A US orchestra teeters on the edge of bankruptcy

December 28, 2017 by norman lebrecht


The San Antonio Symphony, long in trouble, was about to be taken over by a local consortium of businessmen. But they have taken a deeper look at the numbers and found an $8.9 million hole in the pension fund.

It looks like no deal. The San Antonio orchestra has existed since 1939. Can it survive?

The slogan needs changing – fast.

Read here.

Comments (33)

  1. Nick2 says:

    They certainly let the pension fund go. How, I wonder, is it possible for such a large sum to disappear from the annual accounts, the amount having grown, I assume, over a period of years? Did the Board exercise due diligence? It would seem not.

    1. MWnyc says:

      It’s not that money disappeared from the pension account, exactly. It’s that annual contributions to the pension fund were never made, or weren’t made in large enough amounts to cover the pensions that would have to be paid out in the future.

      Pension fund underfunding is an enormous problem throughout the United States, with private-sector corporations, not-for-profit organizations, and especially state and local governments and other governmental entities. (Governors, mayors, and legislatures don’t want to raise taxes or cut spending enough to make sufficient pension contributions while providing other public services and operations – or they “borrow” money from the pension funds for other projects and never pay it back.)

  2. MWnyc says:

    The pension fund shortfall isn’t really $8.9 million. It’s $4.5 million. The $8.9 million figure is the penalty that the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra would have to pay to the national musicians’ pension fund if it withdrew from that fund. (The SASO musicians argue that the orchestra wouldn’t have to pay that penalty under the rescue-takeover plan that just fell apart.)

    San Antonio is (by population) the 7th-largest city in the U.S. (though it’s somewhere between the 25th- and 30th-largest metro area, depending on how you count). It’s unfortunate that the city can’t seem to maintain secure support for a fully professional symphony orchestra.

  3. DrummerMan says:

    The city of San Antonio can not support an orchestra of that size — never could, never will. When I was there they did 16 pairs of classical subscription concerts. Now they do 14, so it’s not exactly much of a reduction.

    This so-called “new and improved” restructuring, i.e., abolishing the old non-profit corporation and creating a new one, was a sham from the very beginning. I thought from the very start that the sole purpose of this new organization was to circumvent the musician’s CBA, try to negotiate something new under the pretense of being a new corporation and not bound by the old contract. (Of course I doubt the NLRB would have ever allowed that.)

    Nick2’s comment about board diligence is right on. The Symphony has had a series of incompetents on their board for decades. See no evil, hear no evil. Dumb and dumber.

    Regarding management, since 2000 the Symphony has had something like 8 or 9 executive directors, plus several “interim.”

    1. Anthony Boatman says:

      Drummerman, you hit it on the (drum) head. San Antonio is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the United States, and the orchestra should probably be in the $3-4 million budget size. I was Director of Development there from 1989 until 1993, and it was a constant struggle to raise $$$, although we never missed a payroll. Plus the Symphony has shot itself in the foot too many times by having special “Save Our Symphony” campaigns to payoff debt, then turning right around and operating in the red again. Plus plus, they have an extremely combative, uncooperative union in a fiercely anti-union city and state, so a lot of potential major donors have written them off. Perhaps the only solution is to declare bankruptcy, dissolve the place, and rebuild a much smaller but affordable orchestra from the ashes.

      1. DrummerMan says:

        I also have a past professional connection with the SA Symphony, Anthony. BTW, I communicated with you recently “off line” so you’ll figure out who I am.

        What the city should have is a core orchestra — maybe 20 or so on full salary — and the rest as per service. There is no way they can support 76 musicians on a full time salary. In my day, the contract was 39 weeks, ie, 35 weeks of concerts plus 4 weeks paid vacation. (The full-time staff, working 52 weeks, never got 4 weeks vacation!)

        I agree with the $3-4 million range, which is half of what it is now. If they schedule things carefully, they could share some players with the Austin Symphony, only about 70 miles away if memory serves.

        1. Anthony Boatman says:

          Hello again! I agree that a salaried core of 20-30 players would be a good first step, making everybody else per service. Here at the Boise Philharmonic (only a $1.8 mill budget though) we have 3 players on FT salary, 14 more on PT salary, most on a guaranteed per service basis, and some “as needed”(e.g. 3rd flute & trombone, contrabassoon, etc). Also, we are a non-union orchestra which gives us added flexibility in many areas. We also have a much more modest season (8 pairs of concerts) but we have scaled ourselves to meet the wants and needs of our community, which supports us generously. San Antonio should take some pages from our book, but to do so they would need to tank the current organization.

