Ethics and Ensembles


For a very long time now, I have been ruminating on the question of what could possibly make Symphony Society leadership think that 60% of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony would ever agree to betraying 40% of their colleagues.

It brings to mind the 2007 negotiations, which I participated in, when we were first presented with an A/B proposal. In the 2007 version, the titled players would have made out like bandits. Symphony Society negotiators could hardly contain their glee when they walked into the room to give us this proposal. Perhaps not coincidentally, four out of the five members of the then negotiating committee were titled. I thought then and still believe that it was a cynical attempt to appeal to the self-interest of those of us on the negotiating committee who would have benefited economically from such a plan.

The names and faces may have changed since 2007 but it seems that the fundamental mistaken assumptions remain. I can only guess that the proponents of an A/B orchestra would themselves throw colleagues under the bus out of financial self-interest and therefore believe that the musicians would respond in the same way. They must be utterly baffled at the musicians’ continued refusal to sacrifice Others on the altar of Self.

Some points which seem to escape SSSA leadership:

1. It is impossible to reach a professional level of playing on any orchestral instrument without possessing intelligence and a work ethic that would guarantee success in many other fields as well. Therefore anyone whose primary motivation is financial success in life is unlikely to choose classical music as a career field in the first place. This is not to suggest that paying musicians poverty-level wages is acceptable. It is not. But an appeal to the greed of any subset of musicians will fail every time.

2. The very nature of orchestral playing means that we musicians understand that every member of the ensemble is necessary and valuable. We cannot draw a line between Musician A who receives health insurance and a subsistence-level wage, and Musician B who receives neither. Nor can we perform at a consistently high artistic level when “Sort-of-haves” and “Definitely-have-nots” are expected to work harmoniously together, most especially if the latter group are well aware that the members of the former group threw them under the bus.

3. It is obvious to all, except apparently Symphony Society leadership, that cuts lead to death and growth leads to success. The musicians have, over past decades, agreed to many smaller cuts out of a desire to help the Symphony survive, in the misplaced hope that SSSA leadership would follow through on their promises for a better future if only they could be granted a bit of financial grace. 100% of the time, these cuts have only produced greater problems. Now we are faced with imposed terms containing the biggest cut of all. How foolish would we be to accept it?

4. This point has been made over and over and over, but once again, louder for those who are clearly not listening: If the musicians could somehow be forced to accept the SSSA’s intolerable imposed terms, the San Antonio Symphony would very quickly cease to exist as a professional orchestra. Many musicians would leave; others would retire, or simply move on into other professional avenues. Qualified musicians would not even consider traveling to San Antonio to audition for the resulting openings in the orchestra.

Asking the musicians to compromise their ethics by betraying their colleagues isn’t only morally wrong and shortsighted, it’s completely unnecessary.

San Antonio is a large metropolitan area with many resources, a 20% growth rate over the past decade, and it is currently leading the nation (second only to Austin) in the growth of white-collar and presumably higher-paid jobs. For the Symphony Society to continue to claim that the money is simply not here is ludicrous. The money is here. What the Symphony lacks is professional development staff, a willingness to expand fundraising efforts beyond historical bounds, an appropriately sized visionary Board, and anything resembling a properly-sized endowment. Even worse, our leadership is on record as stating that an endowment drive is impossible until the symphony has experienced three to five years of “stability,” stability which is only attainable with an endowment. It boggles the mind.

Looking at the below chart, it is very hard to continue describing San Antonio as a “great city” when we are so far behind our peers. And to the most frequently heard objections: “San Antonio is a poor city” and “San Antonio’s demographics aren’t favorable to the symphony” (never mind the unspoken racism of the latter), those are already addressed by the fact that the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony are fighting to preserve an $8M budget, not achieve an $18M one.

Metropolitan Area Pop (rank) Median Income Growth Rate Symphony Budget

Baltimore, MD 2.8M (20) $25,200 5% $28M (2018)

St. Louis, MO 2.8M (21) $25,000 1% $30M (2018)

San Antonio, TX 2.5M (24) $24,000 19% $4.7M (proposed)

Portland, OR 2.5M (25) $26,026 13% $22M (2021)

Cincinnati, OH 2.3M (30) $26,000 5.6% $67.6M (2018)

Kansas City, MO-KS 2.2M (31) $24,540 9% $19M (2018)

Indianapolis, IN 2.1M (33) $24,000 12% $28M (2018)

Nashville, TN 2M (36) $24,000 21% $29M (2020)

Milwaukee, WI 1.6M (40) $25,000 1.2% $17M (2016)

Salt Lake City, UT 1.3M (47) $23,016 16% $18M (2018)

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

-Mary Ellen Goree

Principal Violin II

Chair, Negotiating Committee

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