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October 1, 2022Stephen Laifer -
Over the last two decades, several American orchestras have declared bankruptcy and/or ceased operations. Organizations in Syracuse, Honolulu, Philadelphia, and Louisville number among them. Headlines trumpeting these crises are consistent in their predictions of doom and gloom: “America’s Orchestras Are in Peril,” “US Orchestras Face Uncertainty.”
History has proven these so-called warnings consistently wrong. More recently, despite a pandemic and the specter of recession, America’s orchestras are as strong as they have ever been—in large part thanks to the tenacity of their musicians. Where there have been shutdowns, whether due to board negligence or managerial incompetence, the musicians themselves have often come to the rescue, taking the reins and assuming responsibility for their own collective futures.
The Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS) are doing exactly that following the demise of the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) in June. September 14 saw the debut of the musician-organized and run San Antonio Philharmonic. New board member and horn player Peter Rubins of Local 23 (San Antonio, TX) says the road to get here has been challenging—but a brighter future lies ahead.
Rubins, vice president of the new organization, says the SAS had a chronic fiscal situation: no sizable endowment from which to draw annual yield for operations. “This created an overreliance on contributed revenue, which led to a continuous loop of tightening on staff budgets,” he explains. The result was insufficient staff for developing new funding sources. “Financial people will say every orchestra faces this issue to some degree. In the case of the San Antonio Symphony, the insignificant endowment created a perpetual problem.”
Things came to a head in early 2021. SAS violinist and now San Antonio Philharmonic board member Karen Stiles, also of Local 23, was working with the SAS management as head of a health and safety committee creating COVID protocols, which would allow the orchestra to come back to the stage in February 2021 for a short season of concerts.
“As a negotiating committee member, I held out hope that we would come to an agreement with management after they asked to reopen our contract,” recalls Stiles. “But the terms we were presented with made that impossible.”
The new president of the San Antonio Philharmonic, Brian Petkovich, started with the SAS as assistant principal bassoon in 1996. From early in his tenure, he served on the orchestra committee and as a board representative.
“I’ve been in the room for a lot of difficult decision making with the SAS over the years,” says Petkovich, who was also secretary-treasurer of Local 23 for 10 years. “But I began to feel excluded from board conversations. That led me to put my energies elsewhere.” Meaning, he says, getting the musicians back on stage after the pandemic. “I really didn’t expect the board to actually shut us down.”
Stiles says the decision to strike was unanimous. “The strike started in the fall of 2021, and by January 2022 we realized that our colleagues needed some presence in front of the public. Brian and Peter asked me to be on the board of a new 501c3, which we called the MOSAS Performance Fund (MPF). Our plan was to follow the model of other orchestras that self-produced concerts.”
First Baptist Church in San Antonio led the charge to have the musicians perform a concert in March, Stiles continues. “It was so well received that the musicians started to put on their own performances. In the end, the MPF produced three more concerts in April, May, and June.”
Like Petkovich, Stiles says the musicians were shocked in June when they learned of the SAS’s decision to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. “Those of us on the MPF board knew right away that our goals and purpose had changed overnight. The work we had already done laid the foundation for us to keep expanding our mission and fill the void with a new organization to carry on the legacy of professional orchestral music in San Antonio since 1936.”
Rubins is quick to point out that the new organization is trying to look forward, not back. “It can be difficult to detach from the past, but that’s not helpful,” he stresses. “It’s a much happier conversation to examine how we are working to make things different with the new orchestra.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Petkovich. “We want the San Antonio Philharmonic to be something new,” he adds. “We don’t consider ourselves a continuation of the San Antonio Symphony, even though many of the musicians remain the same. Proving this to the city requires that we look ahead with enthusiasm and fresh ideas.”
Early on, the new board members realized collectively that a large part of their success would be tied to music education. “My colleagues and I have been part of the fabric of San Antonio’s music community as private teachers, sectional coaches in schools, adjudicators for regional and state competitions, and professors at local universities,” says violinist and SA Philharmonic board member Stephanie Westney, also of Local 23.
She notes the special significance of the SAS’s past Young People’s Concerts (YPCs). “As educators in the community, we understood the importance of continuing to present professional classical music for younger people. And not just the elementary students who came by bus to attend our YPC shows, but also the youth orchestra students we performed with side-by-side, and the college students who would attend open rehearsals to observe and learn.”
Rubins agrees. “We realized a crucial part of our model would be to reach out and truly get into the community. Education is a natural way to do that.” Accordingly, the San Antonio Philharmonic will be playing concerts across greater San Antonio in nine high schools. “That’s 36 YPCs in 18 days,” he adds. “As part of that, we are presenting programs through the Link Up program at the Weill Center in Carnegie Hall.”