          1. DrummerMan says:

            One of THE BIGGEST reasons so many arts groups have gotten into trouble is because they grew too big, too fast. Then, they suddenly wake up and say: “My god, we have to raise ‘X’ dollars” this year and freak out. If, on top of that, the stock mark crashes (think 2000 & 2008), or there is a national tragedy (September 11) or a local emergency (Hurricane Katrina & the Louisiana Phil, for example), you have a guaranteed mess on your hands.

            Look at Fort Worth Symphony – in 2000/2001 they were playing a 40 week season. A new music director was hired and they suddenly crept up to 52 weeks. There was no good reason for doing that and they are paying the price now, at least in part, with the financial mess they’re in.

            Remember the immortal words of Sol Hurok: “If the music business was really a business, it couldn’t stay in business.”

  4. Marc Parella says:

    My complaint over the years is that musicians are too isolated and removed from our communities. I don’t see them in public except at concerts. They need to take a page out of the religious right and start to proselytize their faith and do what Leonard Bernstein did so well for so many years — see the people, sell the product. That is how I got involved in classical music. To me it was wonderland and if musicians talk and communicate to people in their communities, they will have an audience and a future. But if all that is left is politics, subterfuge, and contempt, forget it. What is happening in San Antonio will happen in Boston, LA and elsewhere.

    1. Vaquero357 says:

      Well…..let’s be fair. Some musicians are “people” people, others are not. It sure is great when members of the local orchestra get out into the community and proselytize, but not everybody’s comfortable doing that.

      That’s what you have marketing departments for. Or at least should. As a marketer myself, I have to admit that a lot of arts organization marketing departments don’t seem to have a clue as to how to do their jobs…..

      1. Marc Parella says:

        You reap what you sow. Silicon Valley tech workers are aloof too. But they can afford to be aloof. Symphonies are fighting for their very lives. The marketing department in these organizations is a joke. I get dozens of “postcards” and hundreds of emails from performing arts groups around the country. I used to get a call from the San Francisco Symphony every 6 weeks but they stopped with direct marketing years ago.

        If a symphony player called me to invite me to a concert, I would go, period. If I had a personal relationship with an orchestra I would contribute (and have in the past). But do you think you would get the same result from spam?

        Sorry folks, the 19th century ended 119 years ago. If you want a 21st century audience you need to network better.

    2. Vaquero357 says:

      Oh….I agree, Leonard Bernstein was an amazing force for “getting the word out” and presenting a lot of really complex concepts about music in a way that made them very understandable to beginners.

      The PBS Beethoven symphony series had a huge influence on me. We *do* need more Lennies! But I think God broke the mold after giving us the original!

    3. Bill says:

      Apropos of your comment of musicians from the community being involved, I am an applied instrumental and music professor at a small state university. I attended a major conservatory in New York, have held principal positions in regional and foreign orchestras, and have substituted with a couple of major orchestras in my past. I consider myself to be a more than competent player and teacher. Certainly good enough to play with most regional and second tier orchestras.

      The city I teach in has a professional (Union) per service orchestra of long history and reasonable quality. Freelance musicians from all over the region play there, and they are all quite good.

      I have substituted with this group with great success and acclimation from the music director and management. After the principal and section player left, the two positions have remained unfilled pending the hiring of a new music director.

      Now you would think, that since I am one of the few, if not only, player of the quality capable of playing with this group that actually lives and teaches music in this small city, that I would at least be given the call to play to fill one of these open positions, if not just until the audition, and perhaps, spread some goodwill to the community while playing with the group. There has been much discussion about how more community involvement from the musicians is needed to attract and justify the orchestra to a dwindling audience.

      But instead, although I have played complete seasons with this group in the past even playing principal parts with big solos, I maybe now get called once or twice a season. The new personnel manager has opted to hire people they are friendly with who live 1-3 hours away regularly. Of course, that’s his prerogative. But it’s not helping in the long run.

      The minute a concert is finished, the players are in their cars and not to be seen until the next concert. I might add that I know some of the players being brought in to fill these positions, and they are as perplexed as I as to why I do not get called. Both have acknowledged that I am certainly good enough to play with the group in any capacity, as have my colleagues at my school. I do not begrudge them for the work they are getting.

