Anyone in San Antonio whose life has been enriched by the live performance of classical music is aware of the great contradiction that has defined the San Antonio Symphony for decades now: An overachieving orchestra often described as a world-class and a nonprofit enterprise perpetually plagued by inadequate funding and budget deficits.
Overspending and mismanagement have been part of the story, too, with intermittent financial crises requiring salary reductions for woefully underpaid professional musicians, shortening of concert seasons, and even shutdowns, bankruptcies and strikes.
Longtime symphony-goers here and across the music world continue to absorb Thursday’s announcement by the Symphony Society of San Antonio board of directors that it had reached an unanimous decision to dissolve the orchestra and file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
After 83 years, San Antonio became the largest city in the country without a major orchestra, news that made the New York Times.
Yet for many of us, this week is also an occasion for deep reflection amid the shock and sadness. A deeply talented group of musicians, expertly inspired and directed in recent years by music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, delivered unforgettable performances of works by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin and countless other composers that left audiences standing and applauding in appreciation.
Some of those concerts seem to me like they just happened yesterday.
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.
At the base of all those woes lies the indisputable fact that as symphony business models everywhere came to increasingly rely on major individual and corporate donors to augment ticket subscriptions, San Antonio as a city was never fully invested in its orchestra.
HEB, USAA, Valero, not to mention the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and Tobin Endowment, and the city of San Antonio and Bexar County gave millions of dollars over the years, with a number of individual philanthropists giving multiple six-figure donations, often saving the San Antonio Symphony from insolvency at the 11th hour.
Yet the city’s major corporations and wealthiest individuals never endowed the organization to allow it to stand on its own with a predictable flow of cash. Regardless of its annual budget, the symphony always seemed to come up short. Each ensuing budget deficit drove away deep-pocketed supporters.
To put the cost of a world-class orchestra in perspective, a healthy San Antonio Symphony with a 72-member orchestra of musicians paid less than first-year public-school teachers, along with supporting staff, requires $ 5 million to $ 6 million a year . That includes the cost of a music director and guest soloists.
A city of our size should be able to afford a $ 10 million a year orchestra, which would allow an expanded orchestra of musicians to be paid market-rate salaries equal to what musicians earn in cities far smaller than San Antonio.
In other words, the annual cost of supporting the San Antonio Symphony is equal to the annual salary of a single San Antonio Spur, not counting its highest-paid starters. I don’t begrudge NBA players with their rich contracts, but the comparison puts to rest any claims the city cannot afford its orchestra.
Over the years, I have attended performances by the San Antonio Symphony at Hemisfair, Main Plaza, San Fernando Cathedral, the old Municipal Auditorium and, of course, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Yet it’s one particular performance staged at the Majestic Theater on April 12, 2013, to mark the bicentennial of Verdi that plays in my mind as I write this column.
Judgment Day at the Majestic: San Antonio Symphony, 4 Soloists & 210 Singers Perform Verdi’s Requiem was the headline on the article I wrote advancing the two performances that featured what then and, I believe, was now the biggest staging of people on a single stage for a classical music performance. Verdi’s Requiem calls for a double choir, but three choirs crowded the Majestic stage along with the orchestra and four soloists.
Lang-Lessing and John Silantien, who served for more than 30 years as the musical director of the San Antonio Mastersingers, also brought on the student choral ensembles from the University of Texas at San Antonio and Trinity University. For many, it was the performance of a lifetime.
For those of us in the audience, it was a sonic and visually stunning 90-minute journey to the mythic realms of heaven and hell with a safe return to the living afterward. The work is a funeral Mass, which makes it a fitting remembrance now. I only wish the somber The Last Trumpets in the Wrath of God movement could now play for all in our city to stop and experience.
We should be in the city in mourning.
Coming Thursday: Some ideas for resurrecting San Antonio’s orchestra
Disclosure: HEB, The Tobin Endowment, USAA and Valero are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.