Last winter, the future of the San Antonio Symphony was in doubt, after contract talks between the musicians union and the Symphony broke down. But a few days into the new year, a cash infusion from Bexar County, and the City of San Antonio, not to mention overwhelming public support, helped the San Antonio Symphony finish its season strong. According to the Symphony’s interim executive director, Michael Kaiser, the organization is opening this season $200,000 in the black.
In an interview held in the TPR studios, Kaiser looks ahead to this season’s performances, the organization’s ongoing community engagement and fundraising efforts, and the all-important task of getting the word out about all of the above. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Nathan Cone: So I was just listening back to audio a couple of weeks ago, because I produce the broadcasts that go on Saturday nights on KPAC, and that show where Sebastian Lang-Lessing comes out and says he’s been directed, asked by Kathleen Weir Vale to say a few words here that the season will continue, and the crowd just goes crazy... You know, it's wonderful what happens when everybody is just so excited about that. How's the symphony been maintaining that momentum with the public, do you think, and the excitement of a season continuing and what we hope is an upward trajectory for the organization?
Michael Kaiser: There's been a lot of activity to build our donor base and to build our subscriber base over these last several months. And the good news is that we were able to raise enough money so that we start the new season this month, and we have $200,000 in the bank, which is unusual for us and fantastic. And with a strong subscriber base and ticket sales effort, I think the momentum is being maintained. But it takes a lot of one-on-one personal contact to do so.
If you could snap your fingers, what do you think is the most important thing that the Symphony needs to do in order to continue that momentum? You mentioned one-on-one contact, but what do you hope results out of that?
Well, I think what we need to do is we need to communicate more and better about the range of activities we do in this community. Most people have some a passing acquaintance with the fact that we give performances at the Tobin, and that we do a range of performances, classical and popular performances. But [what] I don't think most people understand is the range and depth of our education and outreach programming that truly does reach every quarter of this community where we work with some 40,000 children who come to our Young People's Concerts, where we do have a wonderful literacy program that uses music and reading together to build the literacy in both English and Spanish... that we do ten free concerts across the city and county each year that are available to everyone... that we do very rich programs with our libraries for example. This year, there will be musicians playing in every branch of the public library. There's a great deal of activity we do to reach throughout the community and I think we haven't done a good enough job of explaining that and therefore people don't really fully realize how we contribute to San Antonio.
I sometimes wonder if people realize the impact of the musicians themselves being in the community, and being a part of the economy of the community, and the artistic economy of teaching and bringing up young musicians themselves. Do you think people get a grasp of that?
I think some do, and most don't. Again I think we have not had the consistent institutional marketing that we need to embark upon... and that we're starting now, and we need to continue over the years to come. It never stops. So that more and more of the community comes to realize that we are a very valuable piece of it. Many people obviously do. Those were the people who were so excited that we continued [the season]. But we need to have more and we need to have not just more ticket buyers but also more donors, if we're going to have the resources we need to continue to do the work at the level we want to do it.
What do you think is the best way for y'all to do that marketing? What avenues have you explored or thought might be the best road ahead?
Well number one is being on TPR!
But it's doing substantial press work to talk about not just the performances, but everything we do. Then every time you meet people, dinner parties, whatever, to keep the message going about all we do in the community. And then it's to do a series of really important projects and make sure people are paying attention to them. And so we have a series of important projects this season but we need to continue to plan programming that's going to surprise and delight people and get them to say "wow, I didn't realize the Symphony did that," like playing "Star Wars."
What do you think are those important projects or what are those ones that you're wanting to highlight?
It's a portfolio. Some are important classical performances. We open the season on September 21st with Andre Watts truly one of the great musicians of our lifetime playing with the symphony and the fact that he is here playing his signature Grieg concerto is truly an honor for the symphony and an honor for the community. And then paying and accompanying the "Star Wars" film at the Tobin, because that shows a very different side of what symphonies can do and should be doing. And I think it's this range of work. We're going to have a wonderful food festival this season, where we're going to be talking about the foods of Italy, Spain, and France, and combining the food with the music because there is great music about food and there's great music that goes well with food, shall we say. And then it's it's having an evening dedicated to Emilio Navaira, and having a great Tejano musician and his music and his family will be participating, and honoring him, and also showing that a symphony can play a range of kinds of music. It's this portfolio that I think is so important that we continue and that we always make surprising that every year looks different.
I think the food festival is a really great idea too. And I'm wondering, beyond the offerings that might happen in the Tobin rotunda area off to the side, you know, where they have their restaurant catering section there... what ways do you think you guys could interact with the community in terms of combining food and...
