San Antonio Symphony cancels concerts due to musicians’ strike


On September 30, the famous Cleveland Orchestra celebrated a record-breaking donation of $ 50 million, the largest in its 103-year history. On the same day, the lesser-known Phoenix Symphony landed a record-breaking $ 7.5 million from a local charitable foundation.

In contrast, the Symphony Society announced on Tuesday the cancellation of the first two concerts of the season of the San Antonio Symphony, October 29-30 and November 5-6.

With its musicians on strike and its 2021-2022 season in peril, the symphony seems to have no savior on the horizon to save it from ongoing financial difficulties, including a budget deficit of $ 2 million in 2019 and a shortfall of $ 3 million for 2020.

Due to these shortages, on September 26, the board of directors imposed a new contract on its musicians that would cut salaries and almost halve the orchestra’s full-time workforce from 71 to 42 players, the rest to be made up of 26 of the even lower paid part-time workers – known in the industry as the “A / B” structure.

The next day, the musicians declared a strike.

Symphony Society board chair Kathleen Weir Vale said the orchestra’s current annual budget of $ 8 million is unsustainable, in part because major philanthropic giving and support from companies are not available.

Corey Cowart, executive director of the symphony orchestra, said an annual budget of $ 5 million would create conditions for stability and better fundraising prospects for the future.

But even that amount seems out of reach. So rather than prepare to enjoy a full season of orchestral concerts, San Antonio is now facing the possible end of the full-time professional symphony it has known since 1939.

However, other orchestras across the country have survived near-fatal blows, and their various survival strategies offer potential avenues to follow.

A look at an A / B orchestra

While San Antonio musicians are fiercely opposed to an A / B structure with deeply reduced salaries, this strategy saved the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky.

A 2011 article in the New York Times titled “Survival Strategies for Orchestras” chronicles the rise and fall of the Louisville Orchestra, which peaked in the 1960s by commissioning new works and releasing recordings, but suffered during economic hardship 2000s and declared bankruptcy in 2011.

A passage in the article reads as if it could also apply to the current situation of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra: “… the continuing instability is partly due to an over-reliance on bailouts from private sponsors and large companies, some of which have cut back on donations in times of economic crisis. periods or moved out of town.

The 84-year-old orchestra found stability by resorting to an A / B structure, using a smaller number of full-time musicians supplemented by freelancers – a plan almost identical to the current contract change that triggered the strike at San Antonio.

The Louisville Orchestra grew from 71 full-time musicians to 55, which at the time was called “no calamity” by then-music director Jorge Mester. The orchestra’s marketing director disagreed.

“The ‘calamity’ has indeed been felt in the lives and careers of those who have been disturbed by the predicament,” said Michelle Winters. However, “the structure gave the Louisville Orchestra time to begin to rebuild,” she said.

Since then the number of musicians has grown to 60, with an increase in annual salaries, and “our goal is to strengthen that even more,” Winters said. “These increases go hand in hand with cooperative fundraising efforts, increased musicians’ support for community outreach programs, and prudent financial management.”

Louisville’s population is 246,000, about one-sixth of San Antonio’s population of 1.43 million.

A model led by musicians

Another option is to become a musically-led entity, such as the New Orleans-based Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO).

The LPO was formed in 1991 after the collapse of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, which had cut its season from 40 weeks in 1980 to 23 weeks in 1990, but still failed to keep its budget of $ 3.8 million (roughly the equivalent of $ 7.8 million in 2021 dollars).

Made up of musicians from the collapsed orchestra, the LPO has adopted an unusual organizational structure and now presents itself as “our country’s oldest orchestra led by musicians and managed in collaboration”.

Most nonprofits are managed by boards of directors, but in the case of the LPO, the only corporate members are its full-time musicians.

As the group notes, “the LPO started in 1991 with nothing but sweat funds and a little cash support from the musicians in the orchestra and a few donors.”

While the San Antonio Orchestra has no shortage of individual donors – Vale cited 150% growth in the past year – corporate giving has plummeted. A quick glance at a concert program for the 2017-18 season shows corporate donations of nearly $ 400,000, while current donations and future projections are mired at $ 90,000 per year.

“As the city of San Antonio got bigger and bigger, the symphony got smaller and smaller. And I’d like to know why, ”said Mary Ellen Goree, second violinist and member of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony bargaining committee. As she spoke, she and other musicians handed out leaflets outside the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as the audience gathered for performances at the San Antonio Opera House. Don Giovanni, during which the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony would normally have performed.

Goree said before negotiations reached a deadlock, the musicians suggested strategies to raise emergency funds to cover the season’s deficits, but were pushed back.

Vale and Cowart say they and the board have called on San Antonio corporations, but “nobody likes financing debt,” Vale told the San Antonio Report.

“Everyone is put to the test when the numbers are not correct. Because if we can’t afford to finish the season, look at what happens to the musicians, look at what happens to the audience, look at what happens to the community, the ticket holders, the donors, they’re like ‘Whoa , what do I do by donating money to this organization? They can’t even finish their year, ”she said.

San Antonio Symphony trumpeter Lauren Eberhart distributes a flyer to a couple attending the San Antonio Opera performance Don Giovanni at the Tobin Center. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Financial sustainability is the key to fundraising, she said, which is the main motivation for enforcing the new A / B model and its more sustainable budget.

“We’re trying to get to the point where we can grow,” said Vale, while expressing optimism that corporate donations could rebound once sustainability is proven.

“I believe that we will be able to raise more money from the business community, when the business community understands that we are going to be a financially viable organization,” she said.

A matter of trust

The San Antonio Symphony is not alone in its lingering struggles. The Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts is currently engaged in a lawsuit with its musicians, who have broken away from management and scheduled a concert on October 15 on their own, supported by grants and donations.

An effort from a longtime San Antonio Symphony supporter could help produce a similar result here.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Emeritus Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony, is in South Korea to conduct the Korean National Opera. Abroad, he organizes a trust for the benefit of the San Antonio musicians that he has led for the past decade. The trust will accept donations from anyone asking, “What can we do to help musicians? Lang-Lessing said, but is reluctant to donate to the board during the current stalemate.

The funds would go directly to musicians, Lang-Lessing said, first as an emergency and then for other possibilities – including potential concerts.

That a trust could grant San Antonio musicians financial independence, allowing them to create a musicians led orchestra similar to the LPO, is no guarantee, Lang-Lessing said.

His former teacher Klauspeter Seibel left Germany to become the first musical director of the LPO. Initially, Seibel was impressed with the musician’s initiative. “He totally fell in love with it,” Lang-Lessing said. “It had incredible energy at the start, but it is not a guarantee of success either,” he warned, as the organization is still struggling to find funding.

Either way, Lang-Lessing said, “We shouldn’t go back to the status quo. And I think everyone agrees on that. There needs to be a big reform. Of the confidence to come, he said: “This is the first step in the right direction.”


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