Link Up is an innovative national participatory program for students in grades 3-5, who are given the opportunity to perform—playing the recorder, singing, and body movement—with professional orchestras around the country. The San Antonio Philharmonic, as part of its partnership with Link Up, will utilize the program’s materials in its own local YPC programs.
In addition to educational shows, the SA Philharmonic has programmed a full inaugural season of classical concerts and pops performances, including a world premiere by a San Antonio composer—again, all accomplished with dizzying speed. Stiles says the biggest challenge has been learning the new skills needed to put together an entire season in a few short months. “We are learning on the job, for sure,” she says.
Westney coordinated most of the design of the new season, finding and securing conductors and soloists. “We had already put together our spring concerts with great success before the symphony declared bankruptcy,” she recalls. “The community’s support and their palpable enthusiasm gave us the momentum to keep going as a new entity after the SAS ultimately shut down.”
She continues, “Since then, we have all tapped into skills that we didn’t necessarily realize we had. After playing in the SAS for more than 15 years, I felt I had a pretty good understanding of the components needed for a successful concert, including competent conducting, exceptional soloists, and interesting and diverse programming.”
Westney also realized that she knew people who could help with things like creating physical and digital programs, borrowing music when the musicians couldn’t access the SAS library, and writing exceptional program notes.
“As chair of the concert programming committee, I spent this summer contacting conductors, soloists, and their management to line up a season. We reached out to many old friends who had a shared history with the San Antonio Symphony,” says Westney. One of those friends was well-known and loved pianist Jon Kimura Parker of Local 145 (Vancouver, BC). “He said yes in a heartbeat!”
“We recognized very quickly that we were also going to need help in other areas, including governance,” says Stiles. “We have expanded our board, added an education director, and worked with a local design firm to create our logo and website.”
Petkovich and Rubins add that others have stepped up to help, including a professional grant writer who is volunteering. “We also hired a former director of development from the symphony,” says Petkovich. “She knows a lot of our donor base, which is crucial for meeting fundraising challenges.”
“It’s important for us to remember we have to do things differently and look through a new lens, identify habitual problems, and find new pathways,” adds Rubins. “That said, we still want to do as many things as we can within industry-standard business practices, but tailor them for our region.”
The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the AFM have played important roles not only in the new orchestra’s launch but also—crucially—by helping the musicians get through the long months of the strike and its aftermath.
“The AFM was very supportive throughout the strike,” says Rubins. “With the new organization, we have had numerous conversations about how best to navigate political challenges. And the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF) helped fund family concerts in the spring of 2022.”
“Financial and moral support from the AFM, its members, and other ICSOM orchestras around the country has been heartening,” seconds Petkovich. “It gave us a tremendous amount of hope through both the strike and this new effort.”
ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow, a violist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), says ICSOM orchestras raised over $250,000 for MOSAS. ICSOM Governing Board Member at Large Keith Carrick, a percussionist with the Utah Symphony and president of Local 104 (Salt Lake City, UT), flew to San Antonio twice to speak at MOSAS rallies.
“During the strike, ICSOM organized Zoom calls between the SAS negotiating committee and members of other ICSOM orchestras, including Fort Worth, Baltimore, Detroit, and Minnesota, all of which had experienced extended lockouts and strikes,” says Snow. “This enabled MOSAS to strategize using learned experiences. As fellow AFM members, the ICSOM Player Conference also stands ready to help with the newly created San Antonio Philharmonic.”
Adds Stiles, “I think a great deal of our success is due to the support from around the country. We are also extremely grateful for the generous goodwill of conductors and soloists willing to come to San Antonio at short notice and perform in our inaugural season for reduced fees. The big challenge now will be to reach out to all corners of the San Antonio community to strengthen old relationships and foster new connections.”
Petkovich stresses that an important long-range goal for the SA Philharmonic is retaining and attracting talent. “It’s a credit to our musicians that many of them found work in other places during the strike. It would be wonderful to be able to bring them back home.” For the citizens of San Antonio, he says people are extremely happy to be out enjoying the arts in public again after the pandemic. “We are happy to be able to fill that need again, and the community is very happy with the positive message we’ve put out.”
Westney says all involved understood the importance of not losing professional symphonic music in the 7th largest city in the US. “It was heartbreaking to have the oldest professional orchestra in Texas, where many of us had spent our careers, end as it did. But everyone on our board is putting forth tremendous effort to make sure that the San Antonio Philharmonic is a success.”
She concludes that it has been exciting to have a fresh start. “It’s a thrill and an honor to be a part of the creative process, interact directly with community members, focus on meaningful community outreach, and feel ownership of what we are doing moving forward.”
—To follow the activities of the new San Antonio Philharmonic, visit their web page at www.saphil.org.