This article has been updated.
On Friday, San Antonio Symphony Executive Director Corey Cowart informed the orchestra’s board and staff that Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing had been terminated, ending his 12-year association with the orchestra.
Reasons given were that Lang-Lessing violated a section of his contract by failing to inform the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the board that manages the orchestra, of upcoming concerts that he will conduct with the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, the musicians union currently on strike. Those independently-produced concerts will take place at First Baptist Church May 12-13 as part of a three-concert series funded in part by the Symphony League of San Antonio.
“Sebastian Lang-Lessing scheduled and announced a concert at the exact same date and time of a concert he was scheduled to perform with the San Antonio Symphony — a clear breach of his contract,” Cowart wrote in an email to the San Antonio Report.
The direct conflict is with the May 13 concert, when Lang-Lessing was set to conduct Beethoven Symphony No. 7 with the San Antonio Symphony, should the strike resolve and the concert be performed. Lang-Lessing also remains on the schedule for Romantic Chopin on May 20-21.
Regarding the termination, Cowart cited a contract provision intended to give the orchestra exclusivity with its contracted artists. The clause states “artists shall neither make nor announce any appearances In San Antonio, Texas within 60 days prior to or following the performance dates of the concerts.”
With reports from both sides of little progress in ongoing negotiations, several concerts from the originally planned 2021-2022 season have been canceled, with only three classics concerts and one pops concert remaining through June 4. The symphony told its board and staff that it was in the process of searching for replacements for Lang-Lessing for the two concerts he was scheduled to conduct.
If the contract provision was meant to protect the symphony from a competing organization, Lang-Lessing said he disagrees with the termination decision. “Nobody can say that the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are a competing organization to the San Antonio Symphony.”
Cowart said Lang-Lessing failed to inform the symphony of his decision, “or to request any sort of exception to what is standard practice in our industry. This complete disregard for his agreement left the symphony no choice other than to terminate the remaining two performance weeks of his contract.”
The termination affects both Lang-Lessing’s emeritus status and his status as guest conductor for the two concerts.
Lang-Lessing said he was conducting with the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest last week when his management was informed of the termination by Cowart, but that he plans to be in San Antonio regardless of the results of his termination.
“I want to be on stage with the musicians, whatever we can come up with during this [unfortunate] situation. We should be all very grateful to the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony that they are actually dedicating that time and everything to make this work,” he said.
“The musicians are basically doing the symphony a big favor by continuing live music, by keeping in touch with the audience. Because, frankly, the Symphony Society is not in touch with the audience right now.” Lang-Lessing said. “I’m hired by the community, I’m hired by the musicians, I’m loyal to my patrons, and that’s what I’m doing. And that’s basically how I see my job, and [how] I always saw my job.”
Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violinist and negotiating committee member representing the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, said the termination appears retaliatory on the part of management.
“The Symphony Society might have been in their legal rights to do this, but it’s extraordinarily short-sighted,” Goree said. “It’s definitely retaliatory. That’s how it comes across to me and to every single person I’ve heard from.”
Cowart denied that the termination was retaliation “in no way, shape, or form,” and said that symphony management is working diligently “to salvage our season.”
Lang-Lessing expressed hope that the season could continue in some form. “Until the last minute, I will hope for that, that negotiations come to a point where we can go back on stage of the Tobin Center and perform together as the San Antonio Symphony.”
San Antonio Symphony Music Director Emeritus Christopher Wilkins is scheduled to perform the final concerts in the First Baptist Church series June 2-4.
“I’m willing to do anything I can to support the players and their livelihood. It’s been such a terrible time for them,” Wilkins said. “Part of what we can do is sell tickets and raise money, so I really hope people will turn out in force. And the other is to display what a great orchestra is about.”
Wilkins estimated about half of the current roster of musicians remain from his 20-year tenure as music director, which ended in 2001. His selections for the June concert program are meant to feature the orchestra at its best, he said.
“It’s a very competitive business in America to get into an orchestra. These are extremely skilled people who win these auditions. Yes, we all want to be efficient, and at the same time, there aren’t any shortcuts. So that’s partly what this program is about, too,” Wilkins said.
He said he has not been in communication with San Antonio Symphony management.
Lang-Lessing said that despite being informed of his termination, his sympathies lie with the musicians. “In comparison to what the musicians are suffering, not having been paid for the last seven months, this is a minor, minor footnote on the whole picture.”