Music director puts $100k into Texas orchestra

The German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, 53, will step down next year after a decade at the San Antonio Symphony.

Moving on to become music director emeritus, ‘the message should be I’m staying,’ he says. ‘I’m signing on to a role that is long-term. It’s just that my responsibilities will shift.’

And he’s putting his own money into the orchestra. To help the symphony financially, he has issued a $100,00 challenge grant. He will match new and increased gifts made by Aug. 31 up to $100,000.

 

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  • Kudos to Maestro Lang-Lessing! Unfortunately, all this will come to naught. The San Antonio Symphony has been one of the most financially troubled orchestra in the history of American orchestras.
    The reason isn’t bad management (although there probably has been some along the way). It’s because San Antonians point out (correctly) that with 1.4 million people, they are the 7th largest US city, and the second largest in Texas. That’s almost twice as big as San Francisco and four times the sized of Cleveland! So of course, they deserve a world-class symphony orchestra! Right?
    But almost 64% of the city is Hispanic (almost exclusively Mexican). Mexican-Americans hold close to their own cultures, and have historically been leery of attempts to attract them to orchestral music.
    Then there are 80,000 active-service military in SA (not counting their families), and symphony tickets are usually outside of their budgets. The city’s poverty rate is 17.3% (better than most cities, but this still cuts out a potential audience).
    And then there are the old, wealthy families that traditionally would have financed organizations like the symphony. When I lived there, there were (if I recall correctly) 7 dynastic families (oil money, for the most part) in San Antonio, and they hated each other. Family A would support the Symphony, family B would finance the Art Museum, and each family would do their best to destroy the other’s pet project.
    Almost all American orchestras struggle to one degree or another, but San Antonio has a steeper climb than it might initially seem.

    • Wow. Well, that’s depressing. But it does offer some insight into why the SA Symphony has had so much trouble over the years.

      (Surely someone has had the idea of an “armed forces discount” — but the Montagues-vs-Capulets description of the feuding families looks like the biggest problem really.)

    • Wow, so many inaccuracies, where to start. First, it is true that the San Antonio Symphony has a long history of financial troubles, although I am astonished at how quickly the idea of “bad management” is dismissed. In fact there have been many questionable management decisions throughout the decades with perhaps the most destructive one being the choice to cannibalize the endowment in the 1990s. This understandably angered many who had donated generously to the endowment fund and the echos of that decision are with us today. Second, it is equally astonishing to make the sweeping generalization that the Mexican-American population of San Antonio is not attracted to symphonic music. How dismissive. The local school districts have very strong orchestra programs that encompass all demographics, and the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio with its nine student ensembles has many, many fine student musicians of Hispanic heritage from the youngest beginner orchestra up to the YOSA Philharmonic, the premier youth orchestra in San Antonio. Our audiences are also far more diverse than the commenter is claiming, and I can only guess that it has been quite awhile since Ainslie has been in San Antonio, let alone attended a performance. Third, the SAS offers discounted rush tickets to students, seniors, and active duty military, so in fact ticket prices need not be a barrier to attendance and our healthy audience numbers reflect that. As a side note, every time I go into the lobby during a concert intermission, I am struck by how many young people of middle and high school age are in our audiences–some with school groups, others with family or friends. Fourth, the days of the SAS relying on the money of a few old families are over. For one thing, most of those family leaders have long since passed away and the children have other interests. The SAS has an excellent board in place now with some of the best board leadership in my memory (31 years in SA and counting), and our development people are similarly improved. I would not go so far as to predict smooth sailing from here on out–for one thing, we are still in want of a decent endowment in place of the one that was destroyed. But the San Antonio Symphony plays at a very high artistic level for many people in our city who come from all walks of life, and it is not teetering at the brink of disaster.

      • You are spot on in your assessments, both in defining the issues facing the orchestra, as well as calling out the astonishing ethnic bias showcased.

