For almost nine months, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony were on strike, resisting steep cuts proposed by management that they said would destroy the ensemble. As the dispute dragged on, much of the 2021-22 season was canceled, the players found part-time jobs and mediators tried to negotiate a compromise to save the 83-year-old orchestra.
The impasse came to an end on Thursday with the announcement that the symphony had decided to file for bankruptcy and dissolve. The symphony’s board, which had argued that maintaining a large orchestra had grown too costly, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, said it did not see a path forward.
“With deep regret,” the board said in a statement, “the board of directors of the Symphony Society of San Antonio announces the dissolution of the San Antonio Symphony.”
The board said the musicians’ demands to preserve jobs and pay would require “agreeing to a budget that is millions of dollars in excess of what the symphony can afford.”
The decision will make San Antonio, with a population of 1.5 million, the largest American city without a major orchestra.
“When you have a major American city which is not able to support an orchestra, it loses history and tremendous inspiration which has been brought to the community,” said Simon Woods, president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras. “It’s just incredibly sad.”
Many of the orchestra’s players were caught off guard by the announcement and said they were disheartened that a compromise could not be reached. Since the strike began in late September, some have been working as substitutes in other orchestras, including in Boston, New York, Dallas and Nashville.
“It is sad and it is completely unnecessary,” said Mary Ellen Goree, the former principal second violin of the orchestra, who was involved in negotiations. “I very much wish that our leadership had removed themselves without burning down the organization.”
For years, orchestras in the United States have faced existential questions. Many have struggled to stay afloat with the decline of the old subscription model of season tickets, dwindling revenues at the box office, an increasing reliance on donations and turnovers in leadership.
The pandemic, which forced many orchestras to cancel concerts for a season or longer, has exacerbated those problems. The majority of orchestras were able to return to concert halls this past season, relying on government grants and an uptick in donations, but others struggled to reopen.
In San Antonio, the orchestra’s administrators cited the pandemic in justifying the need for steep cuts, including slashing the size of the full-time ensemble by more than 40 percent, to 42 positions from 72, shortening the season and reducing pay by almost a third.
The musicians resisted those moves, accusing administrators of mismanagement and greed. The dispute grew unusually bitter, with the orchestra cutting off health insurance for the striking players.
The board continued to defend the cuts, saying they were necessary to avoid a financial crisis. The musicians, in turn, accused managers of exploiting the pandemic to push through reductions in pay and benefits.
Goree, who joined the orchestra in 1988, said its musicians would continue to look for ways to play in the community under a new name. Over the past several months they have held concerts independent of the symphony at a local church, raising money on their own. They hope to soon announce a fall season.
“San Antonio is a major city and it can support a major orchestra,” she said.