The San Antonio Symphony announced it will raise the base salary for musicians by about 6% over the next three years. By 2022, the starting salary will be $35,774.
The raise was announced despite the Symphony’s decades of financial struggles. Due to recurring multi-million dollar budget deficits, musicians previously took multiple pay cuts. At times, the Symphony even dipped into its endowment and advance ticket sales to pay down debts and recoup budget deficits.
Current financial status
The 2018-19 fiscal season officially ends at the end of August, and the Symphony has not fully recovered.
“Right now, what we’re working on is our annual fund, and we’re working on getting ourselves stabilized with money for operations now,” said Kathleen Vale, chair of the Symphony’s board.
She said the recovery will take time, and she can’t say if the organization will be fully out of debt by the end of the current fiscal season.
“A turnaround doesn’t happen in the orchestra industry overnight. It doesn’t happen in one year,” Vale said. “It’s probably a three- to four-year process. So I can’t predict the figures for the end of this year.”
Recent financial struggles and recovery
The financial struggles reached a peak in the 2017-18 concert season. After years of turmoil, a new management group was formed to take over Symphony operations in 2017. In January of 2018, that management group — Symphonic Music for San Antonio — suddenly backed out of the takeover deal, citing a massive pension liability.
The changeover from one management group to another would likely have triggered an almost $9 million dollar withdrawal fee, according to officials with the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund. Due to the reversal, the season was suspended, and it was unclear if the Symphony would continue to exist.
Vale became chair of the Symphony’s board in January of 2018, shortly after the season had been cut short. With Vale as chair, the board voted to resume the season, and she steered the Symphony towards firm financial footing. The community rallied behind the orchestra, and HEB, the Kronkosky Foundation and the Tobin Endowment helped pay down the Symphony’s debts.
Pointing to decreasing ticket sales and increasing costs for orchestras around the country, Vale argues the San Antonio Symphony is not alone in its struggles.
“If you look at orchestras all over the country, there are terrible upheavals all of time. It’s a tumultuous industry,” Vale said.
Another key figure in the financial turnaround was Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. In addition to individual donors and support from the City of San Antonio, the orchestra received a $350,000 dollar-for-dollar matching grant from Bexar County. Wolff said the decision to support the Symphony with county money was easy.
“Well first of all, it is a cultural asset,” Wolff said. “Second, it is an economic generator. And third, probably most important of all is the impact they have on young people.”
The Symphony’s award-winning education program serves more than 50,000 young people per year through workshops, free events and an annual side-by-side concert with the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio.
What lies ahead
One of the Symphony’s long term challenges is a lackluster endowment of about $2 million, compared to $70 million in the Houston Symphony’s endowment and more than $100 million in the Dallas Symphony’s endowment. The small endowment size affects everything from the orchestra’s solvency to musician compensation. Last season, the base salary for a San Antonio Symphony member was $33,600, compared to more than $97,000 for a Houston Symphony musician.
Vale said the board is stepping up fundraising efforts, and she expects the business community will answer the call. “I think they will when asked,” Vale said. “It’s our job to do the asking and it’s their job to give the answer, and we can do a better job in fundraising and that’s what we’re about to do. It’s what we’ve been doing.”
Bexar County continues to support the Symphony, and Wolff hopes the business community will do the same.
“The Symphony is extremely important,” Wolff said. “I wish we could get that message over to a lot more corporate leaders.”
The Symphony is also trying to engage with more audiences and increase ticket sales through expanded programming, such as the ongoing Movie Concerts and Pops Series.
Before the 2019-20 Pops Series starts, the season will open with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
“I led the Symphony through many resurrections,” music director Sebastien Lang-Lessing said. “Not just the recent one, but always, there were always bumps on the way.”
Lang-Lessing, who will step down in 2020, first programmed the Resurrection Symphony when the orchestra moved into the renovated Tobin Center in 2014.
“When I programmed it first, it was the resurrection of the municipal auditorium, you know, basically the building of the hall,” Lang-Lessing said. “Now, of course, it is more of the institution itself.”
Translated, the first lyrics of the Resurrection Symphony's fifth and final movement are “Rise again, yes, rise again.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story attributed a statement to the incorrect organization. The correct organization name is the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund.
Dominic Anthony Walsh was a summer 2019 intern for Texas Public Radio.