Performing in restaurants! There's a whole series of activities that will be announced shortly. We will be in the community not just in the Tobin Center when it comes to our food festival and I don't think you'll be able to miss us.
That's very exciting.
It is exciting, and it's fun and it's engaging and it's surprising and I've long said that it's surprising activities that get people to pay attention for the first time. It's really important that we play Beethoven well, but it's also really important every year we do something that people didn't expect.
How are the musicians morale, and taking part of these initiatives, how do they feel about this kind of stretching themselves in this regard?
They're really excited about this. They have long felt that we need to reach into the community more, and I just met with them and talked with them just ten minutes ago and they are extremely enthusiastic about where we're going, and they just hope we maintain it. One of the things we've been missing is consistency of activity.
What do you mean by that?
I mean there have been so many changing faces on board on staff. There have been projects that have started and stopped. We need to come forward and say this is what we're going to be, and keep at it with the same people for a long time to come. And if we do that then we'll start to build the relationships in the community that we need to, to be successful.
Where you have almost a familiarity with certain members of the orchestra...?
Members of the orchestra, members of the staff members of the board. And also consistent messages that, you know, we have really stated we're going to be the most diverse and most engaging orchestra in America. We're going to engage with all aspects of our community more than any other symphony in America. That's something we're going to focus on, and now we have to do that, and we do that consistently for years to come.
The musicians have a new contract, I guess? Is that only for one year?
It's only for one year, and that seemed smart because we were in a transition time and I think this coming year we'll be in a better position. When I'm replaced by a full time executive director, we will be in a better place to come up with a longer term contract with the musicians.
Well speaking of when your replacement comes, what do you see as your job right now for this period of time with the organization? What do you feel is your primary purpose, and then I'd like to know how the search is going for permanent leadership.
My job I think, primarily, has been to write a plan which we've now done that really will carry the institution forward and that the board and staff can embrace. It's also to start to introduce and start to implement this plan and to introduce in fundraising and marketing and artistic planning some processes that make sense and that can be consistent. And it's also to participate actively in the search. And and so the search is going on. There's a search firm engaged and they are identifying candidates right now. They say they have a lot of interest in this position, which doesn't surprise me, it's a great job! We will be interviewing candidates in the coming weeks. We hope to make a selection relatively soon and to have that new person start somewhere in December, ideally, if that's possible, so that it can be a smooth transition from my leadership to the new person. But as I say there's a lot of interest in this position because it's a great orchestra and a great city.
And how about the relationship between the orchestra and the city, and this task force that had been created during the summertime? How is that being defined and worked out for now in the future?
And I was the consultant to the task force which is how I first got involved with the Symphony. The task force has done its work it's written its report that has been accepted by both the mayor and by the judge and both the city and the county are being generous and supportive of the symphony and also placing some expectations on this on the symphony at that level is that which they have to perform in order to continue to earn that support.
You mean, fundraising levels?
Fundraising levels, ticket sale levels, financial performance. We need to make sure that we can stay solvent and that we don't constantly run back to the city or the county saying if we don't get a cash infusion today we're in trouble. And so we have to perform well, and we had to create a very reasonable and doable achievable budget which I think we've done. And now we have to implement that budget.
You mentioned you're $200,000 to the good right now, which is excellent. How's the ticket sales looking for the fall, so far?
Ticket sales are strong, and we always want to sell more, so we hope people will come. This first month is emblematic of who we are, doing free concerts at Haven for Hope, doing a free concert at Palo Alto College, accompanying the opera in "La Traviata," doing "Star Wars," and doing the Andre Watts performances, all in one month. So it's a very rich month but it also shows the variety of what we do and I think people are truly engaged by that.
Well if you could offer some advice for somebody listening or reading right now to us, who probably already has some interest in the symphony already simply by being a Texas Public Radio or a KPAC listener or a follower... what would you want them to share to their friends and neighbors about the San Antonio Symphony that would benefit the organization, as well as San Antonio is a whole, you think?
I think the most important thing is to come and hear a concert and realize just how amazing it is to hear 72 musicians performing together for you. It is different from wearing a headset. It's different than watching a movie, and if you doubt that, try it.
The San Antonio Symphony begins its season this month with community concerts at Haven For Hope and Palo Alto College, followed by a supporting role with Opera San Antonio’s production of “La Traviata” on September 13 and 15, pianist Andre Watts with the orchestra on September 21 & 22, and finally three days of “Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert” from September 28-30.