Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony's music director, stands with the San Antonio Symphony at at San Antonio's Eastside Tricentennial Celebration at St. Philip's College on May 3, 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This weekend, the San Antonio Symphony wraps up a dramatic season of tumult and redemption, with a Pops celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway classics, Friday through Sunday, June 8-10, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The popular composers of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music, are an appropriate choice to represent the challenges the Symphony has faced during one of the most difficult periods in its nearly 80-year history. Lyrics from the hit song read:

A dream that will need
All the love you can give

Ongoing budgetary woes and a contentious contract negotiation with musicians caused a group of major donors to pull out of plans to take over leadership of the Symphony on Dec. 27. As a result, the season was cancelled on Jan. 3. Two days later, the announcement was reversed and the Symphony’s season resurrected.

To recover from the months-long upheaval, the Symphony has needed its community to show “all the love it can give,” along with the financial support necessary to keep it afloat.

On Jan. 19, the Bexar County Commissioners Court issued a matching grant of $350,000 to help the Symphony raise funds to complete its truncated season. Less than two months later, Pau Gasol, the popular forward for the San Antonio Spurs, joined the Symphony’s new advisory board.

According to Symphony Board Chair Kathleen Weir Vale, 940 individual donors have given more than $818,000, more than doubling the matching grant. Individual donations ranged from $10 to $100,000, Vale said.

The County Commissioners officially awarded the matching funds to the Symphony during its June 5 session with a unanimous vote. From the bench, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff praised Vale’s dedication and her persistence against skepticism from some naysayers.

“We did step up to kind of help a little bit,” Wolff said of the County, “but she did the hard work.”

Pau Gasol, the San Antonio Spurs’ center and a six-time NBA All-Star who has joined the San Antonio Symphony’s advisory board, sits with Kathleen Weir Vale, chair of the San Antonio Symphony board of directors.
San Antonio Spurs center and Symphony advisory board member Pau Gasol sits with Kathleen Weir Vale, chair of the San Antonio Symphony board of directors. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Of the number of donors and amount of funds raised during the matching grant period, Wolff said, “that showed a tremendous support out there that heretofore hasn’t really been tapped.” Though major donors need to come back into the fold, Wolff said, addressing Vale, “you really kind of ‘democracized’ the giving community by reaching out to many more smaller donors.”

Though applicable to the 2017-18 fiscal year budget, the County funding comes with strings attached, in the form of a new City-County Symphony Transformation Task Force, convened in late March to advise Symphony leadership on best practices for achieving financial stability.

The task force has met several times, and is preparing a report for the Symphony board, according to Denny Ware, who chairs the task force.

One thing is already clear, Ware said: “There is a lot of support for the Symphony, and a lot of realization on many people’s part that the Symphony is a key part of the culture of this city.”

During Commissioners Court, Vale noted that revenue from classics concerts, under the artistic direction of Sebastian Lang-Lessing, rose 62 percent in 2018, including near-sellouts for both concerts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on April 13 and 14.

“I think the fact that our audiences were very sparse in the fall, and we’ve been playing for full houses all spring, was a dramatic change,” said Mary Ellen Goree, violinist and orchestra committee chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.

“I feel very good vibes from the community,” said Lang-Lessing, artistic director and conductor for the Symphony. “We need to again go out and send a unified message that portrays the orchestra and the organization as a unified entity.”

A musician appreciation dinner held June 3 at La Fonda on Main gave the board a chance to thank the musicians and staff for persevering through a difficult time, Vale said, and also allowed musicians an opportunity to show their appreciation for management.

“We were able to thank Kathleen [Weir Vale] for stepping up, and thank Karina Bharne, our interim executive director, for really making all that possible,” bassoonist and musician’s union secretary treasurer Brian Petkovich said of the board’s recovery efforts.

Lang-Lessing’s message to the assembled group was one of unity, he said. “My message is always that we need to stand really strong together – everybody involved – because the challenge goes on.

“It’s not that we faced a near-catastrophe in the closure of the Symphony, and now everything is fine,” Lang-Lessing said. Now, “the challenge just starts for us.”

One challenge is bringing back former donors into the fold. “We need everybody’s support,” Lang-Lessing said. “Everyone who’s ever been involved with the Symphony only wanted to do the best thing,” he pointed out.

When asked whether major donors of the past, like the board members of Symphonic Music of San Antonio, might return to support the Symphony, Vale echoed Lang-Lessing’s thoughts.

“We are eternally grateful to them,” she said. “They have been our traditional supporters, we would not be here without them. We would not have been able to do what we’ve done this year. They give us legitimacy and credibility and authenticity, and I hope to regain their trust and their support.”

Though the season wraps up this weekend, more good news is yet to come, Vale promised. Fundraising will continue in order to end the fiscal year in a strong position, she said, and a new contract agreement with musicians is pending for next season. The current contract, a temporary agreement reached during negotiations to continue the season in January, expires Aug. 31.

With details left to be worked out, things might go smoothly if the feelings sensed by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), in attendance at the appreciation dinner on Sunday, continue.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) gives his annual State of the Center City address.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Summed up in one word, the tone of the event was “family,” Treviño said.

“They have really bonded through this difficult time. You’re looking at a group of people that are very happy to have gotten past the potential end of the season … ,” he said, which “now feels like a million years ago” considering the show of community support and strong concert attendance.

Treviño, who sits on the nine-member City-County task force, said “there’s a whole lot of work that we’ll be doing together” to stabilize and move forward.

“… They’re not looking for somebody to solve their problems, they’re very much invested in solving their problems,” and have already implemented some recommendations the task force plans to convey, Treviño said.

Treviño summed up the season, “Instead of being a story of failure, it’s a story of opportunity, of people banding together, working together to really express our values in the most meaningful way, which is taking action. I think it’s a great story.”

Considering Lang-Lessing’s thought that the Symphony’s real challenge is just beginning, lyrics from an Oscar Hammerstein song titled “There’s A Hill Beyond a Hill,” fit the situation:

There is no road too long to walk,
No mountain peak too high to climb! 

Collaboration was key to the success of the songwriting duo, and will be key to the success of the Symphony going forward, Vale said, speaking of ongoing work with other arts groups and significant community outreach efforts.

“The musicians care a lot about music, but care lot about San Antonio,” too, Ware said. “Their outreach into the community has been strong for a long time, and we’re making sure we’re reaching out as much as we possibly can, to make sure we’re bringing more people into the family.”

Tickets are still available for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Celebration concerts Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

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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...