By Mike Greenberg
SAN ANTONIO – Imagine Titanic ramming into that fateful iceberg, ripping a gash in its hull, slipping below the waves even as the band plays on. But then, the captain jumps ship, and the first mate takes over. Suddenly, the hull is patched, the ship is righted, and it starts chugging again across the sea – not at full speed, but still afloat, and the band hasn’t missed a beat. Now that would make an exciting movie.
That’s pretty much the story of the San Antonio Symphony in a dizzying sequence of events packed into the last week of 2017 and the first week of 2018. Spoiler alert: In the wake of the orchestra’s near-death experience, new leadership has brought a spirit of optimism and comity without precedent in the previous 30 years.
Founded in 1939 by Max Reiter, a young Trieste-born conductor (and friend of Richard Strauss) who had fled Fascist Italy when it became dangerous for Jews, the San Antonio Symphony quickly grew into a significant orchestra. At one point in the 1960s it ranked a respectable 19th among American orchestras in budget size. But financial stresses and labor strife began to set in during the 1980s – a strike in 1985, a lockout in 1987, a big pay cut for musicians in 1992, a delayed start of the season in 1997, an entire season cancelled due to bankruptcy in 2003 followed by the shrinkage of the musicians’ contract from 39 weeks to 26. (It later crept back to 30 weeks.) Even in relatively peaceful times, a frantic scramble for contributions to meet payroll became a springtime tradition.
In the spring of 2017, executives of three major donor institutions – two foundations and a big regional grocery chain – formed a new non-profit called Symphonic Music for San Antonio and approached the board of the Symphony Society of San Antonio (the orchestra’s operator since 1939) with an offer it couldn’t refuse: They would solve the orchestra’s financial woes if the Symphony Society would dissolve and allow the new organization to take over governance. The Symphony Society ultimately agreed, although some board members resigned as a result, and late last summer the transition process began. SMSA injected considerable cash – I’ve heard numbers as high as $2 million, though a full accounting is yet to be completed – and the Symphony Society eliminated its debt, a condition for the SMSA takeover. The Symphony Society’s CEO resigned and SMSA installed its own man, a former newspaper publisher. Meanwhile, the musicians, whose contract would expire on Dec. 31, began negotiating with SMSA.
But then, on December 27, SMSA backed out, leaving both the Symphony Society and the musicians union in the lurch. SMSA leaders cited as their reason a potential multimillion-dollar obligation to the musicians’ pension fund. Musicians union representatives insisted that obligation would be triggered only by outright withdrawal from the pension fund, but SMSA’s decision was final. The Symphony Society board held an emergency meeting on Jan. 3 – with bankruptcy attorneys. They advised the board the absence of liabilities would be an impediment to declaring bankruptcy. Having no debts, but also no money, the board voted to suspend operations following the scheduled concerts of Jan. 5 and 6.
Another “but then”: The day after the vote to suspend operations, the Symphony Society board chair resigned and her successor, Kathleen Weir Vale, received an unexpected $200,000 check from “a friend.” Vale called another board meeting for Jan. 5. After intermission of that evening’s concert, music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing spoke to the audience: “I am instructed by the board chair, Kathleen Vale, to announce that the season is moving forward.” The audience in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts erupted in sustained cheering and applause.
At that point, only the following weekend’s concerts were back on track, but an outpouring of support ensued, including new or advanced funds from the city and county governments. Most of the scheduled season was restored. Two classical subscription pairs were canceled, and the programs of two others were changed to reduce costs and increase sales (Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was replaced by Beethoven’s Ninth, for example). The musicians would salvage 26 or 27 weeks of their contracted 30-week season. (Negotiations for the next multiyear contract are scheduled to begin on April 1.) Although Vale did not yet have a definitive estimate of revenues and expenses, she said she projects the orchestra will end this season “in the black, with cash in the bank.” Next season’s budget might be “austere,” but, “We will do everything in our power to make the musicians whole.”
Vale has proved to be an astonishing breath of fresh air and a go-getter. Among her first tasks was to sign the musicians to an interim contract through the end of the season.
“We were together for two hours, but most of that time was spent in pleasantries,” said violinist Craig Sorgi, then chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee. (He stepped down the following week.) “If you could call a negotiation meeting enjoyable, this was it.”
In several previous negotiations, the musicians had asked for an Electronic Media Guarantee, a contract clause allowing management to make archival concert recordings available for non-commercial streaming in return for a small bump in salary. Sorgi said, “It took two or three minutes to explain it to Kathleen Vale, and she said this is a no-brainer. She saw the value of it immediately. Nobody else even wanted to consider it.”