      I am ready, willing and able, but instead of being able to contribute, short sighted politics keeps me on the sidelines. I am not lacking for other playing work, so not being hired for the local gig is not the end of the world for me.

      With this attitude, I can’t see how this group will survive.

      And that’s the problem many of these smaller regional groups have: the musicians are either not present in the community, or they are simply mercenary. Very often, politics keep good players from the community from contributing.

      Audiences need to see that the musicians and the group have a stake in the community. Especially in these smaller markets.

      Perhaps players in the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony can afford to be aloof, but in smaller markets, musicians can afford no such luxury.

      1. DrummerMan says:

        Actually, the San Antonio Symphony has done a lot of great “community” type activities and has received awards for this. Former m.d. Christopher Wilkins deserves a lot of credit for that. The Symphony has played free concerts many times on the West Side of town (Hispanic neighborhood) and does, or at least used to do, a one week residency at St. Phillip’s College on the East Side (African-American neighborhood.) St. Phillip’s being one of the historically Black colleges and universities. In addition a number of musicians volunteer every Christmas to perform in several local hospitals, without asking to paid a dime. I don’t dispute your story; it’s just that community service, or lack thereof, is NOT the problem for San Antonio.

        1. Bill says:

          I’m glad to see that they are doing some things to engage the community.
          But with regards to something related to my situation, I actually know somebody who was living in San Antonio for a time who was an excellent orchestral player. They lived there for about a year or two because a partner had gotten a job there. In fact, it was a job with the administration in the SAS. They had not only won some competitions and smaller jobs, they had substituted with some major symphonies as well. By any standard as qualified a player as any to come in and play as a sub for the San Antonio Symphony.

          But in the entire time they lived there, they were only called in once or maybe twice to sub for a rehearsal. Instead, the orchestra flew in players from other cities and lodged them at great expense to the orchestra.

          On a couple of levels, I find that offensive. First, that a good and eminently qualified player in the community was being sidelined, and second, it would appear that the SAS was/is not in a financial position to be spending that sort of money to fly in substitute players because somebody may or may not have had the pedigree or the right friends to play at the high lofty standards of the San Antonio Symphony. And I’m sure it was being done for other substitute positions as well. If this was how the orchestra has been managing it’s money, than they deserve to go bankrupt.

          I think that many of these orchestras, players, and management, in these smaller markets really need to get over themselves. Nobody in the audience cares if you went to Julliard instead of Mannes, or who you studied with, or that so and so’s articulations match better on a particular excerpt that they will never play while subbing there anyway or play a particular brand of instrument.
          Maybe it’s one thing if the Cleveland Orchestra wants to fly in a sub, but lets face it, the San Antonio symphony ain’t the Cleveland Orchestra.

          1. MWnyc says:

            “I am not lacking for other playing work, so not being hired for the local gig is not the end of the world for me.”

            I suspect that may be (at least partly) why the personnel manager doesn’t call you more often. You have other playing gigs as well as your teaching gig and don’t need to play with that orchestra to pay your bills; it’s entirely possible that the players the personnel manager is hiring need the gigs more urgently than you do.

            I’m not defending that, necessarily; there are plenty of arguments for and against that approach. But (granted, I’m speculating) it could well be the personnel manager’s reasoning.

  5. RW2013 says:

    If the slogan is doomed, someone had better tell Alondra.

  6. Eyal Braun says:

    Is there any future to classical music in the US? A city of 1.5 million and- in the near future- no classical orchestra… very disturbing and very sad.

    1. Cubs Fan says:

      Yes, there is a future, but it’s going to have to undergo a scary, difficult winnowing process first. San Antonio, like many other communities in the American Southwest is undergoing fast, dramatic demographic changes that aren’t conducive to the classics. Our media, which once strongly supported the arts, no longer do. The American public by and large have no interest in classical music. But keep in mind that Texas is a huge state and has an enormous number of orchestras – a couple that are world-class and many other very fine ones. I’ve heard superb concerts in Abilene, Fort Worth, El Paso, Austin, Denton…even thrilling Mahler 2 in Lubbock. San Antonio is having problems – they’ve also recently lost their WNBA team to Las Vegas. Marc Parella (is this the same one who produced an unreleased set of Arnell symphonies?) is right – orchestras must get out and make themselves a vital and visible part of their communities. If they don’t, they’re going to die – and there will be few left who care.