      • Your defense of the SAS is passionate, and I hope everything is as good as you say it is. However, in my experience, nobody (departing conductor or not) offers a $100K matching grant unless there is trouble afoot. I hope I’m wrong.
        It’s been a couple of decades since I was in SA, but this is what I heard over and over again from native San Antonians: “We’re the 8th largest city in the US (that dates me a little) and we deserve an orchestra commensurate with our status.” Nobody was willing to confront the demographic realities of the city. The fabled “San Antonio Festival” had crumbled and disappeared because its administration assumed that the huge pile of oil money that made it possible would keep going forever. It didn’t. They spent it all, and went out of business. But the arts community still had the attitude that enough multi-millionaires would show up and save the day.
        I’m sure the SAS has a robust program aimed at the Hispanic community. They certainly didn’t when I was there. At some point, somebody woke up and realized that two-thirds of the city’s population knew nothing of European concert culture. And it’s more than just cultural. The Latino population (and particularly those of Mayan or Aztec heritage) has always been leary of Anglo culture.
        My point was that back then the arts community was completely ignorant of cultural differences between Hispanic and Anglo audiences. Rush tickets, outreach efforts, school programs are all wonderful, but to be perfectly honest, they wouldn’t be there if the hall was filled.
        The lack of an endowment is a huge problem. Frankly, if the old endowment had been structured correctly it would still be here. But it sounds from your description that better times are ahead, and I hope so. But the next time somebody says, “This is 7th largest city in the US and we deserve . . .”

        • Frankly, I’m appalled at your generalization of the Hispanic community. As if my community is incapable of appreciating classical music. And yes, that is a fair interpretation of your comments. You may not consider your comments as racist, by cloaking them in understanding “cultural differences” but they are. Shame on you. As for the SAS, I echo Mary’s comments.

          • My comments reflected the fact (emphasis: fact) that the SAS ignored the Mexican community because they thought they didn’t need them. I was there. Were you?

          • No, they aren’t. Be very careful how you use that word, Carol, especially when you don’t know what you are talking about. Disagree with me all you want, but you don’t know me, so don’t you dare insult me.
            My words are an observation of the racism that was practiced in SA for decades. And they were first told to me by a group of Mexican-American friends who found the SAS’s “outreach” to be nothing more than “come and enrich yourself with our wonderful European culture”. There was (in many cities) a kind of “missionary” approach to bringing minorities (or majorities, in SA) into the concert hall: “Come and be saved by great orchestral music”, completely ignorant of the vibrant culture already in place. My friends knew it to be mere tokenism.
            I remember hearing a conductor in the New York area expressing complete bafflement that his series on Mexican music hadn’t attracted any Latino audiences. Of course it didn’t. The Hispanic population of the New York area is largely Puerto Rican and Dominican, and Mexican music is simply not part of their culture.
            I’m glad that the orchestra seems to have turned around. But when I point out past foolish policies by the SAS that ignored the Mexican community, you don’t get to call me (or my words) racist.

          • I guess your “Mexican American” friends told you that since the musical culture of Hispanics is so rich and vibrant that music that originates from “European Culture” has nothing to offer.

            You think there are no orchestras playing western Music in Mexico or Latin America, no classically trained and very successful Hispanic musicians or composers performing or writing for symphony Orchestras???Or the fact that the harmonic structure of virtually all popular Latin music is based in large part on European Music harmonic structures? European culture and Music is engrained in Latin music. And visa versa.

            Latin music would not even exist as we know it without European music influences and roots.

            If what you say is true, prejudice runs rampant among your “friends”…

            And I have friends who have played in the Puerto Rico Symphony…and they have good audiences! With a 52 week season! Imagine that!

        • “A couple of decades” since you were in SA? Seems you should have made that clear at the start as you clearly don’t seem to be aware of current marketing and community engagement.

          • Never made a statement about current marketing or community engagement. My comments were about past practices, which led to decades of near collapse.

