San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing explains why orchestras are economically and culturally important for cities

Opera music


Sebastian Lang-Lessing was Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony for 10 years and last year became its Music Director Emeritus.

I am in Seoul, I am working on two productions as musical director of the Korean National Opera. The organization is a symbol of pride for a nation where some of the best musicians have emerged. The amount of exceptional talent is overwhelming and the competition is fierce.

The San Antonio Symphony the musicians are in the midst of yet another contract renegotiation, facing pay and staff cuts as the new season that began on Saturday is expected to end with a $ 3 million deficit. It may seem like a niche issue that doesn’t really affect the daily life of San Antonians, but the symphonies have a big impact on their cities. I saw this in San Antonio, Seoul and other cities where I worked.

The Seoul Arts Center, where we perform, was built in 1988 and is a symbol of the “new” Korea which has embraced democracy and creative expression. The Seoul Arts Center is similar to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in that it is home to several resident companies, including a symphony.

It is a lively complex with an opera house with several stages; a large rehearsal hall for the Korea Symphony Orchestra, opera, ballet and national choir; a concert hall with different halls; a music academy and several museums. All are funded and supported by the government.

The construction of the Arts Center in Seocho District, close to the famous Gangnam District, led to the development of what is today one of the most culturally dynamic areas in the city, an area that had been neglected. It is the headquarters of Samsung and Hyundai and today is home to some of Seoul’s best restaurants and hotels, attracting tourists interested in learning more about Korean culture.

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The Korean Symphony Orchestra performs for opera, ballet and the national choir in addition to its own concerts and tours across the country. The symphony is the backbone of the artistic ecosystem here, and it is one of Seoul’s many great orchestras, each of which provides live music for other performing arts groups.

The city of Oslo experienced a similar pioneering adventure during the construction of its magnificent opera house. The Oslo Opera House was built in 2008 as part of the city’s strategy to revitalize and redevelop the city’s industrial waterfront. It is a great draw for residents and tourists.

I had the privilege of opening the opera with “Porgy and Bess”, and saw how this previously abandoned part of town has changed. For the first two years, every performance was sold out because the building was such an attraction. Today it is one of the leading opera companies in Europe, and the building has become an icon for Norway, like the Sydney Opera House has become for Australia.

But without the performing arts groups inside these stunning Seoul and Oslo buildings, what’s the point of these buildings?

Without the Korean Symphony Orchestra at the Seoul Arts Center or the opera and its orchestra at the Oslo Opera House, buildings become an expensive and empty liability. Neighboring hotels would go bankrupt. The restaurants would go bankrupt. And real estate that was getting expensive would lose value.

The money saved by no longer paying for an orchestra would be outweighed by all the losses.

We have already tasted. The pandemic forced many performances in Seoul to be canceled or to only take place with a fraction of the usual audience, and several restaurants nearby were unable to survive.

Through my work with the Cape Town Opera in South Africa, I have also seen with my own eyes how an opera company and its symphony can lift a community out of poverty. Founded in 1999, the non-profit opera company recruited its talents from the townships of Cape Town, the poor neighborhoods established during apartheid.

The company discovered Pretty Yende, then 16, a soprano who went on to perform at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. To date, Cape Town Opera provides free music training annually to over 2,000 learners in rural and urban communities.

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Opera gave people who had the God-given talent for singing an opportunity, finally, to work full time as professionals and be able to provide for their families. Whatever government spending is, it pays dividends by getting people off welfare and going to higher education.

Obviously, the impact of orchestras goes far beyond their seasons, stimulating development around their concert halls, boosting job creation and worker retention, which has a hugely positive ripple effect. on the economy of a city.

I agree with Richard Florida, professor of economics, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and author of the bestselling book “The Rise of the Creative Class”. In 2015, he written for Bloomberg about a study that found substantial evidence that performing arts organizations contribute significantly to both the growth of the knowledge class and to urban economies. San Antonio was part of the study, which found that our symphony helped generate $ 222 million in annual employment income between 2000 and 2010.

Performance halls must be filled with live performances and become showcases of artistic excellence. A building in itself has no value; it is the content that fills it with life. Investing in construction is a step; investing in the creative class is imperative for a city’s success.

Artists or visiting artists do not generate this value. They go and spend their money elsewhere.

The musicians who form an orchestra are the nucleus of the musical life of a city. Trained all over the world and selected on very competitive auditions, they come to our cities and enrich them not only by playing for symphony and chamber ensembles but also by teaching our children. Without an orchestra, these spectacular musicians will leave for other places.

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Not being able to pay the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony a living wage is a citywide struggle. It is not the sole responsibility of a board or an administration, and certainly not of its musicians.

Artistic infrastructure begins with the creative class. Reducing this class will have a devastating and embarrassing effect. Hunting talent is something we cannot afford.