Symphony needs to be stabilized beyond this season

January 17, 2018

The San Antonio Symphony needs to be on stable ground.

It appears to be mostly OK for the balance of this season, but the larger financial issues plaguing the symphony loom large. Until those are addressed, the symphony could continue to move from one crisis to the next.

It’s been a dizzying news cycle for the symphony. In the span of days, a plan to transfer management fell apart, the symphony’s season was abruptly canceled, only to then be revived. The musicians and the symphony have also agreed to a new contract.

Throughout this upheaval, we’ve frequently heard the cliché that great cities have great symphonies. And while we agree with this sentiment, much like the current rescue of the symphony, it’s hardly satisfactory. It doesn’t remotely explain why a symphony is vital to a community or merits a broad base of support — and therefore it doesn’t reflect the urgency needed to stabilize our symphony for years.

A symphony is much more than a symbol of excellence — a box for cities to check on the list of greatness. Yes, it is a symbol of cultural vibrancy and depth. It is also an investment in artistic excellence and expression that resonates throughout the community in immeasurable ways, be it inspiration, musical education or even the recruiting of businesses and talent.

A symphony makes San Antonio a better, richer place. Thanks to the symphony, world-class musicians call our community home. Musicians who perform in our schools and teach lessons. Musicians whose work inspires the mind and stirs the soul. They don’t get paid much for their efforts: $1,120 per week for a 26-week season.

They deserve better. We can’t imagine the emotional toll each swing in the news cycle has taken on the musicians and their families. The question, then, has to be how to avoid such a repeat performance.

Just this summer, we were optimistic about a plan to provide much-needed stability to the symphony. Under that plan, a new nonprofit, Symphonic Music for San Antonio, would take over operations from the Symphony Society of San Antonio.

The move made sense. The Symphony Society of San Antonio has struggled financially for years, and this new nonprofit was formed by some of the symphony’s largest financial contributors, the Tobin Endowment, H-E-B and the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. The three institutions offered much-needed management expertise to create that coveted stability.

But that deal fell apart after Symphonic Music for San Antonio discovered a possible pension liability — a point the musicians union disputes. Then came the abrupt cancellation.

Since then, there has been an outpouring of short-term community support for the symphony, including, at last count, $700,000 in pledges.

This has been incredibly inspiring, but large financial questions remain. There is that pension liability. The symphony’s endowment is insufficient, and there is an obvious need for greater corporate support.

For these reasons, and others, the question of new symphony management must remain on the table. It’s difficult to imagine any long-term viability without involvement from the Tobin Endowment, H-E-B and the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation. We speak of a management structure that not only can depend on these deep pocket supporters, but embark on an ambitious and sustaining fundraising effort that taps other sources.

While we are jubilant this symphony season has been saved, it’s not enough to simply pull the symphony back from the brink until such drama unfolds again. It’s also unacceptable to be a city without a symphony. The question, then, is how do we sustain the symphony for generations to come?

Great cities find ways to sustain great symphonies without regular financial crises.