Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Symphony

UPDATE: The San Antonio Symphony board and several major donors released the terms of a funding agreement on Friday that includes a combined $600,000 contribution to completely lift the struggling performance art company out of its deficit for this fiscal year. 

Click here to read our coverage of Friday’s announcement.


A high profile group of stakeholders is coming together Friday morning at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to pledge renewed support and financial aid for the San Antonio Symphony, which last month announced a 10% cut in orchestra and senior management pay, and more recently, experienced difficulties in meeting its payroll before new pledges of support were received.

The new funding comes with conditions. Symphony management will bring greater financial discipline to its operations and stakeholders are expected to sign a letter of agreement at the press conference setting forth the exact terms.

How much new funding the symphony will receive has not been disclosed, but at least one stakeholder said it should be sufficient to reverse a recent move to reduce the symphony’s 2016-2017 season by three weeks and the salaries of the 72 musicians. Orchestra members already are among the lowest paid among big city symphony musicians nationally, despite the strong reputation of the orchestra and Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, a Berlin native who is internationally recognized.

Musicians, many of them graduates of the finest conservatories and universities, earn $1,100 a week for the 30-week season, or annual salaries of $33,000, about $17,000 less than a first-year public school teacher. The planned cutbacks would reduce their season to 27 weeks and their pay to $29,700. The concertmaster, section principals, and assistant principals earn more, but virtually all of the musicians work as music teachers or operate private teaching studios to augment their income. Some hold jobs in real estate or other fields to pay their bills. Many teach inner city music students at little or no charge.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr., chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Foundation, was out of town on business and was not available for comment. He is expected to lead the press conference and oversee some of the new financial practices that symphony management has agreed to adopt.

San Antonio Symphony CEO David Gross and Lessing, both of whom have been slated to take 10% pay cuts, were unavailable for comment on Thursday.

Bugg and symphony officials will be joined at the press conference by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff; Assistant City Manager Lori Houston; Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Foundation; Dya Campos, public affairs director for H-E-B, the symphony’s biggest donor in the private sector; and a representative of the San Antonio Area Foundation. David Kinder, the current symphony board chair and a partner at the Cox/Smith law firm, also is expected to speak.

Kinder, Houston, and Campos were not immediately available for comment.

The San Antonio Symphony prepares for its final 2014-2015 season performance. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
The San Antonio Symphony prepares for its final 2014-2015 season performance. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

Bexar County Giving $300,000 More

“The Commissioners Court is giving $300,000 to the symphony to help them to get something worked out,”  Wolff said Thursday. “We give them $125,000 a year. All the stakeholders are on the same page: these contributions require the symphony to cut back on the budget.”

Wolff said he does not want to see orchestra musicians suffer a pay cut.

“It’s too bad, really it’s terrible, how little these talented people earn, they are so important to the city’s profile, to our arts economy, and they do incredible work in our schools with students drawn to study music,” Wolff said. “We have to find ways to demonstrate to the people of San Antonio how very important it is to have a strong symphony here.

“As far as I am concerned, a San Antonio without the symphony would mean the Tobin project was a failure,” Wolff said. “Voters approved the bonds to redesign and improve the Tobin with the understanding it would become the new home to the symphony, the ballet and the opera.”

County Judge Nelson Wolff points to the back of the audience to a colleague. Photo by Scott Ball.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. Photo by Scott Ball.

Wolff said symphony musicians will perform at his next State of the County address in early May so he can underscore his personal commitment to the orchestra.

The symphony’s continuing financial plight has drawn outside attention, both in the classical music world and in the national media at a time when most coverage of San Antonio is about its growth, prosperity and rich culture, or the Spurs.

“I first came to San Antonio 10 years ago and I fell in love with the city and I fell in love with the symphony, which is one of the finest orchestras in the country,” said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians and a professional bassist with the North Carolina Symphony. Ridge most recently visited the city last month when the proposed cuts to musician pay were first announced.

“That is not hyperbole,” he said in a long sit-down interview as the orchestra rehearsed at the Tobin in late March. “I have the opportunity to hear all of the orchestras across the country and San Antonio’s orchestra is absolutely one of the finest in the country, especially given its size with only 72 musicians. It sounds much bigger, and it is an incredibly disciplined orchestra under Sebastian’s direction.”

The San Antonio Symphony has a rich and storied history. It was the first symphony orchestra in Texas, formally organized in 1939, although the city’s first concerts date back to the 1880s, a reflection of the cultural appetites of a wave of prosperous German immigrants who arrived here in the late 19th century. In recent decades, however, the organization has been plagued by a series of front office and board-driven financial crises that have generated waves of negative publicity and obscured the orchestra’s reputation.

“None of us want the symphony to make its budget on the backs of the orchestra musicians, so we are strongly urging them to restore the payroll,” said one stakeholder who asked not to be named.

