ArtsATL > Music > Analysis: The ASO’s uncivil war leaves players, management facing an uncertain post-lockout future

Analysis: The ASO’s uncivil war leaves players, management facing an uncertain post-lockout future

Robert Shaw built the Atlanta Symphony into a world-class orchestra with, arguably, the world's greatest chorus. A new documentary considers the work, the life and the man himself. (Courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra)
Robert Shaw built the Atlanta Symphony into a world-class orchestra with, arguably, America's greatest chorus. The symphony now faces new financial realities.
Robert Shaw built the Atlanta Symphony into a world-class orchestra with, arguably, America’s greatest chorus. The symphony now faces new financial realities.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which rose under the leadership of Robert Shaw to rank as one of America’s top ensembles, recently emerged from a bitter and divisive labor dispute. The settlement, negotiated with the help of federal mediators, ended a nine-week lockout that delayed the symphony’s season and left the orchestra with a complement of just 77 full-time players, a startling decline from the 95 musicians at the end of the 2011–12 season. Management agreed to a “best effort” to increase the number to 81 by the end of the 2015–16 season, and the four-year contract calls for 84 players by the end of its third year and 88 by the end of the fourth. 

The other major components were wages and benefits: management agreed to a 6 percent pay raise over four years, and the players agreed to some concessions in health insurance. But clearly the orchestra’s size was the major issue throughout the negotiations. 

From the beginning, the two sides talked past one another. The players and ardent fans focused on the damage to the orchestra’s sound from the downsizing and lack of competitive pay. Management and the board, on the other hand, stressed the orchestra’s dire financial situation and minimized the impact of the cuts.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the shrinkage from 95 to 88 players in 2012 and the increasing reliance on substitute players, Doug Hertz, chair of the Woodruff Arts Center, ASO’s parent organization, said, “It’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have in previous years.”

Players' association president, and ASO violist, Paul Murphy.
Players’ association president and ASO violist Paul Murphy.

I wrote many of those reviews. What can I tell you? Each review is a brief meditation on “what happened last night.” Even if I had the space, it’s very hard to compare season over season. The cuts didn’t happen in a vacuum. The repertory changes, and it rarely repeats in the following year. ASO’s string section, the one most impacted by the cuts, has itself come under the influence of a dynamic young concertmaster, David Coucheron, who arrived four years ago but whose effect has continued steadily. Even the room changes: in 2013 Symphony Hall got a new shell, which significantly improved the sound from the stage. 

But there is no question in my mind that size matters. A key difference between the ASO and, say, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra is simply that the Alabama has a 54-player roster. A complement of 95 is often considered the threshold for orchestras at an international level, and several top orchestras have over 100 members. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, has 106.

Players argued that substitute players lack the rapport that comes from playing together regularly, and a smaller complement tempts management to make do with fewer total players on stage. Paul Murphy, a violist who heads the ASO Players’ Association, said his section had been cut from 11 to 8, “and that means fewer times when you’re rotated off, there’s more playing, you have to produce bigger sound” and endure “greater physical strain.”

Not discussed was another effect: orchestras with smaller complements tend toward programs that minimize the use of substitutes to hold down costs, so they play fewer of the great late romantic and contemporary works. We may be seeing some of this in Atlanta already. We get less Mahler and Bruckner than bigger cities. Of course, that might simply reflect the interest of music director Robert Spano, or it could be a concession to perceived audience preferences.

Robert Woodruff launched the organization that came to define the city's arts scene.
Robert Woodruff launched the organization that came to define the city’s arts scene.

The downsizing began two years ago after an earlier lockout. Confronted with 10 years of annual deficits in the $2 million range and the erosion (to pay off debt) of the orchestra’s modest endowment, management obtained a two-year agreement that called for a 15 percent pay cut for the musicians and the reduction to 88 players. Discussions at the time suggested that these changes might be temporary. At least, that is how the players remember it. 

Even after the cuts, deficits continued, causing a downgrade in the bond rating of the Woodruff Arts Center, which also operates Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Alliance Theatre and several smaller entities. As talks progressed, this unusual structure greatly complicated matters. While the musicians were negotiating only with the ASO management and board, it eventually became clear that the real power was in the hands of Woodruff’s management and its board. The layered structure makes it hard to know who’s doing what. In addition, the orchestra financial data is merged into Woodruff’s Internal Revenue Service Form 990 reports for nonprofits, making easy comparisons with other orchestras more difficult.

On the other hand, it would be difficult and quite expensive to extract the orchestra from Woodruff. Symphony Hall, the orchestra’s home, is provided rent-free, and much of the orchestra’s income comes from the fundraising efforts of Woodruff, which benefit all the organizations and which are separate from the orchestra’s own campaigns. The center was created as a result of the Orly plane crash in 1962 in Paris. The 130 people on board composed Atlanta’s arts leaders who had taken a chartered trip together. Their loss was a massive blow to the city’s cultural life. Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff gave much of the money to build the center as a memorial.

