The promise of the new San Antonio Philharmonic might be in its name, which suggests a love of harmony, and in the title of its new season, “Forward Together (Adelante Juntos).”
Leaving behind the dissonant conflicts that brought the San Antonio Symphony’s 83-year tenure to a close earlier this year, the new orchestra formed by the symphony’s former musicians has forged ahead with a full concert season beginning Sept. 16-17 at First Baptist Church and running through May 2023.
In just three months, the five-member orchestra leadership team pulled together an entire season of 10 classics concerts, three pops concerts and an expansive commitment to education readily visible in the season schedule, where Young People’s Concerts for school groups are given equal billing to public performances.
For those shows, the “SA Phil,” as the orchestra is affectionately known, will travel to schools throughout the city. That outreach is necessary for the survival of the new orchestra, said its president, Brian Petkovich.
“We have to be a good example for the role of the arts in the city,” Petkovich said, and for aspiring young musicians who want to know that a music career is possible.
While the June 16 dissolution of the symphony felt like a momentous end, Petkovich said he and his fellow musicians knew immediately that they would take on the responsibility to keep the orchestra going.
“There was no question that we were just going to try to really make this happen,” he said.
Petkovich and a leadership group of musicians including horn player Peter Rubins and violinists Karen Stiles and Stephanie Westney, focused on keeping the momentum they’d established earlier this year with a series of community-supported concerts at First Baptist Church, which will continue as the orchestra’s host venue.
Westney volunteered as chair of the concert planning committee, reaching out to conductors with past relationships with the San Antonio Symphony, including former music directors Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Christopher Wilkins, former assistant conductor Noam Aviel, and former associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto, who now leads the Mid-Texas Symphony.
To emphasize the importance of a deep connection to the community, Westney said the first piece of the first concert is Emergent by composer Ethan Wickman, a San Antonio resident. Guest conductor Ken-David Masur, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, selected St. Anthony Variations by Brahms for the program, in honor of San Antonio’s namesake.
Westney said the fledgling SA Phil benefited from goodwill on the part of many musicians, soloists and conductors who reached out to offer support, including Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker, whom Westney called a “superstar.” Parker will be featured in the final concert of the season conducted by Fujimoto May 26-27.
Westney said she’s already looking ahead to a potential second concert season, with “a future list of people that I want to try to engage for next season, which is really exciting.”
No hard feelings
The goodwill extends in multiple directions, Petkovich said, as SA Phil leadership also began working to repair frayed relationships with past and potential symphony donors challenged by years of contentious negotiations and the eight-and-a-half-month musicians’ strike that culminated in the loss of the orchestra.
“I try not to have any hard feelings about anything,” said Petkovich, drawing on his experience as one individual musician attentive to harmonizing with those around him.
“Early on I learned that people are basically there to be supportive,” he said. And I try not to question people’s motivations. I basically assume people are trying to do the right thing.”
The musicians remain members of the American Federation of Musicians union Local 23, working on single engagement contracts with the question of establishing a new collective bargaining agreement left for a later date.
“We’re just trying to not make that the centerpiece of what we’re doing,” Petkovich said. “Labor strife has been in the news for so long … we need to get back and focus on playing concerts for people.”
Spurring a conversation
The budget for the season is much smaller than the former symphony’s annual budget of $8 million, and musicians are being paid less than in the past. With the pressure of needing income drawing musicians to other orchestras, Petkovich said SA Phil is “trying to basically pay a little bit to people to keep them here.”
Just being onstage regularly in performance is meant to be the spur for a community-wide conversation on the viability of a full-time orchestra in San Antonio, he said.
“Part of this year is just creating an opportunity for people to have a lot of discussions about how we’re going to go forward,” Petkovich said.
He hopes those discussions will include past donors including Bexar County and the City of San Antonio, which provided substantial financial support to the former symphony, and the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, established in part as the home venue of the San Antonio Symphony but which has resisted welcoming the SA Phil as a resident company.
So far, individual donors are supporting the SA Phil, and Petkovich said there is much work ahead to secure a viable future for the orchestra.
“Everyone has been burned over the years, in my opinion, so I’m not surprised that people aren’t rushing out to really support what we’re doing yet,” he said. “We need to show that we’re here to stay … and after we show that we’re here to stay, that support will come.”