A crowd of dueling cultural leaders packed the Bexar County Commissioners Court meeting in San Antonio one Tuesday last October. Classically trained violinists and horn players were there, along with their supporters, to comment on a $300,000 funding request that didn’t scream for attention on the agenda, tucked as it was among about two dozen other routine business matters from all the county departments that needed rubber-stamping. Item 44 was just the first installment of a $580,000 ask that would enable a small organization called the Classical Music Institute to provide a 45-piece orchestra for Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio performances at the Tobin Center. Problem was, that gig had gone for years to the unionized musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, which collapsed last summer after decades of turmoil. Following months of scrappy offstage organizing, those musicians had regrouped as the San Antonio Philharmonic. The Classical Music Institute’s independent, non-union performers, including a contingent from Venezuela, were suddenly in direct competition for their livelihoods.

Former city councilman Roberto Treviño, who is a member of the Phil’s board, and others found it fishy that CMI, which typically receives $30,000 from the county each year, suddenly had the cojones (his language) to request an amount equal to its entire annual operating budget. Pondering why the commissioners didn’t confer with San Antonio’s hometown artists before putting the grant in motion, he likened the Phil to the San Antonio Spurs: “If another big sports and entertainment company came to the judge or the mayor and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea, and we’d like to do this’ . . . we would never in a million years entertain that without advising or at least letting the Spurs know,” he said.

At the podium, CMI founder and artistic director Paul Montalvo, executive director Donald Mason, and one of their donors stated their case for the grant calmly and professionally. Supporters of the Phil, including a handful of musicians, outnumbered them. Most Phil allies did not mention CMI but spoke passionately about the orchestra’s world-class legacy and the good citizenship of its artists, all of whom have built lives in San Antonio and contributed to its growth. A couple of union leaders, however, bared their teeth and, at one point, made an appeal to xenophobia. Richard Oppenheim, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 23, called CMI’s musicians “weekend warriors” and “imported mercenaries” as he urged the commissioners not to “lavish Tiffany prices on QVC costume jewelry.” It was painful to watch.

When the comment period ended, Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff, a long-time champion of the area’s cultural institutions, then on the verge of retirement, pleaded for peace. “I’m very sorry it’s come down to this, where one arts organization is attacking the other one, when we in fact need both of them,” he said. That might seem self-evident to music lovers, but not every stakeholder in the dispute would agree.

The Symphony musicians formed the SA Phil almost immediately after their orchestra died, and their entire first season has been a rallying cry for the future of symphonic music in the state’s second-largest city. “It never crossed our minds not to reorganize,” bassoonist Brian Petkovich, the SA Phil president, told me.

A neat, genial, and still boyish man in his early fifties, Petkovich came to San Antonio in 1996 as a rigorously trained young professional. He was 26, and had just earned his master’s degree in music at the University of Southern California. He saw Texas only once before his audition for the San Antonio Symphony, for which he took a detour while driving back to Los Angeles after completing a fellowship with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. At the time, the San Antonio Symphony had 72 full-time musicians and a well-regarded music director. The city was beautiful, friendly, and affordable, with university music programs that might offer teaching options, and it was within reasonable driving distance of occasional gigs in other cities. The Symphony had been through some financial struggles, but so had many other American orchestras; for a passionate young musician, that slight sense of instability just came with the territory.

Petkovich grew up in a farming community near Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was recruited to play bassoon as a seventh grader at his public school because he was one of the few tall enough to handle the long double-reed instrument. He took to it, partly because it suited his personality—you don’t become a bassoonist if you need to be the center of attention. There are typically just two or three bassoons in an orchestra, and they sit near the middle, mostly blending in to lend support, color, and depth to the music.

Outside of rehearsals and performances and the hours of personal practice required to maintain his virtuosity, Petkovich was one of the musicians’ representatives on the Symphony’s board for years, a position that requires a good amount of hobnobbing with donors. He gets along easily, and he is not intimidated by wealth or power. “The money part has never really mattered to me,” he said.

Few symphonic musicians are in it for the money, but those in San Antonio have for years been paid far less than their counterparts in other cities. Most supplement their income with freelance gigs and teaching. The SA Phil has a core of 65 musicians; 48 are Symphony veterans whose last contract guaranteed a base annual salary of $35,775 for three years. That agreement started in August 2019, but when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, they were furloughed for eleven months. The musicians took a voluntary pay cut of 80 percent during the shutdown, accepting salaries of about $6,500. Their insurance was abruptly canceled. Then, before live performances were to resume in 2021, the orchestra’s parent organization, the Symphony Society, proposed a drastically reduced base salary of $24,000. The Society board also wanted to shrink the orchestra, demoting 26 artists to part-time status with wages well below the state’s poverty level. That was untenable, especially for musicians with kids and mortgages.