‘New Conditions’ for Symphony Operations

In return for the new infusion of funding, the symphony is expected to agree to “meet certain conditions,” according to the press release sent to the media Thursday afternoon. One significant change in the symphony’s operations will be to end its practice of “borrowing” ticket sales revenue collected for the coming season to cover expenses in the current season. Another is to trim the costs of its featured guest performers. Some of the finest musicians and singers appearing internationally appear with the symphony at the Tobin, but the organization will have trim its current $7.6 million budget to balance the books.

Before moving to the Tobin when it opened in September 2014, the symphony was based at the Majestic Theatre, and its budget was $6 million. Expenses and revenues have increased since then, but it has been unable to achieve a clean balance sheet.

Wolff said there also will be an effort by the stakeholders to recruit new board members from companies that can afford to support the symphony. Longtime Chairman Denny Ware, a retired KCI chief executive, is being recruited to rejoin the board. Ware and his wife, Suzanne, have been major benefactors, often giving personal gifts totaling hundreds of thousand dollars in the years he led the board.

Stakeholders now say they expect the symphony’s books to be cleared of any outstanding obligations and its accounts balanced by the end of the 2017-2018 season. The challenge will be to win greater support in the business and civic community. Despite innovative programing at the Tobin and at venues throughout the community and its work with inner city schools, the audience is older. Not enough younger patrons are being added to that audience.

Wells, the Kronkosky’s managing director, expressed continued support for the organization as it hits the reset button.

“The Kronkosky’s charitable purpose includes providing symphonic music to our community, and the symphony was the recipient of the foundation’s very first gift, and we have supported it ever since then,” Wells said. “With Bruce’s (Bugg) leadership, this is an opportunity to impose some rigor in the budgeting, funding and operations. We are happy to participate. We have stuck with them in the past and we will stick with them into the future.”

Wells did not cite an exact figure for the Kronkosky’s latest support, but its annual gifts have been in the $250,000-300,000 range and will continue at that level, he said.

A Larger Role for Bugg

As chairman of the performing arts foundation, Bugg has been the principal force behind the Tobin Center’s funding and operations since Wolff and then-Mayor Phil Hardberger first set out to transform the Municipal Auditorium into a state-of-the-art performing arts center. Bexar County voters overwhelmingly approved $100 million in construction bonds in a May 2008 election, and the City donated the auditorium, adjacent former Fire Department headquarters and the land beneath the structures, a contribution valued at $41 million.

Bugg kicked off the $39 million fundraising effort by announcing an additional $15 million challenge grant from the Tobin Endowment that, in effect, he was left to meet himself as the chief fundraiser for the project. The $15 million gift also led to the new center being named for arts patron and philanthropist Robert Tobin, whose endowment benefits the arts and is managed by Bugg as its chairman and trustee. Bugg recently completed his efforts to raise the additional $39 million, bringing the private funds contributed to the project to more than $55 million.

Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, speaks before the unveiling of the Medal of Honor River Portal connecting the San Antonio River to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts July 3, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. chairman of the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

The Tobin Center includes the 1,738-seat H-E-B Performance Hall, which features an automated system to flatten the floor and fold down the orchestra seats so the hall can host up to 2,100 people. The more intimate Carlos Alvarez Theatre seats 295, and the outdoor River Walk Plaza can hold 600 and offers big-screen presentations of performances occurring inside the halls.

Bugg is regarded as a highly effective fundraiser and businessman, and the stakeholders indicated they would rely on him assuming a more direct oversight role to assure that fiscal reforms at the symphony are implemented.

Finding Newfound Support for the Orchestra

Long term, even if it balances its books, the symphony has to find ways to pay its musicians market rate and, if possible, expand the orchestra size so it can better perform works that call for more than 72 musicians. Most metropolitan orchestras are larger than 72 musicians, considered the bare minimum. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has 84 musicians. The Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, which recently traveled to Cuba for a performance in Havana, has 78 musicians.

“What’s needed now is investment, this moment should be used as an opportunity by the community and its leadership to recommit and to invest,” Ridge said. “The H-E-B Performance Hall is beautiful, but it is only a building without a living orchestra filling it with music.”

Bruce Ridge. Courtesy photo.
Bruce Ridge. Courtesy photo.

Ridge talked about the growing role of the arts and performing arts in attracting people to live and work in cities that value culture, and in drawing visitors who travel to experience arts and culture in other cities. He grew more philosophical as he spoke about the importance of the symphony in San Antonio.

“Every note a musician plays is a message for peace, it’s a statement of anti-violence,” Ridge said. “Music brings us together in society and in the world, which we need now more than ever. The musicians in your orchestra are as remarkable off-stage as they are on-stage because of their commitment and their love of the city. What they have been through – the financial uncertainty, the low salaries, and now the prospect of a pay cut, well, they have been though a lot. Never once have they allowed it to affect the music or their service to community.

“The conversation needs to change in San Antonio,” Ridge said. “It’s time to talk about growth (and) positive messaging that leads to positive fundraising. People who have not heard this symphony should experience the music in this superb hall.”

Top image: Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the San Antonio Symphony. Courtesy photo.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.