San Antonio Symphony musicians spread joy to a part of the world that needs it
The holiday season sees an influx of groups helping people who are less fortunate, each playing their role to bring some comfort. The members of the San Antonio Symphony recently brought their specialty — the gift of music — to Grace Lutheran Church.
Just before lunch, behind the church several musicians walked between a few dozen people sitting on the ground talking. Entering the building, they were greeted by a worker.
“You can use the steps on the side of the stage, and you can set up on the stage,” she said.
Violist Allyson Dawkins ascended to the stage, set down her viola case and music, then explained what was going on.
“Today we are at Corazón, which is a ministry in our city that feeds the homeless every single day,” Dawkins said. “And we're standing right now in a cafetorium up on a stage, and I'm looking out at tables that have been nicely decorated. There's a table full of pastries that I'm dying to go down and sample. And it's lovely and everyone is really anticipating a warm Christmas celebration.”
Grace Lutheran is one of the primary places where Corazón does its work, which is offering free meals, clothing, warm showers, counseling and medical care to those who need them.
Dawkins is the San Antonio Symphony’s principal violist, and while she’s here as a violist, she’s not doing symphony work.
“Yes, that's right,” she laughed. “I am, but I'm not! As you know, the musicians are on strike, but we are still doing our volunteer projects all across the city, trying to reach as many homeless and critically ill as we can. This is just one of our many volunteer caroling events.”
But on this day, as other symphony musicians file in and pull out their instruments, the focus is on something pleasant: The Caroling Project. It isn’t a new program; they’ve been at it for a long time.
“Thirty-two years. We missed the pandemic year, but we're very happy to be able to do it again this year,” Dawkins said. “To me, it's really my favorite event of the holiday season.”
These performances aren’t just one-offs. They do quite a few.
“Normally we play about five to eight. In our heyday, there were years that we went to 20 locations, but it is just very difficult to keep up that speed,” she said.
While today’s audience is primarily people who are unhoused, the symphony musicians have another audience.
“We love going to the Bexar County Jail,” Dawkins said. “The people there are among our most grateful listeners.”
First violinist Bassam Nashawati came to the San Antonio Symphony from Damascus, Syria.
“We perform at hospitals and sometimes, you know, schools as well. And the prison. And this is a great way to share our talent that God has given us,” he said.
The symphony strike has been hard on Nashawati, so in addition to doing something for those down on their luck, playing with his fellow musicians again is also a relief for him.
“It feels incredible, actually, because it's really nice for us musicians and for me personally. I breathe music. I love music. It's in my blood,” Nashawati said.
Eventually all 13 of the symphony musicians showed up and began to play. Their first selection was Oh Come All Ye Faithful.
Neville, a 60-something man in gray dreadlocks, sat at the first table in front of the musicians, clapping between each song. Was he enjoying himself?
“Yes I am. It's a very lovely day today. I'm having a lot of fun,” Neville said.
Most of those I spoke to declined to give their last names. Neville says this wasn’t the first time he’d seen violist Dawkins play.
“The lady in the symphony — she plays out in the street,” he said. “I've heard her before. She's very good.”
Originally from Zimbabwe, Neville’s background was in education.
“I was teaching and I was an assistant professor, in science,” he said.
He’s now living in a facility that aids the un-housed, and he's very grateful for the help.
“I just wish everybody a Merry Christmas and thank you very much for supporting the homeless,” Neville said.
Cameron spoke with a smile about what he was hearing.
“I love Christmas music. I'm always in the mood for a holiday spiritual,” he said. “Something to get my mind focused, for the good Lord and all that because Christmas Day was his birthday.”
He's not just happy about the music. Corazon Ministry has been there for him as he restarts his life.
“They helped me actually today to get some clothes for my job to start tomorrow,” he said.
He just got a job as a waiter, which may just signal a change in fortune for the New Year.
A gray-haired, serious man was happy to talk, and to give his entire name.
“My name is Kenneth Bernard Jones. They call me Kenny,” he said.
The retired maintenance worker and nurse has been to Grace Lutheran regularly. He was clearly enjoying the music.
“Indubitably. It's really, really quite excellent. They seem to know what they're doing quite well,” Jones said.
One more person who was facing hard times also spoke. She was facing a devastating loss of work.
“Yes, our annual income has disappeared,” she said.
That “she” wasn’t out in the audience. She was onstage. It was Allyson Dawkins. The impasse with symphony management looms large, and hopes for a quick resolution to the strike have faded in the three months since it began.
“Since September 17, is that really right, is it exactly three months today?” she asked, amazed so much time had passed.
Management’s last, best and final offer to the 72-member orchestra would turn 26 full-time positions into part-time, no-benefits ones, and reduce full-time wages to approximately $24,000 a year. The jovial Dawkins turned quite serious.
“What we have been offered will guarantee the destruction of the San Antonio Symphony, and we are not going to play a role in that destruction. We will not be a part of it,” she said.
The 13 symphony musicians who came out to play for about a hundred disadvantaged San Antonians are facing tough times themselves, many looking for work in other cities, and in other orchestras. But for one afternoon at a downtown church, they joined their audience in forgetting life's challenges, and simply shared their love for beautiful music.