Vale enticed the former vice-president and general manager, Karina Bharne, to return from Vancouver, B.C., – she’d taken a job there last summer – to serve as interim executive director for at least six months, another move that musicians applauded. Bharne’s immediate challenge is to rebuild the symphony’s staff, much of which had been let go during the aborted transition.
“We’re in catch-up mode,” Vale said. During the transition, “We had no fund-raising, no marketing, nothing.” As a result, for some concerts last fall, the 1,700-seat hall was only half-filled.
The San Antonio Symphony had let its membership in the League of American Orchestras lapse four years ago; under Vale, it rejoined. During the course of our interview, when I mentioned that some orchestras publish their annual reports on their web sites, she interrupted before I could ask the inevitable question. “We will be doing that,” she said.
Vale, the musicians, and Lang-Lessing broadly agree on the path the orchestra needs to follow.
“Watch our marketing,” Vale said. “It’s going to be greatly enhanced. It’s going to be.” She favors “shoe-leather marketing – walking around the community.”
She and Bharne have already started planning a series of free concerts in ethnically diverse areas of the city and beyond, reinvigorating a former practice that had largely lapsed. She hopes to take the orchestra to the booming Lower Rio Grande Valley, where, decades ago, the orchestra had conducted an annual festival. And she says the symphony needs to do a better job of publicizing the outreach activities the orchestra has been undertaking even in recent lean years.
Even if some outreach efforts bring in little sales revenue, or none at all, Lang-Lessing says, serving a larger and more diverse audience can help pull in corporate donations. It also can bolster crucial financial support from local government.
Lang-Lessing notes, “We are doing about 75 outreach projects every season that nobody talks about.” He wants to do more. He’s especially eager to have outdoor concerts. He regrets that a popular series of baroque concerts in the historic San Fernando Cathedral fell victim to budget cuts this season. He wants the orchestra to do more programming that reflects the city’s Hispanic heritage: “I wanted to commission a concerto for mariachi group and orchestra. I wanted to commission an oratorio for the (San Antonio) tricentennial (in 2018). But it costs money, and you have to have will to follow through.”
There’s also potential for audience growth among the thousands of young professionals, many in high-tech fields, who have moved into new apartment blocks near downtown – many within walking distance of the Tobin Center. Drawing that audience might require more contemporary and tech-savvy programs – which the orchestra’s traditional audience might resist.
For its 2014-15 season, the first in the Tobin Center, the orchestra commissioned 14 new works – one for each classical program – from composers as diverse as Aaron Jay Kernis, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Michael Daugherty, Detlev Glanert, Arturo Márquez, Pedro Halffter, and San Antonio native Robert X. Rodríguez. A few were less than memorable, but most were worthy, even brilliant, additions to the repertoire, and audience response was highly favorable. Lang-Lessing laments, however, the commissioning project was “the thing I got the most hate mail about – backlash from the CEO and board members.” Yet the orchestra has at times sustained an adventurous path: Christopher Wilkins’ decade as music director (1991-2001) brought the San Antonio Symphony six ASCAP programming awards, including the first Morton Gould Award for creative programming.
Artistic risk is essential to expanding the audience, but there’s not much room for error. The orchestra has struggled to balance annual budgets larger than $7.5 million. One chief executive after another over the past 30 years has expressed the need for significant endowment income. But in the mid-1990s the San Antonio Symphony liquidated most of its small endowment to erase about $5 million in accumulated debt. Successive boards have been unwilling to launch a major endowment drive while they were having trouble meeting current expenses – which was virtually every year.
Vale has a different view: “I’m not going to wait till we’re through this rough patch to proceed” with an endowment drive.
Asked what the dollar goal might be, she answers without hesitation – and with a three-year schedule that is stunning in its audacity: “Twenty million the first year, twenty million the second year, ten million the third year.”
No one has previously suggested such an ambitious capital campaign for the San Antonio Symphony, but comparable or larger drives in recent years have built the Tobin Center and a new children’s museum and completed a major expansion of another museum. It might be the symphony’s turn.
A cruel irony: The traumas of recent months beset the San Antonio Symphony just as it had fully adjusted to the superb acoustics of the Tobin Center – its first acoustically excellent venue – and attained a level of refinement, alertness and polish worthy of a much wealthier orchestra. The rising tide of support suggests the community believes that its orchestra is a treasure worth keeping.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.