The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center.
The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center. Credit: Courtesy / Juan Martinez

Long before Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing raises his baton on Sept. 16 to open the 2017-18 season of the San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the oldest symphony in Texas will undergo profound change.

Before the audience fills the 1,746-seat H-E-B Performance Hall, new symphony leadership needs to put the organization’s house in order.

Opening night promises to be a splendid and dynamic performance of Beethoven featuring world-class pianist Emanuel Ax. You can read a preview of the symphony’s 2017-2018 season by David Hendricks, the longest-serving member of the Express-News newsroom. Hendricks is a business columnist, but for years he has faithfully attended just about every performance of the orchestra and then written a critical review on deadline.

It’s another Express-News veteran, however, who will lead the efforts to reorganize the symphony’s business operations and put the organization on a solid footing. Former publisher Tom Stephenson is charged with balancing the books, eliminating a culture of deficit spending, laying the groundwork for giving the underpaid musicians and staff overdue pay raises, and demonstrating fiscal stewardship to keep donors donating.

Some of the smart money in town has written off the symphony as a hopeless cause, a weak business with high overhead that has lost its community appeal. I disagree. Today’s symphony leaders are blamed for the sins of the past when an endowment was recklessly misspent.

Today’s musicians are, literally, world-class. Under the talented Lang-Lessing, we are experiencing the best classical music performance ever heard in the city. The community outreach programs have been equally far-reaching. The community investment in the Tobin Center, meanwhile, has given this city a world-class performing arts hall, but its value is in the resident performers, including the opera, ballet, and others. The symphony orchestra is the beating heart of it all.

The symphony deserves broader support because our city is richer for its enduring presence. By taking on this job, Stephenson affirms the symphony’s importance. He  takes on an enormous challenge, but he will find many supporters at his back.

He also can count on the support of a small, formidable board of directors of the new nonprofit organization called Symphonic Music for San Antonio. SMSA is chaired by J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. who also serves as chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment. Dya Campos, director of public affairs for H-E-B, is board president .J. Tullos Wells, managing director of the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, is treasurer and secretary.

It’s a board I would expect to grow as the new organization makes progress.

I served as the editor of the San Antonio Express-News for most of Stephenson’s tenure there, first as general manager and then publisher, from 1998-2012. That means I endured more than a decade’s worth of editorial budget presentations and reviews under his watch. It’s where I learned that people who understand numbers rule the world, while those of us who ply our trade in words, well, our livelihood depends on the numbers guys.

While still the editor, I once wrote a Sunday column jokingly describing one such annual budget review in which I suggested Stephenson and his fellow finance guys took up every seat at a conference table except the one reserved for me. I was surrounded. Each accountant was working with two sets of books while I struggled to decipher a single binder of confusing spreadsheets. I could barely keep up, and by the end of the meeting, the editorial budget had been trimmed to Stephenson’s satisfaction.

It was tongue-in-cheek, but it also was, at its foundation, true. Stephenson knows his numbers, he knows how to find fat in a budget, and he is genetically indisposed to spend money he does not have or to allow anyone else in the organization to do so. I do not recall ever experiencing a year with him where we did not make our numbers for the Hearst Corp. owners in New York.

“I’ve read the stories for years now about the symphony being in dire straits at the end of each season, and somehow it has always managed to survive thanks to its donors,” Stephenson said, “but that survival has happened on the backs of it employees, the musicians and the staff, who have never been paid market rate.”

A series of emergency pay cuts over the years have taken their toll. Stephenson said the 72-plus musicians in the orchestra today make one-third less than they did in their best year. Most hold other jobs just to make ends meet. An experienced musician with a degree from one of the 10 best music conservatories or universities in the country might make less than $30,000 here.

“I can’t fix that overnight, but I’m committed to turning that around,” Stephenson said. “Our 2017-18 season is already set, and we will start planning for the 2018-19 season in a couple of months. I plan on bringing some rigor to that process so that we do not fail financially, but we also are going to do our best to bring world-class talent to San Antonio because that is something people support.”

Lang-Lessing, due to return to San Antonio later this month from his summer sojourn in Berlin, is “extremely committed to this process. He’s on board and excited,” Stephenson said.

San Antonio Symphony Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing leads his musicians to the sound of Las Fundaciones de Béjar. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing leads musicians to the sound of Las Fundaciones de Béjar. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Several musicians I spoke with echoed that hopeful optimism.

“I’m going to work my butt off to broaden our donor support,” Stephenson said. “This community doesn’t have a huge corporate base, but we have broad support from the major companies that are here. There are many individuals and smaller businesses that give, too, but many more that we like to see added to our donor base.”

Before new donors are found, however, Stephenson will have to fix the budget. The 15 or so current staff members have been told their jobs end on Aug. 31. Four jobs will be eliminated, but two of those positions are vacant. Stephenson expects to rehire everyone else. The back-office work, such as payroll and human resources, will now be contracted out to the same third-party service provider than contracts with the Tobin Center.

The newly reconstituted team will vacate the symphony offices at the Travis Park Plaza building and move into the Tobin Center’s administrative building, where the organization will not be charged rent.

“The employees we are bringing over are talented, dedicated, and hard-working, and we can’t be successful without their continued presence, so I am counting on that,” Stephenson said. “Moving from Travis Park Plaza to the Tobin’s administrative offices will save at least $100,000 a year. That’s money that goes to the bottom line.”

After a 41-year career in newspaper publishing and the realization that there is more to life than golf, Stephenson said he was drawn to the job by a desire to reconnect with community.

“I’m in it to do something I”ll enjoy and something where I can make a difference,” he said.

Others before him have failed at the challenge ahead, but no one I have known in my years following the symphony had the business acumen or connections Stephenson has in San Antonio. Before he can build, however, he will have to oversee reorganization, which is always painful. Only then will he be able to begin a community outreach program to convince donors that San Antonio would not be the same without the San Antonio Symphony.

Many of us already know that, and only wish to see an organization that keeps its promises to operate as a responsible nonprofit.

“We wouldn’t be here without the donors we have, and I thank them immensely for their generous support,” Stephenson said, “and my promise to them is that their money will be well spent. When I come back and ask for money for next year I want to be able to tell them, ‘Here is the success we have had as good stewards of your donations.’”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.