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Former San Antonio Symphony music director weighs in on strike

Former San Antonio Symphony music director weighs in on Symphony Musicians Strike and stalled contract negotiations.

SAN ANTONIO — The former music director of the San Antonio Symphony who served with the orchestra for ten years, from 2010 to 2020 is sharing his perspective on the musicians strike and keeping the institution alive for future generations.

“We are constantly struggling because the priorities are not set right in San Antonio,” said San Antonio Symphony Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing. “But now is the time to change the pattern. It's now or never.”

Sebastian Lang-Lessing has lived and worked in five continents during his career as a music director and he’s seen all types of financing models. He says he doesn’t envy the fundraising challenges the Symphony Society faces.

“I've seen nine CEOs in 10 years, nine in 10 years,” he said. “So, I know that it's hard.”

He spent 10 years as the Music Director in San Antonio and still holds the title of Music Director Emeritus with the San Antonio Symphony.

The San Antonio Symphony employed 72 full-time musicians. After months of negotiations the symphony put forward what they called their “last-best offer” which would reduce the size of the symphony down to 42 full-time musicians with a contingent of 26 part-time musicians. But, Lang-Lessing fears the nearly 40% of the orchestra that would be cut down to part-time under the new contract won’t stick around even one year.

“They won't stay to make $11,000 a year because they can't afford to do that. Nobody can,” Lang-Lessing said. “I mean, you tell me a job, you would hang around for $11,000 a year, once, after you probably have piled up $200,000 of tuition.”

Lang Lessing said he is convinced there is enough wealth in San Antonio to support the symphony as it is, but only if the donor class has the will.

“I normally hear that there is no money, because there is money,” he said. “I mean, there are enough people in San Antonio that could single handedly could solve the situation with one stroke of a pen”

Lang-Lessing points to the Sunken Garden Theater, which the symphony plays in, that the Brackenridge Park Conservancy is attempting to raise nearly $62 million to renovate, although he was under the impression, they were raising $72 million.

“It's a nice number because that's exactly what we need as an endowment to solve that problem,” he said. “I'd rather say 75. But that doesn't matter because that 72 million will generate enough revenue to make sure that the paycheck is not in danger.”

According to the Brackenridge park Conservancy’s website, the renovations to the Sunken Garden Theater are expected to cost $61.7 million and have an economic impact of $239 million in the first 10 years. 

The San Antonio Symphony was shown to have an economic impact of $222 million each year from 2000 to 2010 according to a study featured in Bloomberg.

An endowment, which some have been seeking for years, is a financial instrument that would generate revenue through investments to cover things like payroll and expenses.

The San Antonio Symphony Society remains firm in its position that the contract they are proposing is the best way to preserve the orchestra, telling KENS 5:

“As Sebastian, and his predecessors before him have experienced over the years, multiple emergency funding appeals have “saved” the symphony after which we’ve attempted to continue operating at a level that created the crisis in the first place. 

We have struggled several times over many years to make payroll, putting everyone and the organization at very real risk of financial collapse. We have had to face the hard facts that Sebastian appears to be unaware of - in our current financial situation we have to make difficult decisions to really save the Symphony for the long term. 

We agree on one point - when the Symphony establishes a discipline of living within our means, we will once again earn the trust of large individual and institutional donors in our community. With financial stability the Symphony will grow, and we will be able to offer more in terms of concerts, educational programs, and provide more value back to our community. ” 

But Lang-Lessing believes that the drop in quality will make even that smaller budget harder to maintain.

“You can set a budget for 5 million, but you won't be able to finance 5 million because if you don't deliver quality, you lose your donors.”