Texas city loses its symphony orchestra after board’s failed negotiations over musicians’ salary

17 June 2022, 12:57 | Updated: 17 June 2022, 13:07

San Antonio Symphony to close for good following months of negotiations
San Antonio Symphony to close for good following months of negotiations. Picture: San Antonio Symphony

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The San Antonio Symphony is closing for good, following a months-long disagreement over musicians’ wages, and a smaller sized orchestra.

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San Antonio in Texas has lost its symphony orchestra, after the board of directors voted to dissolve the ensemble and will now file for bankruptcy. The board of the Symphony Society of San Antonio cited stalled negotiations with the Musicians’ Union and the lack of a labour contract.

In a statement on the San Antonio Symphony’s website, the board said: “The last bargaining session between the Symphony Society and the Musicians’ Union took place on March 8, 2022 after which the Union declined to return to the bargaining table, despite efforts of federal mediators and the Symphony.

“The Musicians’ Union has made it clear there is no prospect of the resumption of negotiations, absent the Board agreeing to a budget that is millions of dollars in excess of what the Symphony can afford. The absence of a labor contract has effectively forced the Symphony to shutter its operations.”

The symphony’s musicians had been on strike since late September 2021, when they were asked to take a pay cut from $35,774 (£29,097) to $17,710 (£14,404) a year.

In September Mary Ellen Goree, chair of the San Antonio Symphony musicians negotiating committee and principal second violin, said musicians had been “shocked and appalled” by the proposal, which would have reduced their salaries to less than the living wage.

According to Texas television channel KSAT, after months of negotiations the board’s final offer included cutting the number of full-time symphony musicians from over 70 players to around 40, and reducing salaries to a marginally higher figure of $24,000 (£19,521) a year.

San Antonio Symphony’s musicians have been on strike since September 2021
San Antonio Symphony’s musicians have been on strike since September 2021. Picture: San Antonio Symphony

San Antonio is one of the largest cities in the southern US, and the loss of its 83-year-old symphony orchestra, which has suffered financially since it first declared bankruptcy in 2003, has sparked a strong reaction.

“I grew up in San Antonio,” one Twitter user said. “The symphony orchestra was a cultural bright spot. The Majestic theatre was beautiful, the music was outstanding and the audience was of high calibre. Hearing the symphony will be no more is a real blow. These things cannot be replaced.”

According to Texas Public Radio, the symphony’s former music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing said of the board’s decision: “It’s totally in contradiction with the mission of the San Antonio Symphony, and they need to be held accountable for that. By just dissolving now and... to blame to the musicians is a very arrogant move.”

In a statement, the mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg added: “The parties’ inability to reach an agreement even with a federal mediator is a disappointment for music lovers across the city.

“I remain committed to the vision that San Antonio should have a full-size, world-class orchestra, but the symphony must have a sustainable financial foundation. I have faith that our community is up to the challenge of determining what that structure will be.”

The orchestra comprised more than 70 musicians, plus one music librarian.

The board of directors thanked “the hundreds of talented musicians and administrative staff who have served our organization since its founding,” as well as “symphonic music lovers and generous donors and supporters who have sustained the Symphony since its founding in 1939”, in its closing statement.