San Antonio Symphony is no more; board files for bankruptcy

News of the sudden demise of the San Antonio Symphony reverberated through the city and the larger music world on Friday.

Arts leaders, musicians, symphony supporters and officials expressed disappointment in the decision of the Symphony Society of San Antonio to initiate bankruptcy proceedings and to shut down the orchestra in the wake of a strike that scuttled the symphony’s 2021-22 season.

But there was also a sense that the end was inevitable once negotiations between the board and the musicians ground to a halt, as well as some hope that a more resilient orchestra will rise from the ashes.

The Symphony Society, the nonprofit that ran the orchestra, filed an emergency Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition Thursday. A Chapter 7 case means the organization is liquidating rather than reorganizing its debts and staying in business. And it means that San Antonio is now the largest city in the United States without a professional orchestra.

The board announced its decision on the symphony’s website and in an email to donors and ticket buyers Thursday evening.

The shutdown of the 83-year-old symphony put 68 musicians and 10 administrative staffers out of work, including Executive Director Corey Cowart, who declined to comment for this story.

Troy Peters, music director of the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, said that although a number of American orchestras folded in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, it has become much more rare in recent years.

“It’s been quite a while since there has been a major orchestra going under in the United States, and so this really is attracting a lot of attention across the industry,” said Peters, who sometimes served as a guest conductor.

Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio, who was concertmaster from 1994 to 2007 and is now based in Reno, Nev., Said she was disappointed by the board’s decision

“I was just so honored to be in such a world-class ensemble in San Antonio,” said Sant’Ambrogio, who founded the Cactus Pear Music Festival, which is presented in San Antonio every summer. “And the musicians have never lowered their artistic standards, in the spite of late paychecks, financial anxiety, and, I have to say, weak governance.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg noted that the symphony had long been on shaky footing financially, often relying on bailouts from the city and other donors.

“I do believe that a major city like San Antonio deserves a full-size, world-class symphony orchestra,” Nirenberg said. “In order to do that, it needs to have a sustainable financial foundation. And frankly, the parties’ inability to reach an agreement, even with federal mediation, speaks to the deficiencies of the old model.

“Musicians can’t be expected to play for meager wages, and the board couldn’t afford to pay them without intermittent bailouts.”

Trish DeBerry, the Republican nominee for county judge and a former county commissioner, called it a “tragedy for San Antonio that two sides could not come together.”

The symphony is important to the city and county from an “economic vitality standpoint,” a “cultural tourism standpoint” and just an “overall quality of life standpoint,” she said.

DeBerry said she believes there will be interest in resurrecting the symphony and orchestra, but it has to be a “sustainable, long-term model.”

Staying in the red

The symphony became insolvent after the pandemic took hold. It reported a negative net worth of $ 977,827 at the end of fiscal 2020 as assets shrank and liabilities climbed. It had a net worth of $ 2.6 million at the end of fiscal 2018, but that dropped to about $ 505,000 at the end of fiscal 2019.

In its bankruptcy petition, the symphony estimated assets in the range of $ 1 million to $ 10 million and liabilities in the range of $ 10 million to $ 50 million. It had reported liabilities of about $ 3.2 million in its fiscal 2020 tax return. It is not clear what caused the liabilities to surge to the current level of more than $ 10 million.

In its statement announcing the end of the symphony, the board blamed the union for its decision.

“The Musicians’ Union has made it clear there is no prospect of resumption of negotiations, absent the Board agreeing to a budget that is millions of dollars in excess of what the Symphony can afford,” the statement said. “The absence of a labor contract has effectively forced the Symphony to shutter its operations.”

The contract talks that ultimately led to the strike came about because of the pandemic, which put a halalt to performances starting in March 2020 through the end of that year.

But the symphony had been operating in the red even before the pandemic upended operations. It lost $ 1.6 million in its fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2020, its most recent tax returned posted on GuideStar shows. That compares with a nearly $ 2.1 million loss in the prior fiscal year.

