Webster's Third New International Dictionary defines disingenuous as "unworthily or meanly artful: giving a false appearance of simple frankness."
Rarely have I seen such a display of disingenuousness as in your April 22 commentary, "Symphony may need to spice up its act." Your words carried the implication that you fancy yourself an expert who is willing to stoop to lend his savvy to help some poor, benighted, clueless, and humorless fellow San Antonians.
What you actually revealed was your own lack of knowledge, and--far from being helpful--you have very likely made the situation worse.
The entire tone of your column was plain insulting: your "Lesson" and "Clue" format set you up as the wise teacher and symphony personnel as "the clueless," conjuring images of drooling kindergartners.
But symphony people would still be well-advised to read past your belittling words, and examine your specific diagnoses and recommendations.... They would, that is, if your analysis were accurate. Unfortunately, it is far from it.
Oh, Mr. Tijerina, how nice it would be if the cracking of a few more cascarones onstage were the solution to this city's artistic woes. (But for what it's worth, Ms. Sant'Ambrogio initiated that unserious act, and I don't quite follow how you then take credit for imparting a lesson about how symphony people need not to take themselves so seriously.) And how nice it would be if the cracking of a few more smiles onstage would balance the budget! (But for what it's worth, you observed that the musical selections chosen and performed by the symphony had "a sense of fun," and I likewise don't follow how you then take credit for teaching the symphony a lesson about enjoying the music on the stage.)
Your third "clue" and (especially) "lesson" are particularly bewildering. "Good musicianship," you patiently explain, "will attract traditional symphony patrons, and Latin music can bring new people to the symphony. Remember this when planning concerts." One wonders where you have been for the past decade. If there is one constant where the symphony is concerned, it is the not merely good, but outstanding, world-class level of musicianship the orchestra achieves week in and week out. One is left with what seems to be a good suggestion: program Latin music to bring in new patrons. The problem with the suggestion is that (as anyone who attends the symphony even occasionally must certainly realize) a Latin/Hispanic component has been a very large priority in programming for years. From composers and their works to conductors to guest artists on both classical and pops concerts, the San Antonio Symphony has featured Hispanic music and music-making in quantities that should satisfy any concertgoer. As an example, let's just examine the last few weeks. Yes, last week's Pops showcased the Mambo Kings and some Latin-tinged orchestral selections. Back up to the classical concerts of April 4 and 5, and there's guitarist Pepe Romero performing the Concierto de Aranjuez by Joaquin Rodrigo, as well as two orchestral works written by French composers but boldly depicting Spain: selections from Carmen by Georges Bizet and Maurice Ravel's luscious score Rapsodie espagnole. The classical concert immediately preceding that? On March 21 and 22, the piano soloist was Horacio Gutierrez, a native of Cuba. Back up one more classical concert (February 28 and March 1) to find Venezuelan pianist Sergio Tiempo. Returning to the week just ended, the orchestra occupies the pit for Coronation, a pivotal part of Fiesta week. In about a week, says the symphony schedule, the orchestra will perform its annual free Cinco de Mayo concert of Latin music in Guadalupe Plaza. Only it won't be happening this year, as the last part of the season has been cancelled. (And for the same reason, classical audiences will miss hearing Costa Rican pianist Giancarlo Guerrero.) Within recent memory, the symphony has performed with Vikki Carr, Jose Feliciano, Patsy Torres, Flaco Jimenez, Arturo Sandoval, Emilio Navaira, Tish Hinojosa, Rita Moreno, Los Voladores, DanzaHispana, the Guadalupe Dance Company, and many other Hispanic artists (bringing back several of the aforementioned for multiple visits). In recent years, the symphony inaugurated a fellowship program for young Hispanic conductors and boosted the careers of Enrique Barrios, Eduardo Garcia-Barrios, Clotilde Otranto, and current staff conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto, as these talented young professionals led scores of concerts in front of San Antonio audiences. In the mid- to late '90s, the symphony employed and featured new works by three commissioned composers in succession: Eduardo Garza, Alice Gomez, and Robert Xavier Rodriguez--all Hispanic. (The commissioned-composer program ended when funding ran out.) In the past decade, the symphony has earned several grants and awards, including ones from ASCAP and the Knight Foundation, in large part due to its innovative programming, and the Hispanic component has invariably been cited as a major factor.
So how should the symphony increase its audience? Contrary to your supposed insight, packing the house by means of more Hispanic music and more enthusiasm is hardly (if at all) helpful. For one thing, there is plenty of Hispanic music already, as just described. For another, audiences at all pops concerts (whether Hispanic-themed or not) have always been enthusiastic, and (more importantly and to the point) have always been large. As for what goes on onstage, there is always a spirit of fun. That's what pops concerts are and have always been about. In short, the Pops series is not the problem.
The San Antonio Symphony is a symphony orchestra. Its primary mission (not to dismiss Mambo Kings and cracked cascarones) is to bring great classical music to South Texas. It accomplishes this mission in superb and praiseworthy fashion. There is a fiercely loyal but regrettably small fan base for the timeless masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, and Wagner (and even smaller for any classical music written after 1900, but that's a topic for another letter!). These audiences will always be disappointingly small. It would be nice to think the symphony could "snare" people with the Pops, then gradually steer them towards Mozart, but numerous studies show that just doesn't happen: they're two different audiences. This seems unlikely to change significantly in a city that perennially prides itself on its blue-collar outlook, with its love of the Spurs, pickups, the rodeo, and plenty of cold Lone Star. It would be lovely to have packed houses for classical concerts, but perhaps even you would agree that cracking a cascaron over Van Cliburn's head as he prepares to perform a Tchaikovsky concerto might not be a good idea.