No orchestra survives on its box office alone. Philanthropy, including gifts from corporations, foundations, and individuals, accounts for 70 percent of Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s $45 million budget this season and more than 66 percent of Houston Symphony Orchestra’s $34 million budget. Those orchestras, as well as the blossoming Fort Worth Symphony, are kept afloat by deep-pocketed families, foundations, and large corporations that want their communities to have world-class arts institutions. With just three Fortune 500 headquarters (versus 23 in Dallas and 22 in Houston) and with an economy based not on oil and gas but on military bases and tourism, San Antonio has fewer sources of philanthropy. In 2019, gifts accounted for 88 percent of its $4 million budget, but the biggest donations came from the city and the county, not private individuals, foundations, or companies.

City orchestras cultivate community, and performances contribute to tourism and entertainment revenue. They also boost economic development, because the presence of a major orchestra signals a cultured community with an artistic soul. The deep, human expression of complex orchestral music can change lives.

San Antonio Philharmonic
The San Antonio Philharmonic at First Baptist Church of San Antonio.Courtesy of Brian Petkovich

San Antonio was not always so challenging an environment for classical music. Affluent Germans who built mansions in the King William District in the nineteenth century brought their love for Bach, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn with them. The immigrant conductor Carl Beck presented concerts with his orchestra in the 1880s. The town’s first civic orchestra, founded in 1904, performed sporadically for about twenty years. Max Reiter, the visionary German Italian maestro who built the San Antonio Symphony, arrived in 1939, part of a wave of top-tier artists who emigrated to America during World War II. Reiter headed to Texas because New York was saturated with talent, and members of the Steinway family told him they sold more pianos per capita in San Antonio than anywhere else.

Before Hemisfair Park, the River Walk, or the Spurs existed, the San Antonio Symphony was the Alamo City’s pride and joy. One of the nation’s most distinguished orchestras, it had the clout to present premieres by the influential German composer Richard Strauss, who was a buddy of Reiter’s. Jascha Heifetz, the industry’s highest-paid violinist at the time, appeared regularly. Reiter also launched an opera festival and children’s concerts that filled the 6,000-seat Municipal Auditorium. When Reiter died suddenly in 1950, native Texan Victor Alessandro took up the baton and kept the momentum going until his death in 1976.

By then, the golden age of American orchestras, which had been fed by TV and radio programming, was dimming. In the late 1980s, the San Antonio Symphony was one of many across the country that were struggling to stay solvent. Although the artistic reputation lingered, the operation stumbled through a slow, tragic waltz of deficits, bailouts, labor disputes, and cutbacks for the last half of its 83-year life. The Symphony Society just couldn’t get it together, no matter who was in charge. More than ten executive leaders came and went between 1987 (when Texas Monthly first examined the symphony’s woes) and 2019.

Talk of gutting the orchestra to save money—anathema to music purists—began about six years ago when executives of H-E-B, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, and the Tobin Endowment made a bid to take over the Symphony’s operation. Frustrated that their deep financial support was not making the organization any more stable, they formed a new nonprofit, Symphonic Music for San Antonio, to replace the Society, void its contract with the musicians’ union, and retain only 45 full-time artists. (A full-sized symphony typically employs 80 or more.) The takeover group dropped its bid at the very last minute, not willing to take on millions of dollars in pension debt that would be payable if it canceled the musicians’ contracts. But it was a my-way-or-the-highway situation. Those donors walked away from the Symphony.

The City of San Antonio and Bexar County were left holding the bag as the Symphony’s largest supporters. Arts organizations are a line item on their budgets, which is unusual in Texas. Also to their credit, a number of the area’s elected officials are cosmopolitan thinkers who consider a major orchestra a necessary quality-of-life asset, as essential for economic growth and the community’s well-being as good hospitals, parks, and professional sports teams. Soon after the takeover debacle, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Wolff convened a task force and enlisted Michael Kaiser, the country’s leading performing-arts organization consultant, to forge a strategic plan that would preserve the Symphony’s artistic integrity and solvency.

