As our beloved Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a magnificent edifice built over many decades by giants like Robert Shaw, is being dismantled, I find myself unable to remain silent. I have written about the ASO as a music critic for several publications, including this one, since returning to Georgia in 2007. The role of the critic is a delicate one, and I have gone to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of partisanship.
The agreement struck two years ago reduced the orchestra’s size to 88 full-time players and cut the players’ salaries. Those were painful changes that have had real consequences for the orchestra. We are now facing the potential for further changes that affect quality. There is a potential for a downward spiral. What is being lost is not just the orchestra’s reputation, but its unique and wonderful sound.
Last week, federal mediator Allison Beck arrived to begin talks with the two sides. This is a welcome development, and we can only hope that she’ll find a way to get our orchestra making music again. But a resolution that permits further reductions in the orchestra’s size and the musician’s net pay scale will hardly be a big win for Atlanta’s classical music community.
The very top orchestras in America (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, etc.) all have 99 or more full time musicians, and 95 is considered by many experts to be the standard requirement to play at an international level. Dropping to 88 was a major blow. To drop below that number would move us more to the middle rank of American orchestras.
I am certain that if you played a big Mahler work with 95 musicians, then silenced seven of them and immediately played the same piece again, any focused listener would hear the difference. If, instead, you staged it the second time with seven part-time players, the contrast would be much more subtle.
The part-timers are serious professional musicians, but their experience is different from players who have played together with the ensemble over time. In addition, the ability to audition musicians from across the world for full-salary positions versus plugging in woefully underpaid part-timers has, over time, an effect on quality. We have already lost a lot of critical mass.
The other major issue in this dispute has to do with total compensation, including benefits. ArtsATL has done a great job of reporting the details. The bottom line is that decreased remuneration has left us less competitive within the orchestra world. We have already lost some excellent musicians, and with the orchestra not being paid, we are hardly in a good position to recruit. Resumés are out. Other orchestras are now courting our best players.
Our talented maestros, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles, have taken the highly unusual step of publishing a letter cautioning that “there are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.” This shot across the bow can be taken as a warning that they will not hang around as the sound begins to deteriorate further. Under those circumstances, we will not soon see their like again.
Could we lose the orchestra altogether, as happened in Miami and Honolulu in recent years? Of course we could. These things always seem impossible until they happen. There is a cascading effect flowing from the lockout. We are losing subscribers. Donors are angry. The crisis feeds on itself.
The people on the orchestra’s board are good and dedicated people. Among them are some of the orchestra’s biggest donors. The same is true of the Woodruff Arts Center board. The essential problem comes down to money.
A lot has been said about the ostensibly low percentage of the ASO’s budget that goes for salaries compared to other orchestras. My feeling is that we are not seeing an apples-to-apples comparison. There is an unfortunate lack of transparency regarding the ASO’s financial data. It is merged into the WAC’s Form 990 reports, and the way budget data is reported seems confusing.
To be fair, there is no indication that the size or compensation of ASO’s administration are out of line with those of its peers. Rather, it is likely that the cash flow from the ASO’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre makes the total budget number larger than that of cities with similar orchestra payrolls.
No amount of finger-pointing will solve this problem. If Atlanta wants to retain its amazing orchestra, the glory of the Southeast, it must come up with the money. No major performing arts organization can exist without a large portion of its budget coming from contributions.
The lion’s share usually comes from corporations and foundations. Study an ASO program from last season, or go to the Atlanta Symphony website and click on “Giving,” then “Sponsorship and Grants.” The only three companies giving $250,000 or more are Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, and Delta. Now think of all the big Atlanta-based corporations that are missing. Some do appear further down the page, of course, but this is the time for them to step up. SunTrust, Equifax, NCR, Home Depot and UPS are clocking in at less than $100,000. Georgia-Pacific isn’t even listed.
I’m not necessarily trying to shame anyone here. Better to see this as an opportunity for these civic-minded companies to come to the rescue of this vital institution in their home town. It’s the right thing to do, and they would earn the appreciation of everyone. I assume there is also an opportunity for renaming Symphony Hall.
And where is the government support? Public funds seem to be available whenever there is a massive sports facility to be built, but very little is apportioned to supporting the arts.
There is roughly a $2 million difference in what management says would make the ASO sustainable financially and what the musicians say is required to avoid further damage to the orchestra. The divide is not that wide. This is a city that came together for the Olympics. Fewer than 10 years ago, we were discussing a $300 million Calatrava-designed hall for this same orchestra.
Can we rekindle just a little bit of that kind of spirit and rally once again to protect the city’s crowning artistic achievement?
What is needed are some serious multiyear commitments from companies, foundations, government and individuals in a position to save this priceless asset for Atlanta. If we continue to let it drift away, we will never get back what we had.
When I was in college, the saying was: “if you give a party, you gotta pay the band.” Time is not on our side here.