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Striking San Antonio Symphony back on stage at First Baptist Church

Jack Morgan
Sebastian Lang-Lessing in black at center left

The Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have been on strike since late last September, but they’ve still been staging occasional concerts for the public at the First Baptist Church.

An hour before the concert at the Communications Workers of America Union Hall, Richard Oppenheim helped call the meeting to order by playing Star Spangled Banner with his saxophone.

Jack Morgan
Richard Oppenheim plays Star Spangled Banner

Union members had met to show solidarity with the striking musicians of Local #23, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. Oppenheim said those who paid for tickets for Friday’s performance are helping those out-of-work musicians pay their bills.

”We have elements in society here that are stepping forward to take up the slack and do what the governing board and upper management of the Symphony Society of San Antonio seem incapable of doing, which is to say sustaining and nurturing a full-sized, world-class orchestra,” Oppenheim said.

The Symphony Society of San Antonio manages the San Antonio Symphony but they’re at loggerheads with the musicians on sweeping pay cuts, and downsizing the full-time orchestra. Musician Brian Petkovich has worked with First Baptist Church to schedule these concerts bringing the symphony back in front of the public despite being on strike.

Jack Morgan
Union supporters march to the First Baptist Church

“Tonight will be our fifth concert. And we got more in June with our music director emeritus, Chris Wilkins,” said Petkovich. And we have our music director emeritus tonight, Sebastian Lang-Lessing.”

After the meeting, about 40 Union supporters marched the quarter mile between the Union hall on St. Mary’s and the First Baptist Church on McCullough. As they walked they chanted “Hey-hey, ho-ho, symphony board has got to go!”

Jack Morgan
Reily Francis at the merchandise table

Hundreds of people from very casually-dressed to tuxedo-wearing ones filtered into First Baptist church for the performance. Those needing to buy tickets were helped by Joan Whiteley.

“I'm vice president of education for the San Antonio Symphony League. I'm a teacher for over 35 years, and I'm passionate about this symphony and these musicians,” Whitely said.

The Symphony League was created to support the musicians, and they’ve done so in a big way.

“The league gave $100,000 towards these eight concerts that they've been performing in April, May and June,” Whitely said. “And this past Monday, we had a fundraiser at a private home, and it was called Mingle with Sebastian. And we had people come and pay to mingle with Sebastian. And all that money's going to the musicians also.”
Percussionist Riely Francis was at the lobby merchandise table selling Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony t-shirts and bumper stickers.

“We've missed each other's company through the pandemic, just like all friends and colleagues have missed one another,” Francis said. “But especially given the nature of what we do, we all have to be together on stage at one time to make music. And it's something we've missed tremendously.”

Symphony fan Brian Swain said this is his first time seeing the symphony at First Baptist, but he’ll be back.

“It'd be a shame, to be honest, if the seventh largest city in the country couldn't manage to support a symphony, right?” he said.
The Baptist Church sanctuary had filled just about to capacity. The musicians checked their tuning, and the crowd broke out into enthusiastic applause when Sebastian Lang-Lessing strolled out. He took a deep bow, greeted everyone, and then got the symphony started.

Jack Morgan
Full House at the First Baptist Church

After about 45 minutes of mostly Mozart, they took a break and left the stage. In his dressing room, Lang-Lessing gushed about being back with friends and musicians in San Antonio.

“It's fantastic to be back. It really feels amazing.”

He said the symphony sounded great and was looking forward to the even more challenging second half playing Beethoven.

“And they sound even greater in the second half, I hope. We're going into Beethoven seven (7th Symphony), so it's going to be a great ride,” Lang-Lessing said.

He also noted that as great as it was to be back with his friends on stage and in the audience, it was also bittersweet, given the work stoppage.

“You know, that season lost was totally unnecessary. I mean, really after the pandemic to lose an entire season,” he said. “No other orchestra has done that.”

Jack Morgan
Clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg with Sebastian Lang-Lessing
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He said the on-and-off-again nature of too many San Antonio Symphony seasons needs to be fixed, once and for all.

“We need to avoid that before the damage is done to the brand of the San Antonio Symphony. The musicians have the full support,” Lang-Lessing said. “Now we need to get the musicians back in the boat to rebuild the trust of the San Antonio Symphony brand. I think that's an important message.”

He also had another message for symphony fans: speak out.

“Let's not continue to silent here in the city. I think all voices are needed,” he said.

The two sides have perhaps never been further apart since the strike began last September 27th. Symphony management says they continue to be committed to making the negotiations work, citing their latest offer to the musicians before they called an end to mediation. While no negotiations are planned at this date, they say they’re ready to meet with musicians to find a way forward.

Despite the way things stand, percussionist Riely Francis is still happy to be back with his friends, making music.  

“Coming together and making music again is something we've been waiting to do and we are eager to bring this music to our audience. And we're really gratified to see this many people come, lend their support and share this great music in this beautiful space here at First Baptist Church,” Francis said.

The next First Baptist performance is scheduled for June 2nd.  

Jack Morgan
standing ovation for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony

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