Kaiser has led major institutions back from the brink, including New York’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theater, and London’s Royal Opera House, but his strategy terrifies short-term, bottom-line thinkers. He does not advise cost-cutting; no arts organization saves its way to success, he likes to say. Instead, he encourages clients to build excitement and make themselves more relevant to their communities. For his plans to work, clients need dynamic leadership, strong collaborations, and creative and diverse programming.

The Society adopted Kaiser’s plan in 2018 but didn’t act on it quickly; it had an operating deficit of about $1.6 million going into the 2019–20 season, and the board was struggling to find donors. Then the pandemic hit in March 2020. The Society continued fundraising, but as the board planned a return to performances, it expected to raise only about $4.7 million to support the 2021–22 season. That was less by a few million than the budgets of good pre-pandemic years. Critically, the board members vowed not to spend a dime more, which meant the unthinkable: to stay solvent, they would have to drastically reduce the size of the orchestra, from 71 full-time musicians to 45, with a base salary of $24,000. The leftover 26 musicians would be paid per performance, with no insurance benefits, for about $11,000 a year. If those numbers look familiar, it’s because their plan looked like a carbon copy of the one the takeover group had proposed.

The musicians went on strike in late September 2021, the day after the Society made its final offer to Local 23 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents members of most of the nation’s orchestras. Union members picketed sporadically for months outside the Tobin Center, their home performance hall. On the sidewalk in front of board president Kathleen Weir Vale’s stately home in the Monte Vista Historic District, they sometimes paced silently in formal evening attire, giving their protest an air of mannerly performance art.

Branded as Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony (MOSAS), the players also drummed up support for their cause with a blog, podcast, yard signs that appeared all over town, and a concert series of their own. Violinist Mary Ellen Goree, who chaired the musicians’ negotiating committee, used the MOSAS blog to dispute the board’s thinking. The real problem was not the pandemic, she insisted—it was management’s passive approach to fundraising and marketing. “I have often heard it claimed that supporting a symphony is difficult in San Antonio because we are a ‘poor’ city,” she wrote. (And in fact, it is the poorest city of its size in the U.S., on the basis of per capita income.) But Goree cited other measures that are perhaps more relevant to San Antonio’s ability to fund a cultural institution. The city is home to about five dozen corporations, and wealthy enough to support a stand-alone Ferrari dealership, fill the expensive seats at Spurs games, and generously support its museums and private universities.

Ultimately, not even a federal mediator could break the strike. The Society’s Chapter 7 filing arrived like a loud, final cymbal crash: the Symphony’s material assets, including large instruments and its music library, would have to be liquidated. An orchestra’s most valuable assets, of course, are its musicians. About a dozen of the Symphony’s virtuosos found better-paying jobs in other cities during the strike, and most will not return. The exodus dismayed those who stayed, but in some ways it also stiffened their resolve to tough it out together and rebuild. Veteran violinist Angela Caporale, a quiet, reserved woman in her early fifties, told me she was proud to stand with her colleagues in the picket line. “We weren’t going to destroy ourselves, and we all stuck together,” she said. “And now we’re rebuilding together. With the state of the world, it’s a really good feeling.”

In a remarkably short time, with a skeleton staff (made up mostly of themselves), the Philharmonic organized a full season with more than sixty performances, many of which take place at the 1,500-seat First Baptist Church of San Antonio, around the corner from the musicians’ former home, the Tobin Center. About half of the shows are free-admission young peoples’ concerts at nine public high school auditoriums across the city that are introducing more than thirty thousand elementary-age students to a whole new world of musical possibilities. The Phil’s emphasis on education is purposeful and extends to high school and college-age musicians who attend open rehearsals that include Q and A sessions.

The Philharmonic’s first ticketed season, dubbed “Forward Together / Adelante Juntos,” has been purposefully optimistic, musically ambitious, and deliberately diverse, including programs featuring artists and composers of Hispanic, African American, and Asian descent. Internationally known artists have appeared at every concert for nominal fees. They include conductors Charles Floyd, Akiko Fujimoto, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, Ken-David Masur, and Tito Muñoz, and Christopher Wilkins. The soloists have ranged from flautist Elena Durán and bass baritone Timothy Jones to star violinists Randall Goosby (a protégé of the great Itzhak Perlman) and Nancy Zhou (a San Antonio native whose father was a long-time Symphony musician). Audiences have answered with thunderous applause for the Philharmonic’s underdog gumption as well as its artistry. Its concerts regularly draw robust, enthusiastic crowds of seven or eight hundred. That’s not much different than the numbers Symphony concerts drew at the Tobin Center, but there’s been new excitement this season, akin to the buzz Kaiser wanted to see in San Antonio five years ago.

