This article has been updated.

After an initial contract proposal that would reduce musicians’ pay by 50%, the San Antonio Symphony is seeking to drastically reduce the size of the orchestra.

Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violinist and negotiating committee member representing the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, said Symphony management is proposing to slash the size of the orchestra from 71 full-time musicians to 42. She characterized the proposal as the Symphony board’s “last, best, and final offer” of ongoing negotiations for the final year of the 2019-2022 contract.

Since 2017, the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) has seen its near demise followed by resurrection, and was looking toward a brighter future when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

“I feel like we are fighting, not only for our professional lives, but for the continued artistic existence of the San Antonio Symphony,” Goree said Monday night.

Kathleen Weir Vale, the chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, confirmed the proposal Tuesday, saying in a prepared statement that the board is unanimous “in its belief that the Symphony live within its means.”

Acknowledging the repeated cycles of financial struggle the Symphony has endured for decades, Vale said, “there is no evidence these repeated emergency campaigns serve our organization, our musicians, our donors, and our patrons for the long term.”

The orchestra weathered the pandemic with the help of federal funding to continue paying the salaries of musicians and staff, and the organization has emerged from the pandemic “in the black,” she stated.

“As we enter a new post-pandemic world, the Symphony Board is committed to build a sustainable business model, based on a responsible financial plan, balanced with a generous and engaged community.”

Flashback to 2017

Along with many arts organizations who lost their ability to perform for live audiences, the Symphony suffered a loss of $4 million in ticket revenue since the pandemic began, offset by an agreement with musicians to take an 80% pay cut for the reduced 2020-21 concert season.

However, Goree called the pandemic “a convenient excuse” to continue drastic cuts to musicians’ pay into the foreseeable future. She compared the San Antonio Symphony’s position to that of other orchestras around the nation, which have also suffered losses and temporary pay cuts but have since returned to economic health.

“This is not an inevitable outcome from the pandemic,” Goree said.

The cuts proposed by the Symphony Society come despite the organization’s positive cash flow during the pandemic and an increase in its donor base. Executive Director Corey Cowart said fundraising through the pandemic “has been positive.” For the 2020-21 season, the Symphony board contributed more than $700,000 in donations with a 50% increase in the number of Symphony donors, according to Cowart. 

“We have not seen funding sources pull expected funding, other than those local government grants in the spring of 2020,” he said via email. “We feel our fundraising projections for the 2021-22 season are both aspirational and attainable.”

For Symphony musicians, the proposal to cut the size of the orchestra represents a step backward to 2017, when the board split into two factions, one trying to preserve the orchestra and another vying to reduce its size to what would essentially be a chamber orchestra, or part-time orchestra, common to cities of much smaller size than San Antonio.

Goree has experience with one such orchestra, the Shreveport Symphony, where she served as concertmaster. With a population of less than 400,000, the Shreveport-Bossier City metro area ranks 138th in the U.S. in population. San Antonio touts itself as the nation’s seventh largest city, but its 2.5 million-population metro area taken as a whole ranks 24th.

Still, that puts San Antonio on par with Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee, all of which maintain quality orchestras. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra pays its musicians an average of $67,000 annually, nearly twice the current base $35,774 base pay of SAS musicians.

During current negotiations, SAS management initially proposed a cut in base pay to $17,710, which at the time Goree characterized as “poverty level” wages.

Goree said the new proposal creates an “A/B” structure used by regional orchestras, such as Shreveport and Boise, Idaho, which use part-time musicians to make up about one-third of the orchestra for a given performance. The current Symphony Society proposal asks for 26 part-time musicians in addition to the 42 contracted full-time musicians, which Goree said would likely result in a once-per-month concert schedule for the full orchestra, supplemented by school concerts and less formal performances by the full-time musicians.

Goree left her Shreveport Symphony concertmaster position to take a position with the second violin section of the San Antonio Symphony, which she called “a big step down in status” for her at the time, but was considered more prestigious by professional musicians. In part, that’s because each musician would be fully dedicated to the orchestra, whereas part-time musicians must maintain other work, often full time, because their part-time wages are not enough to live on. She predicted that the San Antonio Symphony would lose its musicians to other cities better positioned to sustain them.

‘A total disaster’

Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing backed up Goree’s assertions. “The whole concept is artistically totally not viable,” he said. “It makes absolutely no sense.”

“From an artistic standpoint, it’s a total disaster. It’s the destruction of an orchestra.”

San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing leads musicians during a rehearsal for an upcoming concert at the Tobin Center.
San Antonio Symphony Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Lang-Lessing, who served as conductor and music director until 2020, said that the current Symphony repertoire, already planned into the 2021-22 season, would not be viable with the proposed group of 42 “core” musicians and 26 part-timers. The orchestra already has a hard time finding substitutes in the region when a musician must be temporarily replaced or hired to fulfill a special instrumental role not covered by the regular lineup, he said, and the situation would become a logistical nightmare if such a number of musicians would have to be hired on a concert-by-concert basis.

“Financially, it won’t even have the savings that they think it would have,” he said, in part due to additional staffing necessary to handle the increased scheduling workload and travel costs to bring in musicians from the region for part-time work.

The Symphony repertoire would have to change, a move he said would alienate San Antonio audiences, resulting in decreased ticket revenue and donations.

“This is trying to save money, but in a very ill-prepared way” that does not properly account for the artistic cost, he said. “You’re not becoming sustainable by cutting something to irrelevance.”

Fundraising at issue

Goree and her fellow musicians maintain that the financial support for a full orchestra exists in San Antonio if only the management and board would seek it out.

Corporate donations average less than $100,000 per year in San Antonio, she said, while similar donations to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra totaled at least $438,000 in 2020.

The current proposal of the board to reduce the size of the orchestra puts Vale and the Symphony Society in the awkward position of affirming, intentionally or not, that San Antonio cannot, or will not, support a full-size, full-time symphony orchestra.

In 2017, a Symphony board faction calling itself Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), pushed for a smaller orchestra.

SMSA comprised H-E-B, a significant corporate sponsor; the Kronkosky Foundation; and the Tobin Endowment. The group pulled its support when Vale reconstituted the full-size Symphony in early 2018.

Goree said the current high level of quality of the Symphony, which attracts musicians nationwide who compete for its positions, is what could be compromised by significant pay cuts or a reduction in full-time orchestra players supplemented by part-time musicians.

In a telephone interview, Vale emphasized the importance of moving beyond “a Sisyphus kind of activity” in confronting repeated budget shortfalls, putting stress on the musicians and the community of Symphony supporters.

“What we’re saying is that they deserve better. And the community deserves better. And what we’re saying is that viability engenders artistic excellence,” she said.

Kathleen Weir Vale, chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

‘Smoke and ashes’

Lang-Lessing learned the details of the contract proposal while in South Korea leading the Korea National Opera.

“I’m devastated,” he said, not only for himself but for the musicians he has led over his 10-year-career in San Antonio.

“Most importantly, I just worry about the livelihood of the musicians,” he said. “They took this enormous pay cut last season under the impression they’re gonna make up for it in the following one,” only to face proposals to reduce their pay and lose their jobs.

“We had an amazing, thriving [time] in these 10 years, moving into the Tobin Center, with many super exciting and artistically satisfying performances that made San Antonio proud of its Symphony.”

Rather than building on that legacy, he now faces the prospect of a very different San Antonio Symphony.

“That is 10 years of my life going into smoke and ashes,” Lang-Lessing said.

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...