S.A. Symphony musicians are being asked to accept the unacceptable


Austerity never produces growth.

Sometimes downsizing is necessary, the only way for a business or an organization to make it through a fiscal crisis. But it never enhances the product or creates a sense of viability.

Think of every professional sports fire sale in which a franchise unloads its best players to get its payroll in line. The team saves money, but it also shrinks its own revenue base and demoralizes its fans.

This is the major issue at play in the 5-week-old strike of the San Antonio Symphony’s musicians. It’s a chronic problem for the symphony, which survived a strike in 1985, a lockout in 1987, a canceled season caused by bankruptcy in 2003-04 and shortened seasons in 1992 and 2018.

Too often, the battle has been about keeping the lights on. Creating a positive environment for musicians to thrive tends to be way down on the list.

The Symphony Society of San Antonio, in its bid to alter contract terms with the players in the third and final year of their current contract, imposed an untenable set of conditions.

The symphony’s personnel would shrink from 72 to 68. The orchestra would be broken up into two groups: 42 full-time players, whose annual pay would drop from nearly $36,000 to $24,000; and 26 part-timers who would receive only $11,250 and no health insurance benefits. The season would shrink from 31 to 24 weeks.

This two-tiered payroll structure reeks of desperation. It’s an admission that the orchestra, as an organization (though certainly not as a musical unit) is regressing.

“It’s a step backward and, in this particular case, it’s a fairly large one,” contra bassoonist Marty Gordon said last month on the musicians’ MOSAS podcast.

You can argue that the symphony’s management has done everything possible to bring in philanthropic donations. But no one can argue, with a straight face, that the exceptional musicians of the San Antonio Symphony deserve to be treated like this.

We’re going to start losing musicians to other cities and it won’t be easy to find comparable replacements. That’s what happens when workers are made to feel like they’re expendable cogs or line items on a ledger.

This situation most closely resembles the symphony’s 1987 lockout.

In December 1986, symphony management informed musicians that they couldn’t put on a 1987-88 season without slashing payroll by 30 percent. Then, as now, management hoped to achieve its budget reductions with a combination of pay cuts, layoffs and a shortened season.

Months of negotiations went nowhere and management shut down the season. Frustrated symphony players responded by creating their own alternative group, the Orchestra of San Antonio.

In December 1987, then-Mayor Henry Cisneros helped broker a deal between the two sides.

This impasse could be a harder one to break. Management insists that the only way out of the symphony’s debt spiral is to make a serious reappraisal of its business structure.

“Despite aggressive fundraising, patron generosity, successful government grants and a lower expense output in the last fiscal year, the model is broken and must be addressed,” Kathleen Weir Vale, board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, wrote in a recent Express-News op-ed.

In its most recent federal tax filing, covering Sept. 1, 2019, thru Aug. 31, 2020, the Symphony Society reported $5.24 million in revenue, a drop-off of $823,000 from the year before. Payroll was nearly $5 million for each of those two years.

The revenue drop was thoroughly predictable, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the symphony’s performance schedule.

Symphonies have struggled for decades to achieve financial stability. In March 2003, at the very same time the cash-strapped San Antonio Symphony failed to make its payroll, symphonies in Savannah, Ga., and Colorado Springs, Colo., canceled their seasons because of budget shortfalls.

Underlying this current crisis, however, is a sense among the musicians that management doesn’t believe in the orchestra or its ability to expand its following.

On the MOSAS podcast, Gordon described management’s philosophy this way: “Well, this is a really difficult problem. So let’s set ourselves up to never solve it.”

Mary Ellen Goree, violinist and chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, told MOSAS host Steve Peterson, “I have made the offer over at least the last 10 years, and I know of several other colleagues who have done the same.

“(We’ve) made the offer, ‘Take us along on donor calls.’ I would love to go along on donor calls and make the case for the San Antonio Symphony, for it being an essential part of what makes the city of San Antonio great.”

It is essential. And it’s the musicians who make it that way.

ggarcia@express-news.net | Twitter: @gilgamesh470


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