Yes, the symphony would dearly love to have bigger audiences for classical concerts. Revenue is revenue, after all. If you or anyone has a good suggestion, the symphony is all ears.
But guess what. Audience attendance (or lack of same), though a serious concern, is not the major problem. Ticket sales represent, at best, about 40% of a typical professional orchestra's revenue. If this could somehow miraculously be maxed out with nightly sellouts, the symphony's finances would still be only slightly less disastrous. Ticket sales are money, but they aren't big money.
Annual donors? Of course, charitable contributions are an important source of revenue. The recent outpouring from many San Antonians was heartwarming and helpful, to be sure. But only rarely do such contributions constitute big money.
Where does big money come from? Ideally, it comes from a variety of sources. And in San Antonio's case, there are failures across the board!
Big money comes from big corporations. San Antonio has a few but not many (compared to the only other Texas cities with major orchestras, Dallas and Houston [and to a lesser extent, Fort Worth]). Some of the corporations that are here give fairly generously but could do MUCH better; others give little or none. Some leaders of local corporations serve on the symphony board, and whenever the symphony's woes increase they declare it's not worth it for them to invest in a failing enterprise, thus effectively guaranteeing the failure of the enterprise!... It is hoped Toyota's arrival will improve this situation.
Big money comes from foundations and very wealthy individuals. This situation is deteriorating. The Kronkosky Foundation has recently publicized its reluctance to continue funding this financially-challenged organization, and actually seems to be using its estimable clout to persuade others to think and act likewise. Betty Maddux, a symphony savior in the early to mid-'90s, passed on, and her descendants are just not interested. In the past (in some cases, distant past), certain wealthy San Antonian individuals and families were "turned off" by episodes, perhaps long forgotten, involving symphony management, and vowed never to support the symphony. (Robert Tobin, for example, whose estate proudly supports with lavish sums the Metropolitan Opera [yes, in New York] and the Santa Fe Opera, comes to mind.) (For that matter, scores of smaller businesses cut off all dealings with symphony management when in past years the symphony defaulted on balances owed to vendors, which the businesses wrote off as losses before vowing to avoid all future dealings with the symphony.)
Big money comes from government. The San Antonio Symphony is a big-time loser here! On a national level, arts funding is almost laughably paltry, in a percentage that doesn't begin to compare with that in other civilized nations. (But, you ask, if there's a nationwide problem, wouldn't that mean that orchestras and other arts organizations all over the country are struggling? Well, guess what. They are!) State funding? It's pathetic. Texas is 50th among the 50 states in per-capita arts funding. Yep, dead last. Which brings us to local funding. Ah, yes. Our dear City of San Antonio. Whose mayor, Ed Garza, stood up a couple of weeks ago to declare that the San Antonio Symphony, a financially-strapped not-for-profit organization that happens to be the heart and soul of San Antonio's artistic and cultural being, needs to "learn to stand on its own two feet." Then, in the same speech, he passionately pleads for close to a million dollars of city money to bring the Dallas Cowboys, a for-profit organization with multimillion-dollar salaries, owned by a megalomaniacal multimillionaire, which represents another city, for Pete's sake!, to come here for a couple of weeks in the summer, so we can watch rookies and third-stringers practice and scrimmage! If you think I have something against Dallas, you're absolutely ... wrong! I was born and raised there. I've been a Cowboys fan since the team's inception in 1960. But this ... this is sheer nonsense. The San Antonio city government seems to have three priorities--in order: developers, the Dallas Cowboys, and developers.
Big money comes from an endowment and the interest it generates. The symphony? Losers again. In the mid-90s, during a financial crisis at least as bad as the present one, the symphony management, in a well-intentioned but disastrous decision, cashed in all but about $700,000 of the symphony's then-$6 million endowment, in order to pay off as many debts as it could. Now, in 2003, the endowment has crept back up to about $6 million, a nice-sounding sum, but in truth woefully insufficient. The consensus of experts is that an orchestra's endowment needs to be a minimum of three times the annual budget to be beneficial. The symphony's annual budget? About $8 million. Do the math. (Note: a few weeks ago, the Dallas Symphony received a gift to its endowment [an ADDITION, mind you] that was more than three times the size of the San Antonio Symphony's TOTAL endowment.)
Big savings could come from an orchestra's owning its hall, or a generous company leasing space for little or no rent, as is the case in many cities. But not here. The symphony is irretrievably mired in a complex and virtually perpetual contract involving the Majestic, Las Casas Foundation, Arts Center Enterprises, and PACE, and ends up paying top dollar. Attempts to extricate itself from the contract have gotten nowhere.
And so it goes. The San Antonio Symphony, which generates a fabulous artistic product, seems to be, from a financial standpoint, at the epicenter of the worst of all possible worlds.
Please don't tell 77 wonderful musicians whose passions and livelihoods are being ripped out from under them that it's their fault for not smiling enough.
Violinist, San Antonio Symphony, 1984-85 and 1989-99