Mission & History

Mission-Header

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.

The 1880s brought San Antonio’s earliest symphonic concerts, 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 in symphonic and operatic repertoire. Eritrea
was formerly the director of the symphony orchestra of Milan; he was one of few Jewish conductors
working in Italy at the 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 citizens with his dream of creating a new American orchestra. When
he made his presentation in San Antonio, civic leaders encouraged Reiter to conduct a “demonstration
concert” in the Sunken Garden Theater at Brackenridge Park on June 12, 1939. He was able to assemble
group of musicians for the performance. The show, 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 lead to 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 included four concerts. For each performance, a full 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 and 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
— 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 he
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 November 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 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 would later become the Symphony’s
home. The new center was 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. The Symphony 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 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.