The San Antonio Symphony announced last Thursday that it was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, following a strike by its musicians that has lasted nearly nine months since Sept. 27 of last year. Orchestra members and staff fought back brutal concession demands. The board’s action means the dissolution of the institution, which was founded 83 years ago.
The city, whose population has nearly doubled in the past 40 years to its current total of nearly 1.5 million, is currently the 7th largest in the United States (and the second largest in the South). It has now become the largest American city without a symphony orchestra.
In its press release, the Symphony Orchestra’s board of directors blamed the musicians for their action, saying that they had “clearly indicated that there was no prospect of a resumption of negotiations, in the absence of the board of directors accepting a budget that exceeds by several million dollars that Symphony can afford. Therefore, the press release explains, the orchestra’s assets “are now in the hands of a trustee who will liquidate them, pay the remaining creditors and close the doors.”
The musicians remained determined to resist massive demands for concessions, not only in the name of their own standard of living, but also because the orchestra would no longer be able to attract the talent that would allow it to remain a highly valued ensemble in the decades to come.
The crisis worsened sharply during the pandemic, as the Symphony Orchestra, along with the rest of the performing arts, was forced to close. This was not, however, the main contributing factor. While the orchestra reported a negative net worth of nearly $1 million as it prepared to file for bankruptcy, it was also running large deficits even before the pandemic. As elsewhere, management has seized on the pandemic to step up its demands for budget cuts and concessions.
Since no negotiations have taken place since last March, most of the 68 musicians and ten administrative staff were not surprised by the board’s announcement. They learned that they had lost their jobs, according to a report by the San Antonio Express-News, in the same email that was sent to donors and ticket holders. The three musician members of the board of directors were not informed of the meeting during which the vote of dissolution was then announced unanimously.
At least some of the strikers had apparently hoped that the current board would step down and be replaced by a less radical one. Mary Ellen Goree, the orchestra’s former concertmaster, commented: “It’s sad and completely unnecessary. I really wish our leaders had retired without burning the organization.
The musicians held a series of community concerts during the strike, culminating earlier this month with a weekend of concerts at First Baptist Church in downtown San Antonio. They have organized the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra, an independent nonprofit, and hope to continue in the fall.
The directors’ press release, in a combination of ignorance and arrogance, thanked “the noble civic leaders of Bexar County, the city of San Antonio, and the state and federal governments.” Private corporations, foundations and endowments in San Antonio and elsewhere benefit from their support and encouragement for which we are truly grateful.
This upsets reality. It is the states and federal governments, together with the business and financial elite whose interests they faithfully represent, who are primarily responsible for the growing crisis facing the performing arts, especially the field of classical music. . Billionaires continue to amass wealth that until recently would have been unthinkable, while the government spends virtually unlimited billions on the military, most recently on the war against Russia in Ukraine.
This state of affairs is sacrosanct, taken for granted on all sides. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg was quoted as saying that “a great city like San Antonio deserves a world-class symphony orchestra. To do this, it must have a sustainable financial base. And frankly, the inability of the parties to come to an agreement, even with federal mediation, speaks to the shortcomings of the old model. Nirenberg, part of the capitalist two-party system, is responsible for unlimited grants and bailouts for big business, but not a penny more for “world-class” culture, as he puts it.
The League of American Orchestras denounces the current situation, but also has nothing to say about the solutions. “When you have a major American city that is unable to support an orchestra, it loses its history and the tremendous inspiration that has been brought to the community,” said Simon Woods, its president and CEO. “It’s just incredibly sad.”
The San Antonio Symphony Orchestra has a rich history. It was founded in 1939 by Max Reiter, the son of a Jewish father and an Italian mother, a refugee from Nazism who had just arrived in the United States and had been invited to settle in Texas as a land fertile ground for the cultivation of a musical audience. . For a time, the San Antonio Symphony was the only major orchestra in Texas, even among major cities like Houston and Dallas.
The struggle in San Antonio was the latest in a long series of bitter and protracted orchestral strikes and lockouts in the United States during the first two decades of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2016, in the wake of the financial crash of 2008, there were 14 orchestra strikes or lockouts, including major struggles in Detroit (2010-11), Minneapolis (2012-14) and Pittsburgh (2016 ). All ended with contracts imposing heavy concessions on their musicians, but San Antonio was among those that closed completely. The lockout of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra lasted 15 months. The Detroit Symphony strike lasted six months and attracted national and international attention. For historical reasons, some cities, including Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, continue to host world-class orchestras, despite being less than half the size of San Antonio.
About five years ago, statistics showed that for the first time orchestras were operating more like charities than non-profit businesses. Orchestra budgets depend more on donations from wealthy patrons than on ticket sales to the general public. Most of the time, reducing ticket prices is not even considered in these circumstances, although the urgent need to attract the public means that prices have generally not yet increased significantly.
Musicians and other professional workers have increasingly been forced to conclude that they face the same problems – demands for concessions, unemployment, no job security – as other sections of the working class. The drying up of subsidies and public aid, combined with attacks on public education and above all the abandonment of musical and artistic education, have created the current situation of growing crisis in classical music and culture as a whole. . This raises fundamental political questions. It is the capitalist system of private property, with its insatiable demand for maximizing the rate of profit and defending its interests on a global scale, that threatens culture and threatens the very existence of civilization. It must be replaced by socialism if music and all the arts are to flourish.