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'I never saw it as a conflict of interest': Former San Antonio Symphony director speaks out after termination

The Symphony Society claims Lang-Lessing violated his contract by agreeing to perform with Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony

SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Symphony Society has severed its relationship with Music Director Emeritus Sebastian Lang-Lessing because of what they consider a breach of contract. But Lang-Lessing doesn’t see it that way.

“It feels slightly vindictive to me. I don't know. But frankly, my situation is in comparison to what the musicians have been going through. Really not such a big problem here," Lang-Lessing said.

While on strike, members of the Musicians of The San Antonio Symphony union MOSAS have been organizing their own independent performances at the First Baptist Church of San Antonio.

Lang-Lessing was asked to conduct a performance in place of an official symphony event, and he saw it as a no-brainer.

“My time is committed, you know, to San Antonio during that period of time,” he said. “And therefore, whether I do the concert under the new label, or under the SAS label, for me, it doesn't change anything,”

While he doesn’t see it as likely, Lang-Lessing said he would have preferred the labor dispute end so he could return for an official San Antonio Symphony performance.

“If you find a resolution with the administration, we go back on stage as San Antonio Symphony. If not, this is the Plan B,” he said.

But the Symphony Society did not see it that way, opting to invoke a provision in his contract to end their relationship with the conductor.

The Symphony Society told KENS 5:

 “While the breach of contract with Sebastian Lang-Lessing due to his announcement of concerts on the days he is contracted to perform with the Symphony was unfortunate, it was not a decision we could simply ignore. It is a contract for a reason; and one we had been honoring for years.”

Lang-Lessing says he does not believe he violated the contract, and still plans on performing with the orchestra in May.

“I never saw it as a conflict of interest, by any means,” he said. “Only one or the other event can happen.”

He says that though financially and contractually his relationship with the San Antonio Symphony has ended, he is not willing to give up the title: Music director emeritus.

"It's an honorary title you cannot just take away. That goes way beyond the simple contract," he said. "I don't accept that my association with the San Antonio Symphony is over just because a couple people think that way."

But ever since the symphony made this move, he feels free to speak his mind.

“So my role now is maybe a little bit freer, because I can speak out and take the side of the musicians, because they are the symphony. Nobody else is the symphony.”

Lang-Lessing has spoken out about the dispute in the past, criticizing not the Symphony society itself, but the offer they were trying to get the musicians to accept.

The San Antonio Symphony employed 72 full-time musicians. Months ago, 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.

“They won't stay to make $11,000 a year because they can't afford to do that. Nobody can,” Lang-Lessing told KENS 5 back in December.

The Symphony Society has since made other offers. Most recently, their 12th offer eliminates any mention of part-time musicians and has a base salary of $30,650. (The San Antonio Symphony's breakdown of their latest offer can be found here) But, it would still cut the orchestra down to 50 members. And as Lang-Lessing puts it, musicians don’t sign up for firing their colleagues.

"An orchestra is a system. A very, very strict system of solidarity,” he said. “It doesn't matter what somebody plays three notes in a concert, or 25,000. They get paid the same amount."

The City of San Antonio allocates a certain amount of funding each year dedicated to the arts. 

"The City of San Antonio’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget includes $7.2M in grant funding for San Antonio nonprofits and artists. Funding each year is dependent on the City of San Antonio’s annual budget process," said Stacey Norton, the city's marketing, film and music administrator. 

The San Antonio Symphony is receiving $336,585 through the Department of Arts and Culture's Base Operational Support Grand Program, which Norton noted is the maximum funding level the symphony can receive based on the program's City Council-approved guidelines. 

KENS 5 also reached out to Mayor Ron Nirenberg for his insight on the symphony situation. He expressed his support for the musicians. 

“Mayor Nirenberg wants a full-size, fairly paid symphony for San Antonio—he just can’t get in middle of federal mediation," said Bruce Davidson, Nirenberg's communications director. 

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