The mission of the San Antonio Symphony is to inspire and enrich our community by vigorously influencing the artistic fabric of San Antonio through excellent symphonic performance, education and service.
Symphonic concerts began in San Antonio in the 1880s, but no formal orchestra was formed at first. The San Antonio Symphony was founded in 1939 by conductor Max Reiter, a native of Trieste , Italy , who brought with him to America a background rich in symphonic and operatic repertoire. Formerly the director of the symphony orchestra of Milan , Reiter was one of few Jewish conductors working in Italy at that time. When the Italian government proclaimed an official anti-Semitic policy, Reiter was forced to sign a release renouncing all professional contracts. Seeing no future for himself with European orchestras, Reiter boarded a ship for New York carrying only a briefcase of introductory letters, a few articles of clothing, and $40 in cash.
Finding New York crowded with musicians whose circumstances mirrored his own, Reiter purchased a round-trip train ticket and began a circuit of the southern United States. Leaving the train at each major town, Reiter approached leading citizens with his dream of creating a new American orchestra. When he made his presentation in San Antonio, civic leaders engaged Reiter to conduct a “demonstration concert” in the Sunken Garden Theater at Brackenridge Park on June 12, 1939. The performance, before an audience of 2,500, was a resounding success, and Reiter’s proposal for a full-time orchestra for San Antonio received the city’s support. Reiter’s leadership and inspiration resulted in a November 24, 1939, inaugural concert presented by the newly incorporated Symphony Society of San Antonio, launching the first season. The first San Antonio Symphony season comprised four concerts. For each performance, fully one-third of the 95 musicians were brought in from other cities in the Southwest. Fueled by public enthusiasm and Reiter’s vision, the fledgling orchestra enjoyed rapid growth to become a fully professional ensemble of 75 musicians performing a 16-week season in 1943. A budget of $100,000 for the 1944-45 season made the San Antonio Symphony one of America’s 19 major orchestras–the only one in Texas.
From 1943 to 1945, the city of San Antonio experienced a wartime population boom due to its numerous military installations. The patron base for the Symphony grew proportionately, bringing further success to the young orchestra. In 1945, Reiter founded the San Antonio Symphony Grand Opera Festival, bringing world-class stars and productions to the stage of Municipal Auditorium. To support the productions, Reiter created the San Antonio Symphony Opera Chorus, which would later become the San Antonio Symphony Mastersingers.
Audience growth in following years was accompanied by artistic success, with Reiter and the Symphony presenting the world premieres of works by Antheil, Gillis, Hanson, and Richard Strauss. Guest conductors included Igor Stravinsky, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Dimitri Mitropolous. Beecham characterized the San Antonio Symphony as “among the few leading orchestras of this country,” and Mitropolous declared, “This orchestra can compete with any orchestra in this country or Europe .”
In 1950, Max Reiter died suddenly of heart failure. Early the next year, Reiter’s own choice for his successor, Victor Alessandro, became the second music director of the San Antonio Symphony. Alessandro, a Texas native and music director of the Oklahoma City Symphony, had been a guest on the San Antonio podium on several occasions. Alessandro’s arrival came at a difficult time for the Symphony—the post-war recession had left the community with few economic resources to support its orchestra. To deal with these new challenges, Alessandro expanded the Grand Opera Festival and added a pops season to the Symphony’s classical offerings. These well-attended performances allowed the Symphony to survive and even thrive during these lean years. Alessandro also expanded the Symphony’s lauded Young People’s Concert series, which Max Reiter had created in 1945.
In 1969, the Symphony took up residence in San Antonio ‘s Theater for the Performing Arts. This facility, part of the city’s newly constructed Convention Center, would later be re-christened the Lila Cockrell Theater, honoring a mayor of San Antonio .
During Alessandro’s 25-year tenure, the San Antonio Symphony continued to grow in size and stature. By 1970, the orchestra made three recordings on the Mercury label, including the world premiere of John Corigliano’s Piano Concerto, featuring soloist Hilde Somer. Victor Alessandro’s tenure as music director ended in 1976 when he retired at his doctor’s urging, becoming “conductor emeritus.” Alessandro passed away later that year.
In 1978, a two-year search for Alessandro’s replacement ended with the appointment of François Huybrechts as the third music director of the San Antonio Symphony. Huybrechts, formerly music director of the Wichita ( Kansas ) Symphony, brought to San Antonio a dedication to innovative programming and contemporary repertoire. Huybrechts also cast the Symphony in the role of international cultural ambassador for the city of San Antonio , with an acclaimed tour of Mexico City .
Lawrence Leighton Smith, music director of the Oregon Symphony, became the San Antonio Symphony’s fourth music director in 1980. Smith increased the Symphony’s service to San Antonio by expanding the city-funded outreach program of free concerts to include underserved neighborhoods. Increased touring provided greater exposure of the orchestra to audiences in the south Texas region, as well as Louisiana . In 1982, the orchestra was warmly welcomed back to Mexico City . Smith resigned from the San Antonio podium in 1985 to become music director of the Louisville Orchestra.
