While the San Antonio Symphony continues to delight audiences in South Texas, its decades-long funding difficulties continue. Now, those difficulties face a very tight deadline.
The symphony was established in 1939, and it has been a mainstay institution in the San Antonio arts scene. The symphony faced marginal funding throughout much of that time. But now, according to violinist Craig Sorgi, it’s facing a problem it had never faced before.
“We don't know what's going to happen on Jan. 1. I know that we're running out of days, and we're here. We're ready,” he said.
Sorgi is a member of the American Federation of Musicians Union, Local 23, the union of which all the symphony musicians are members. He and bassoonist Brian Petkovich are union representatives in charge of negotiations, and Petkovich says they're in trouble.
“Right now we are approaching swiftly the end of a contract extension that will end on December 31st. We agreed to a contract extension — a four-month extension — in late August,” Petkovich said. “And that's what we've been working under to give the other side time to finish the transition between Symphonic Music for San Antonio and the San Antonio Symphony Society.”
As in any dispute, there are essentially two parties — musicians on one side and management on the other. But the symphony’s management is made up of two different parties. The Symphony Society of San Antonio was created in 1939 to manage the business of the Symphony. But as part of an agreement reached last summer, a new organization — Symphonic Music for San Antonio — took over its duties. Sorgi said that while the Symphony Society was supposed to have ceased operations Sept. 1, it’s still there.
“They're coming to the table with a representative from Symphonic Music of San Antonio. They're also having a representative from the Board of Symphony Society of San Antonio,” Sorgi said. “And then they've got their legal counsel who's representing both of those entities at the table.”
If that's not confusing enough, Sorgi said the contract negotiations took an even weirder turn Monday.
“They showed up. They were not prepared to negotiate. They weren't prepared to discuss anything,” he said. “We asked them when they would be prepared, and they told us they didn't know. We asked when they wanted to get together, and they told us they couldn't even tell us that much.”
Repeated calls to get the symphony management's side were not returned, but Petkovich said there is a question about the Symphony Society's continued role in the management.
“Right now they're saying that they're arguing about who has the authority to offer anything at all,” he said.
Symphony CEO and President Tom Stephenson stands between the two operating entities, but he isn't revealing much to the union.
“He said he was not prepared to bargain, and he couldn't offer further dates, and (he) didn't know when he would be able to offer something,” Petkovich said.
The process of hammering out a new contract between the union and management is long and detailed, but Sorgi said their half-dozen meetings since August have been vague and unproductive.
“I've been at the table for negotiations in the 36 years I've been in the orchestra many, many times. I've lost count of how many negotiations I've taken part in,” Sorgi said. “I'm accustomed to meeting sometimes several times a week so this is really quite unusual.”
Sorgi said the San Antonio Symphony is by far the lowest paid full-time symphony in Texas.
In the past two fiscal years, musicians agreed to unpaid furloughs to help keep the symphony solvent, and yet Petkovich said these negotiations seem completely stalled.
“I don't even know that they're playing hardball at the moment. They're just not playing,” Petkovich said.
That contract with the musicians runs out with the new year. So what happens then?
“The clock is ticking,” Petkovich said. “We don't really know what their plans are, and we are not prepared to go back to the bargaining table until they're serious about negotiating.”
The first concert in the New Year is on Jan. 5, a tricentennial celebration with an international soloist.