Sebastian Lang-Lessing has a plan to save the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra – if local leaders listen | Art Stories and Interviews | San Antonio

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Courtesy Photo / MOSAS Performance Fund

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducts the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra (MOSAS) at First Baptist Church.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing is on a mission.

Since his controversial dismissal in April as music director emeritus of the San Antonio Symphony, the maestro has met tirelessly with city leaders. His objective: to obtain public funding for the orchestra in difficulty and to put an end to the strike of several months by its musicians.

Lang-Lessing, whose resume also includes stints at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, says the musicians would be willing to bolster the educational work they do for the community if the city and county agreed to provide a long-term source of funding for the organization in financial difficulty.

“It could be a game-changer basically following the way the Tobin Center is funded, a mix of public and private sectors,” said Lang-Lessing, who recently met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and former mayor Phil. Hardberger, among others, to sell the idea.

The county has invested more than $100 million to transform the old municipal auditorium into Tobin, the downtown performing arts center that opened in 2014, while the city contributed $40 million in real estate . More than $50 million subsequently came from private donations.

In the case of the symphony, public sector spending is expected to be only a fraction of that amount, noted Lang-Lessing, who served as the orchestra’s music director from 2010 to 2020. the organization’s revenues have never topped their peak of $8.3 million in 2015-2016, and it’s averaging an unsustainable $1 million in emergency fundraising a year .

“With this source of money, we could expand education, marketing and development,” Lang-Lessing said. “I don’t want us to go back to the status quo. The status quo has failed.”

dollars and common sense

Lang-Lessing was fired in April after it was announced he would conduct concerts organized by the striking musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra – which management said was a breach of his contract.

The musicians have been on strike since September 27, balking at a contract offer that would cut the number of full-time musicians from 72 to 42, eliminating four positions and converting 26 others to part-time. While the Symphony Society, the orchestra’s governing body, said the cuts were necessary to bring its budget into line, outside experts called them draconian.

Representatives for Nirenberg and Hardberger have confirmed their recent meetings with Lang-Lessing. However, neither was available to comment on the proposal.

Wolff said he understands Lang-Lessing’s desire to find a long-term solution for the orchestra. He also acknowledged that stable sources of funding such as endowments are necessary for the symphony to stop teetering from crisis to crisis.

However, he said discussing public funding before resolving the strike is putting the cart before the horse.

“I just don’t think anyone wants to invest money in this case until the labor dispute is resolved,” Wolff said. “For me, they have to come to some sort of agreement before we can help.”

In public statements, the Symphony Society said the orchestra needed to get its budget under control and stabilize its economic situation before it could begin to attract endowments or other forms of long-term funding. The proposed workforce reductions are a major step in that direction, says executive director Corey Cowart.

A stain on the CV

Lang-Lessing counters that the quickest way to end the strike is to ensure the symphony will have the money it needs to operate. Once stabilized, the organization can focus its attention on improving private fundraising and hunting for the endowments it needs to be viable.

Musicians should not be forced into signing a contract with such substantial discounts, he added. Indeed, they have already accepted an 80% pay cut in the 2021 season due to the pandemic.

What should be clear, Lang-Lessing said, is that management’s approach and the status quo have failed. Creative thinking is the only way for the organization to move forward.

And, he added, time is running out. Several musicians have already signed temporary or permanent contracts in other cities for better salaries and benefits.

Moreover, the orchestra’s reputation eroded as the labor dispute dragged on. He likens the plan to downsize the orchestra and cut wages and benefits to a “stain on the resume” of the symphony, saying it will have a harder time attracting top talent.

“Right now is a great time to turn things around,” Lang-Lessing said.

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