During the Symphony’s search for a fifth music director, Sixten Ehrling was engaged as artistic advisor beginning with the 1985-86 season. However, the search ended in the spring of 1987 when lingering financial difficulties led the board of directors to cancel the 1987-88 season.
Seeing the need for the symphonic music to continue in San Antonio , the orchestra musicians agreed to produce a season of concerts in cooperation with the newly formed Orchestra San Antonio, Inc. The Orchestra San Antonio board engaged Akira Endo as artistic advisor and principal conductor. After negotiating a revised agreement with the orchestra musicians, the San Antonio Symphony reinstated its season on January 5 and assumed all remaining Orchestra San Antonio commitments. Board members of Orchestra San Antonio became board members of the San Antonio Symphony.
With the beginning of the 1988-89 season, Zdenek Macal accepted the title of artistic director and principal conductor, which he held concurrently with his post as music director of the Milwaukee Symphony. Under Macal’s baton, the San Antonio Symphony made significant strides artistically and in the number of patrons attending performances. Macal ushered in a banner year for the San Antonio Symphony’s 50th Anniversary season, directing the orchestra in a new residence: the restored Majestic Theatre, in the heart of San Antonio ‘s downtown arts district.
The search for a permanent music director culminated in the December 1990 appointment of Christopher Wilkins. Beginning with the 1991-92 season, Wilkins assumed the full title and duties of music director of the San Antonio Symphony. Christopher Wilkins was immediately hailed as “a spirit of authority and power, polish and grandeur.” Wilkins received national acclaim as well when he was named one of two 1992 recipients of the prestigious Seaver/NEA Conductor’s Award. The Seaver award, presented every two years by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognized exceptionally gifted American conductors in the early stages of their careers.
Wilkins brought with him to the podium fresh concepts in programming and performance. At the January 1994 meeting of the American Symphony Orchestra League, the San Antonio Symphony was unanimously hailed as a model of inclusiveness and community-relevant programming for American orchestras. In 1994, the San Antonio Symphony was named the winner of the first ASCAP/Morton Gould Award for Creative Programming, in recognition of its innovative presentations of traditional and contemporary repertoire. The Symphony went on to win five additional ASCAP awards in subsequent years. The Symphony received two prominent national awards in 1995: the ASCAP Award for Programming of Contemporary Music and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation “Magic of Music” Grant. The Symphony continued to garner awards throughout the 1990s.
The 1999-2000 season marked the last in Christopher Wilkins’ tenure as music director but continued serving as music advisor for two years until being named music director emeritus in the 2001-2002 season.
The search for Wilkin’s replacement ended on Nov. 14, 2002 when Larry Rachleff was named music director designate. In 2003, the Symphony was again plagued with financial difficulties and canceled the last few concerts of the 2003 season. The Symphony declared bankruptcy, and the board of directors spent the 2003-2004 season reworking the Symphony’s business plan. Rachleff remained committed to the San Antonio Symphony and his tenure as music director began with the 2004-2005 season.
Under new administrative leadership and Larry Rachleff’s artistic vision, the Symphony bounced back to finish four consecutive seasons with a balanced budget and won the MetLife Foundation Award for Excellence in Community Engagement and the Bruno Walter Memorial Foundation Resident Conductor Award. It was also selected to participate in the Kennedy Center initiative “Sustaining the American Orchestra” and the American Symphony Orchestra League’s “Institutional Vision program.” In recognition of the Symphony’s importance to the community, voters overwhelmingly approved a $100 million bond package including a Performing Arts Center, which will be our new permanent home in 2013. The new center has been named the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, after a lead gift was made by the Tobin Endowment.
The 2007-08 season, Larry Rachelff’s final season as Music Director, featured a 14-week classical series, a six-week Pops series, an opening season gala with violinist Itzhak Perlman, and a variety of free community concerts, including a concert at San Fernando Cathedral in October, Veterans Day Concert, Luminaria festival, Cinco de Mayo series, and the Sounds of Summer concert series. We featured great musical artists, such as Flutist James Galway, violinist Midori, and pianist Peter Serkin. The Symphony continued the tradition of innovative programming by performing works by Heitor Villa-Lobos, John Adams, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. The Symphony was delighted to present the world premiere of Something Miraculous Burns by David Heuser. We also began our Community Engagement program, which brought great performances directly into schools and other community organizations.
In 2008, Christopher Seaman was named the artistic advisor for the San Antonio Symphony, as the Symphony searched for a new Music Director. In February 2009, the Symphony along with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet performed the world premiere of Interchange for Guitar Quartet and Orchestra, written for this occasion by the Brazilian composer, Sergio Assad. Other performances included the music by the living composers, Benjamin Gutierrez of Costa Rica and Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina.
On February 16 2010, Sebastian Lang-Lessing was introduced as the eighth music director in the orchestra’s 71 year history. On October 2, 2010 Sebastian Lang-Lessing made his debut as new music director with a sold-out performance featuring Mahler Symphony No. 1, “Titan.” His Classic subscription series debut was January 7, 2011. Lang-Lessing brings vast experience in both opera and symphonic music and performs with almost unlimited energy and passion. From Berlin to Paris, from Australia to Houston, from San Francisco to San Antonio, audiences have been swept away.