        • I am baffled by the insistence of someone who admittedly hasn’t been in San Antonio for “a couple of decades” to continue to make such inaccurate remarks about the San Antonio Symphony so authoritatively.

          First, I haven’t heard anyone make the “8th largest city” argument for a very long time; nobody with any sense thinks that. The metric that counts is the size of the metropolitan area, and in that ranking, San Antonio is 25th. We do rank just below Portland and just above Cincinnati, Kansas City and Cleveland in size of metropolitan area, all cities with orchestras that are far better compensated than the SAS. But the argument to be made is not that the musicians of the SAS should be compensated at least as well as those in Kansas City *right now*, it is that working towards such a level of compensation is an appropriate goal for the future.

          Second, the Mexican-American community in San Antonio is hardly some monolithic group all of whom like the same music. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Yes, we do perform a popular annual Fiesta Pops concert with the Mariachi Campanas de America (an excellent group playing mariachi at the highest artistic level) and the Guadalupe Dance Company (also excellent). But our strongest appeal to the Hispanic members of our audience is exactly the same as our appeal to the other demographics in our audience, which is that we perform great works of music at a very high artistic level. As a side note, I am sure that my many former students of Mexican-American heritage, more than a few of whom are now successful orchestra teachers in San Antonio public middle and high schools, would be quite surprised to learn that they shouldn’t appreciate the great art music as performed by their local orchestra.

          Nobody has claimed that the San Antonio Symphony is completely out of the woods. The cannibalization of the endowment in the 90s set the stage for the bankruptcy in 2003 and the cancellation of the 2003-2004 season. We are still in recovery from that catastrophic sequence of decisions on the part of our unwise (to use the nicest possible word) leadership of the time. But we are in recovery. Prior to the bankruptcy we had a 39-week season; when we returned to the stage in 2004, we came back at 26 weeks. This season we are performing a 30 week season with a reasonable expectation of ending in the black again. The loss of the “great families” support, which you vastly overstated anyway, has been good for the SAS in that it has spurred our board and management to expand their fundraising outreach.

          Finally, Maestro Lang-Lessing’s challenge grant of $100,000, for an organization with a budget that exceeds $8M, is hardly a call for the lifeboats. It is a generous expression of support for musicians whom he holds in high esteem and confidence in an organization that he has led to artistic peaks for the past decade.

          • Go back and re-read what I wrote. I don’t disagree with anything you say. My comments were to the point that there were decades (the 90s that you reference are the prime example) in which the SAS (and other SA arts organizations) were being run by fools who were happy to ignore the Mexican community because Big Oil was making it all happen for them.
            And if you’re interested in all the details, you can look up the SAS’s 990 forms online. They’re public information.

          • I am well aware of what was going on in the 90s as I was here at the time. And I do not understand why you continue to insist that the Mexican American community is one great monolithic block of people. Perhaps you should reread your first comment, which was certainly written in the spirit of (erroneously) describing the current state of the San Antonio Symphony.

          • Ainslie, Mary is absolutely correct. Your original post was written as if it described the current state of the SAS and their “attempts to attract them [Hispanic community]”) to orchestral music, (or, as you say, their lack of programming and outreach – which is marketing) to the Hispanic community. And as Mary states, the Mexican American community is not one great monolithic block of people.

          • Of course it’s not a monolithic block. It’s far too big: about 1.1 million, bigger than most cities in this country. But whether they are immigrants, 1st generation or 2nd generation, they share a language and a distinct culture (given differences between different regions in Mexico) that includes musical styles, musical ensembles, and the use of music in their culture. And anyone who has lived and moved in the Latino community anywhere knows that there are deeply held suspicions of Anglo intentions. Families and neighborhoods are more important than they are for Anglos, especially for 1st generation Mexican-Americans. Think I’m generalizing?
            Talk to any brown-skinned person in SA, and if you need to ask, you’ll probably find out they or their families are from Mexico. Oh, and there is also the issue of whether they come from Mayan or Aztek ancestors, or if they were Spanish. This is the source of a lot of friction in any Latino community.
            Talk to any white person, and you’ll hear stories about Irish-German, Swedish, Czech, Italian, etc., even if their ancestors have been here for a hundred years. Few of them can speak their ethnic language. Their cultures? Probably nothing to do with their ancestry and more to do with country music, pop, oldies or club music. Hopefully, more than a few will love classical music.
            The sordid issue here is not that I pointed out (and I haven’t heard anybody contradict me) that Mexican-Americans were taken for granted. It’s that it undeniably took place, and it damaged the SAS. Pretending it never happened isn’t helping anybody.