Meanwhile, the symphony’s top line shrank in recent years. It generated $ 5.2 million in revenue in fiscal 2020, down from about $ 6.1 million in both fiscal 2019 and 2018 and from about $ 7.9 million in fiscal 2017.

In recent years, the symphony received loans from two board members. Symphony Chair Kathleen Weir Vale had loaned $ 220,000, while Robert Knapp loaned $ 200,000.

Vale did not respond to requests for comment.

A rich history

The bankruptcy silences an institution with a storied history. It was founded in 1939 by conductor Max Reiter, a Jewish immigrant who first went to New York but was advised that there would be more opportunities for him out west. The first concert was at the Sunken Garden Theater.

Reiter brought in some of the top musicians in the world to the city as guest artists, and the symphony developed a strong reputation, which was burnished when he founded an opera company.

“This was the only major orchestra in Texas, and the only significant opera company in Texas,” said Mike Greenberg, who was a columnist and critic for the Express-News for 28 years and writes about arts and culture on his blog, Incident Light . “People had to come from Houston and Dallas to see this opera in San Antonio.”

In the late ’60s, the symphony recorded three albums for the Mercury label, including the premiere of John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto featuring the acclaimed Austrian pianist Hilde Somer.

The symphony’s quality took a dip in the 1970s, Greenberg said, but began bouncing back in 1990, when Christopher Wilkins was hired as a music director. That upward trajectory continued, rising substantially when the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2014. Sebastian Lang-Lessing, who became music director in 2010, served as an adviser on the celebrated acoustics for the building.

“The Tobin Center is going to continue to want to work with whoever might be able to pick up the pieces of the symphony and move forward,” said J. Bruce Bugg Jr., founding chairman of the Tobin Center and chairman of the advisory board .

Michael Fresher, president and CEO of the Tobin Center, did not respond to requests for comment.

What comes next

The final concert of the San Antonio Symphony was a free performance at the Main Plaza on Sept. 18. The musicians went on strike Sept. 27, and they never played for the symphony again.

The musicians learned that they had lost their jobs in the same email blast that went to donors and ticket buyers announcing the end of the symphony. The three musicians who are on the board were not told about the meeting and did not vote on the issue.

“To be honest, I’m not surprised,” said violinist Beth Johnson, one of the musicians who sat on the board. “I was blindsided because I didn’t think it would be this soon. I was hopeful that they would just resign so the organization could stay the same organization but arise again with new board members and fresh air, but we have been moving on and forward. ”

Johnson was referring to the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, a nonprofit formed by the musicians that presented a three-program series of concerts independently in the spring at First Baptist Church. The concerts were underwritten in part by a $ 100,000 grant from the San Antonio Symphony League, a nonprofit that provides volunteer and financial support to the symphony and the musicians.

Mary Ellen Goree, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said the musicians will continue to perform.

“The city of San Antonio has made it very clear to us they want a professional orchestra, and they will financially support a professional orchestra,” she said. “We have never lost sight of our mission, which is to present orchestra concerts of the highest quality for our city.”

The Symphony League is not a part of the San Antonio Symphony and will continue its mission, it said in a statement.

Taddy McAllister, who has served on the symphony board for six years, said the decision to shut down the orchestra had been a terrible experience.

She said she hopes the musicians group will create an ongoing orchestra for the city.

“Even though they probably hate my guts, I would help them,” McAllister said. “And they’ve done such a good job with those concerts at the church.”

Developer James Lifshutz has been a season-ticket holder for a number of years and is listed as a creditor in the bankruptcy filing.

“I am still a believer that a city of our size and aspiration should have a fully staffed symphony orchestra,” Lifshutz said. “We have an immensely talented group of musicians who continue to want to play and an audience who wants to hear symphonic music.”

Richard Oppenheim, President of Local 23 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the musicians, inside the potential for good things ahead.

“I really don’t view this as a backbreaking circumstance of any kind,” Oppenheim said. “In fact, to me, it’s sort of like clearing the brush. Sometimes, in order for something better and new to take root, you’ve got to get rid of the impediments that are already there. ”

Madison Iszler contributed to this report.

dlmartin@express-news.net

pdanner@express-news.net

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.