You’d think the whole city would be cheering on these scrappy, tenacious musicians whose work is meaningful on so many levels. The San Antonio Symphony League, an all-volunteer group founded in 1950, was a top SA Phil donor from the get-go, along with a few small foundations and private givers. Why, then, haven’t the city’s traditional powers—organizations that give millions of dollars to nonprofits annually—stepped up? In Houston or Dallas, any number of donors would have taken charge to show their civic largesse.

Petkovich doesn’t want to dwell on that or any other negatives. The Phil needs to just focus on positivity, he said. Last summer, that wasn’t so easy to do. Before the season began, the Phil tried to apply for American Recovery Act funds at City Hall and to secure resident company status at Tobin Center. Officials at both places cited a rule they wouldn’t bend: As a new nonprofit, the Phil did not have a three-year history of financial stability, so it was not eligible to apply. The musicians thought the Phil should qualify for an exception; it was still the same old orchestra—new only on paper, for tax-reporting purposes, they argued.

Treviño, the former councilmember, didn’t think officials at the city and the Tobin were singing the three-year tune by accident. “In 2017, when the new Symphonic Music for San Antonio group was coming in, there wasn’t any of that kind of conversation,” he told me. “Nobody batted an eye.” (It’s hard not to draw the easy conclusion, as some of the SA Phil’s supporters have: The Tobin Endowment, which led the takeover group, is the Tobin Center’s biggest donor. H-E-B underwrote the facility’s main hall. And both enjoy cozy relationships with local government.)

Michael Fresher, the Tobin Center president and CEO, was blunt about the rule when he talked to me. “Some folks that can play symphonic music don’t suddenly become the symphony,” he groused. I couldn’t argue with his reasoning: As a nonprofit, the Tobin Center bears a fiduciary responsibility to make sure the companies that perform in its building have the financial wherewithal to meet their obligations, he said. He also let on that he didn’t appreciate the Phil’s attitude. The musicians demanded resident status without asking about the requirements, he said. (The three-year rule was just one of a handful he cited to me.)

The resident status was important to the Phil financially. No group gets to use Tobin facilities rent-free, but principal resident companies enjoy a preferred rate of $3,600 to $4,000 dollars a day, along with access to office space, the center’s ticketing and development system, and booking priorities. (Commercial users pay $12,000 a day.) “The Tobin Center is not a place where performing arts organizations start. It’s what they achieve. It’s what they aspire to be,” Fresher said.

He offered the SA Phil the Tobin’s standard nonprofit rate: $1,000 more per day than residents pay. That may not sound onerous for one-off performances. With a full season of thirty two concerts, plus rehearsal dates, though, the difference would have been significant—a $45,000 bump in a lean budget. That’s why the SA Phil instead set up shop across the street at First Baptist, where it is warmly and very affordably welcomed.

Another sting came when the Classical Music Institute, which is a non-union shop, emerged as a competitor for the lucrative opera and ballet performance gigs that had set off the October brouhaha at commissioners court. Before it was evident where the money would come from, CMI proposed a deal to Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio they couldn’t refuse: it could provide a 45-piece orchestra for their Tobin Center performances at no cost. The ballet had not been able to afford live music for years. The opera was paying Symphony musicians union scale, and their relationship soured during the strike, creating artistic and financial chaos for the opera’s productions of Rigoletto and Don Giovanni.

The source of the windfall revealed itself when CMI received the much-disputed grant from Bexar County. The October vote was a formality, given that all but one of the commissioners (Precinct 4’s Tommy Calvert) had pledged support for CMI before the meeting. Wolff advised the Phil to apply for a grant of its own. It did, and in December the court gave the orchestra $325,000.

Theatrics aside, the CMI win wasn’t a cut-and-dried case of union busting. (The SA Phil wasn’t a union shop at first, though as of July 1, it will begin a one-year collective bargaining agreement with Local 23.) Grudges, however, might have come into play. Fresher suggested to me that even if the Phil had been able to jump through his other hoops to get into the Tobin, he was not inclined to work with the musicians because of their association with the union. Local 23 has been in litigation with the Center since 2019 over its right to strike on Tobin Center property.