    2. Mark Henriksen says:

      Maybe demographics comes into understanding the difficulties in high population areas like Miami, Hawaii, New Orleans, and now San Antonio that struggle in maintaining a major symphony orchestra.

      1. MWnyc says:

        I think climate has something to do with it, too: warm weather seems to encourage many people to want leisure activities that can be done outdoors. (Yes, there are cities in Texas and California which are exceptions to this.)

  7. Robert Levine says:

    The pension liability, while real, appears to be the amount that the American Federation of Musicians-Employers Pension Fund is currently underfunded, as applied proportionally to the members of the San Antonio Symphony. It does not appear to represent pension payments that the SAS was required to make but didn’t; management claims that it is current in its payments, and the Pension Fund, for obvious reasons, is quite proactive in making sure that employers don’t get behind in their payments.

    The underfunding of the AFM-EP Fund (which is a national multi-employer fund) is going to be addressed in one or more of three ways: investment returns will improve, contributions will be increased, or pension payments will be decreased. It is most definitely not going to be addressed by the Pension Fund sending a bill for $4.5 million to the San Antonio Symphony.

    Literally everyone involved in the AFM-EPF who knows anything knows this. Most of the solution will likely come from a decrease in payments to current and future beneficiaries. Everyone knows this as well.

    I have no doubt that the management of the San Antonio Symphony knows this; if they don’t, it’s only because they’ve been keeping their heads buried in the sand. And, if they know it, the group proposing to take over the SAS knows it too.

    In short, as a rationale for backing out of the deal, this is bogus.

    1. DrummerMan says:

      Agree with Mr. Levine but this whole thing sounds fishy. (Old Italian saying: “A fish stinks from the head.”) The printed comments of board chair Bruce Bugg are very troubling, as if he can’t be bothered with this anymore.

      Interesting that the $2 million donation “never happened.” Why?

      Back in the day, the Symphony owed $1.2 million in pension contributions but it was paid off around 2002, if memory serves.

  8. Old Man in the Midwest says:

    It really is a mess on many levels:

    > SA has historically always had problems similar to Honolulu. Both are ICSOM orchestras but can barely stay in that league. Should really move down to ROPA status, shorten the season and become much more flexible in terms of guaranteed services and core orchestra members.

    > The AFM pension fund is a mess. Poor investment record, non transparent, and lack of accountability. There is a movement afoot to fix this issue by some renegades within the union but it will be an uphill battle I am sure. Power does not like to be challenged (Ray Hair and gang).
    > Smaller markets need to come up with different models. One writer is correct. The demographics do not look great for a Eurocentric art form next to Mexico unless the state government will support the SA orchestra like the government does to orchestras south of the border.

    > At best this should be a 20 week a year orchestra with a chamber orchestra roster and then fill in with locals. That could be sustainable and for the lucky few who make the cut, you might make a living along with teaching and a sidehustle like selling real estate etc.

    1. DrummerMan says:

      To respond to your 4 points, I say: (1) yes; (2) yes; (3) yes; (4) yes.

      From: An Old Man in the Northeast

      1. Anthony Boatman says:

        Ditto, Ditto, Ditto and Ditto

        From an Old Man in the Intermountain Northwest!

    2. Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Glad that there are so many Old Men who agree with me.

      I will see you in the dining hall at the Old Folks Home.


      1. DrummerMan says:

        There’s no substitute for experience!

  9. Robert Holmén says:

    $8.9 Million should be a rounding error in a 1-percenter’s pocket after the new US tax break.

    1. Old Man in the Midwest says:

      Yes, it only takes one.

      Wagner had Mad King Ludwig. Beethoven had Baron von Swieten.

  10. Arturo says:

    I would like to know why classical music philanthropists in Texas have such startling names.

    First there was Ima Hogg, who gave her name to a competition & I think a hall in TX. Now comes Bruce Bugg, at the helm of the philanthropists’ organization in San Antonio.

    You don’t see these names much elsewhere in the US, only in wealthy classical music circles in Texas. What is up with that?

    1. Anthony Boatman says:

      The HEB Grocery Stores was founded by H.E. Butt!

      1. Arturo says:

        Hah! There you go! And Mr. Butt is from San Antonio, Texas!

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