          • Yes, I think you are generalizing. I have taught many “brown-skinned” (seriously?) students over the past 30 years. More than a few of them are now teaching the next generation themselves. Some of my former students have even subbed with the San Antonio Symphony. And at least one member of that community has attempted to engage with you here, only to be told she doesn’t know what she is talking about.
            You continue to insist that you know the Symphony’s circumstances despite a point of view that was frozen in the 1990s and wasn’t entirely accurate then. As evidence you offer up the San Antonio Festival, which was never part of the SAS, and which had already closed up shop by 1990. You continue to repeat (and mock) the argument that San Antonio is the “eighth largest city,” which is an argument that hasn’t been made seriously anytime in the past twenty years. You are also now backtracking, claiming that you have been offering a historical perspective when that’s not at all what you said in your first comment.

            Incidentally, the SAS has performed plenty of music by composers of Hispanic heritage, sometimes on dedicated concerts and sometimes as one piece on a classical program. Christopher Wilkins programmed quite a bit of it. We have also had Hispanic composers in residence, which you would be aware of if you had any knowledge of the SAS dating from the current millennium.

            When it comes to alienating communities, past (NOT current) managements and boards have been equal opportunity offenders. I don’t think anyone was more thoroughly offended than the donors who thought that their gifts to the original SAS endowment would continue to benefit the SAS in perpetuity. Thankfully we have had a sea change in leadership. I am not claiming nor have I claimed at any point that the SAS is out of the woods. But we’re definitely out of the 1990s, and the issues facing the SAS at that time, even if you understood them accurately which you do not, are not the SA Symphony’s current challenges, not by a long shot.

          • And incidentally, I have been reminded that the 90s was the Chris Wilkins era, when we had two local Latinx composers-in-residence for three years who wrote many pieces in both pop and classical idioms that drew on Mexican culture, followed by three years of composer-in-residence Robert Rodriguez. We also began a survey of the major works of Revueltas, and performed pops concerts with local artists Flaco Jimenez, Emilio Navaira, and Tish Hinojosa. So I think you are actually thinking of the 1980s, which would make more sense with your San Antonio Festival references.

          • If latino’s are so suspicious of Anglo intentions, why in the world are they flocking to the United States? By the millions? Seems like they would stay safely home. I think, Ainsley, you are far more disconnected from the Latino community and their beliefs than any one else commentating here.

          • Maybe you have a point about an orchestra (could be any, to be honest) not marketing to the Hispanic community at-large. But YOU should really get in touch with your assessment of how you portray Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Latinos. You do not show the understanding of these terms or of these communities by your distorted generalizations. Hispanic and Latin American Countries have had symphonies, ballets, operas, sacred music, chamber music to the greatest degree of western tradition at varying times. These peoples have this in their own cultures, which you seem to appraise as indifferent, as indifferent as you claim the symphony leaders were to not market directly to them. Do yourself a favor and hold off on assessing the Latin community in SA (anywhere, at all, really) until you can do so without over-simplified prejudicial hearsay. Because, perhaps you’re not racist, but you’re definitely out-of-touch defending yourself.

          • Not the current state, but how it got derailed along the way, largely by completely misunderstanding their majority ethnic group.

  • You can see from the picture that it was taken while conducting a slow and soft chord in the woodwinds.

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