.”
At age 30, Taubenheim is relatively young in the orchestra world, and auditioning in other cities would be considered a normal part of his career trajectory.
However, 20-year symphony veteran Angela Caporale said the situation impacts musicians like her, who have based their lives in San Antonio, differently.
“The younger musicians are in a mindset already to think about moving, because the pay here has always been too low for our talent,” she said.
The average yearly wages for San Antonio Symphony musicians hovered around $35,000 for several years before the coronavirus pandemic, based on a 30-week concert schedule. The new contract imposed by management after a breakdown in negotiations would have reduced base pay for full-time musicians to $24,000, and stipulated an annual rate of $11,250 for part-time musicians — what Taubenheim referred to as "sub-poverty wages.” The two-tier pay system is referred to as an A/B orchestra in the symphony community.
Caporale has found substitute work with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, which she said emerged in the mid-1990s from an A/B orchestra, “which is what most orchestras want to get away from,” she said, to become a relatively financially healthy organization that pays her “more than I expected” during her gigs.
The Phoenix Symphony, which in addition to Taubenheim has hired several San Antonio Symphony musicians on contract and for guest and substitute spots, recently found its savior in Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, who in late September gave a record gift of $7.5 million to shore up the orchestra’s finances, celebrate the 75th anniversary of the orchestra and help ensure a healthy financial future.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Symphony has found no such donor to step in and end the economic woes of the organization, which has struggled year after year, decade upon decade, to maintain financial solvency, most recently posting a pre-pandemic deficit of $2 million for 2019.
‘Why would I stay?’
As the symphony stage lies dormant, clarinetist Stephanie Key has signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and was offered work with the Pittsburgh and Charlotte symphonies. Horn player Russell Rybicki has done guest gigs with the Sarasota Orchestra, Mobile Symphony Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mid-Texas Symphony, and will become principal horn for the Sarasota Opera’s upcoming season.
Clarinetist Rebecca Tobin had been scheduled to play in San Antonio on a one-year contract, but the strike intervened, “which means I sadly still haven't played there yet.” Instead, she has played as a substitute with the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, Kansas City Symphony and Sarasota Orchestra.
These are just a few examples of musicians who out of need, desire to pursue their career, to keep in performance shape and other reasons have found work elsewhere. They might not return to San Antonio should the opportunity eventually present itself.
Caporale, who arrived in 1999 to a management lockout and has endured the San Antonio Symphony's 2003 bankruptcy and repeated wage and schedule cuts, said in the past she’s been optimistic, but called the current strike “the worst it’s been.”
Taubenheim said were the situation different in San Antonio, he would have remained.
"The orchestra is so great. My colleagues are so fun, and they're great players," he said. "Everyone's so qualified and talented that I can envision a scenario where I would want to stay there. If you just look at that aspect of it, why would I want to leave? San Antonio is great — I have a great situation, it's easy to live there, I have college teaching jobs, you can make a really great life."
But facing the loss of health care benefits and weeks of work along with a severe reduction in pay, Taubenheim said, "Really, why would I want to stay?"
This article has been updated to reflect that eight concerts have been canceled and to correctly describe the symphony's understaffing during the strike.