Fresher loves his resident companies as if they were his children, he told me, and he is proud of the energy he saw during the first opera and ballet performances accompanied by CMI’s musicians. “I’m very supportive of CMI,” he said. “But I’m also supportive of whoever can show some kind of track record in San Antonio with classical music.”

Fresher participated in the Symphony takeover effort in 2017, and his thoughts about how much of an orchestra San Antonio will support haven’t changed. “A symphony orchestra that performs for 26 weeks with 72 performers—I don’t think that model works here,” he said. “It’s a supply-and-demand thing. It’s too much supply.”

Commissioner Calvert finds that kind of talk short-sighted. “We’re getting to a point of symbiosis with world-class status,” he said. Urban planners expect more than 1.5 million newcomers to move into Bexar County in the next decade, he noted, “so we become not a county of 2 million but a county of 3.4 million. That’s a very different corporate and business space that demands cultural arts of a world-class value and can support it.” He thinks it’s a waste of time for the Phil to bang its head against old walls. “What I’ve told the Phil is, get some of this new money that’s moving into town—and empower them.”

In fact, that’s how the Phil scored its first philanthropic coup. David Wood and Colette Holt moved to San Antonio from California three years ago as newlyweds who bonded over classical music. Wood, a retired percussionist, graduated from the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. He performed as a young man with classical ensembles before touring for decades with oldies acts. Holt, a nationally prominent government consultant who specializes in minority women’s business development, grew up in a Chicago family so devoted to music they celebrated Beethoven’s birthday. Some of the first locals Wood and Holt befriended in San Antonio were symphony musicians, and they were awed by the depth of the season the Phil organized in an amazingly short time.

In September, when the symphony’s music library was about to be broken up at auction, Wood and Holt bought the assets and donated them to the Phil, intent on keeping San Antonio’s long history of symphonic music intact and in the most capable hands. “We didn’t want to live in a city without an orchestra,” Wood told me. “When we had an opportunity to help, it seemed like a no-brainer.” (The Phil was not allowed to leave the objects in the temperature-controlled room built for the Symphony at the Tobin. First Baptist helped store the instruments, and the scores are being held at a local public library.) The Phil became the owner of some four thousand irreplaceable scores dating back to 1939—all the sheet music the symphony had purchased the rights to, marked up by generations of artists. Without it, the musicians would have had to build a completely new repertoire, at great expense.

Mayor Nirenberg understands why the symphony’s past donors grew disenchanted; some felt they were just throwing good money after bad each time the Society pleaded for emergency funds—a cycle he called a “Groundhog Day scenario.” He likes what he sees the Phil doing so far. He believes that as the seventh most populous city in the country, San Antonio needs a world-class, fairly paid, full-size symphony orchestra—so long as someone can make it sustainable, without an overdependence on ticket sales. Governments play a role in supporting the arts because they’re important to the community, Nirenberg said, but taxpayers can’t carry the whole load.

The Phil is now planning its second season, Petkovich said, and exploring potential new homes in town, including the Majestic Theatre and Alameda Theater. CMI plans to grow, too. Mason and Montalvo want to have a core group of about forty musicians based in San Antonio within three or four years, presenting 50 percent more concerts at the Tobin. If that happens, the city could be fielding a chamber orchestra as well as a major one. But what if Fresher is right? Is even one sustainable, given the symphony’s history?

Early this season at First Baptist, fans of the Phil cheered as if it could be, after the orchestra performed Antonin Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. The musicians were elbow-to-elbow on an extended stage; the room’s elegant and massive coffered ceiling, designed to inspire heavenly thoughts, was awash in jazzy colored lights.

Inspired by Czech folk songs, Dvořák’s melodic score conjured gentle birdsong in the woods, then a pounding storm, before it finally yielded to pure sunshine. The ending coda was a joyful blast; an exhilarating pile-on of fervent strings, emphatic woodwinds, bombastic brass and insistent timpani. It takes a lot of virtuosic artists working together to make sound that full, and the powerful scale of the music triggers a euphoric buzz. It makes you feel like you’re part of something greater than yourself. The crowd jumped to its feet, swept up in the moment, as if they were also applauding the idea of saving orchestral music in San Antonio.

Most of today’s classically-trained musicians have heard their whole careers that symphonies are dead. Garrett Keast, a 51-year old Houston native, now working in Berlin, flew in to conduct the Dvořák program. He says he tuned out the naysayers a long time ago. As a performing classical musician, he has to believe in the future of orchestras, he told me later. “If you’re not optimistic about it, it’s not possible.”