During the eight months of talks that preceded the lockout and right up until the weeks before the settlement, management insisted on a proposal that would have removed the number of musicians from the contract altogether, a stance unique in the world of major orchestras, along with a modest pay increase over four years offset by increases in the cost of health coverage for the average musician. Management added language about its “aspiration” to increase the number, but that hardly seemed reassuring after the last few years. The musicians, having given up ground in 2012, were expecting a significant raise and an increase in the number of total players.

Spano and Runnicles, right, expressed their concerns for the future of the ASO.
During the lockout, Spano and Runnicles, right, expressed their concerns for the artistic future of the ASO.

Things got pretty nasty. Board members were accused of wanting to “gut the orchestra,” of manipulating deficit numbers and of insider dealing. ASO’s president and CEO, Stanley Romanstein, resigned, saying he didn’t want to be an impediment, though it soon became clear that he had simply relayed the positions of his bosses at Woodruff, whose president and CEO, Virginia Hepner, was next to be vilified. Confronted with angry fans, the ASO turned off comments on its Facebook page early during the lockout. Indeed, this conflict illustrates the rapidly growing power of social media and the blogosphere to ramp up tensions in an already difficult situation.

The artistic issues at stake were, and remain, real. As things reached a standstill, Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took the highly unusual step of publishing a letter stating there were “artistic lines which cannot and must not be crossed,” a clear shot across the bow that they would not hang around should the sound deteriorate further. 

But any focus on the real cause of the dispute — a steady decline in both earned and contributed income — seemed lost in the flame-throwing chaos. Audited data show net losses from the orchestra running about $4 million a year, though money from ASO Presents offsets this by about $2 million, so the net deficit runs $2 million. (ASO Presents is a series of pop concerts and events for which the orchestra acts as a presenter and provides its facilities, including the suburban Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Echo Park.)

That amount, on a core budget (just the orchestra) of about $22 million per year, doesn’t seem like an insurmountable sum for a city this size. Less than a decade ago, Atlanta seemed in the final stages of building a $300 million Calatrava-designed concert hall for this same orchestra, but that fell apart. (Imagine! If the hall had actually been built, Atlanta could be in the same boat as Miami, which blew its money on a fancy hall only to see the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra go broke.)

The new settlement, a compromise for both sides, is predicated on a hoped-for increase in contributions. The board plans a major campaign to endow chairs. If it fails, the orchestra’s situation could become truly dire. To some extent, Atlanta’s struggle is not unlike that elsewhere, especially in cities like Minneapolis or Philadelphia that have recently gone through similar crises. Classical institutions seem to be in a long-term downward spiral almost everywhere.

But every situation is different, and Atlanta has its own set of problems. There is great wealth here, along with all sorts of technology and entertainment-related businesses: the Turner television empire, a thriving moviemaking business and lots of popular singers, particularly from R&B and hip-hop.

The ASO has thrived artistically under the direction of Spano, becoming known for presenting new works. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The ASO has thrived artistically under the direction of Spano, becoming known for presenting new works. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

All these new enterprises, fortunes and celebrities seem to exist in a separate universe from Atlanta’s classical scene, which lacks much in the way of diversity and skewers toward an older demographic. The orchestra has tried mightily to build bridges, with all sorts of youth outreach and subsidized or free tickets, but progress has been slow. The ASO’s subscription audience is steadily shrinking, as is the audience for its classical programming overall. The orchestra’s key donors are from “Old Atlanta” — Coke, Delta and a few banks — rather than the faster-growing new fortunes built on technology and entertainment. 

There is also what I refer to as the “carpetbagger syndrome,” where money generated here leaves town. Georgia-Pacific, for example, is headquartered here and is one of the state’s largest employers, but gives little to the arts. I spoke with Curley Dossman, an amicable guy who heads their foundation. He explained that its funds are primarily earmarked for youth programs, entrepreneurship development and forestry-related projects. I mentioned that David Koch, who owns the company outright with his brother Charles, ranked consistently among the top donors to Lincoln Center institutions (the David Koch Theater even bears his name). Dossman said, “David has been very generous in his personal giving to the arts, but has chosen to concentrate on New York and Wichita.” (Wichita is the brothers’ home town.)

WAC board chair Douglas Hertz suggested the symphony performers and their supporters were "crazy people."
WAC board chair Douglas Hertz suggested the symphony performers and their supporters were “a bunch of crazy people.”

That said, the ASO is the crown jewel of the Atlanta arts scene and, in terms of classical music, the absolute glory of the Southeast. Robert Shaw was a magician, building the orchestra and the magnificent chorus — still, arguably, the best in America — as well as community support and audience. So effective was he that the Atlanta Opera was overshadowed and never had a chance even during the boom years for American opera, and today struggles with a budget in the $5 million range. 

In recent years, the orchestra’s sound has thrived under Spano, who also added a special focus on new music and steadily expanded the parade of superstar soloists. Spano obviously loves the orchestra and his adopted city, and the feeling is mutual. During the dispute, he was quoted reverently by all sides, a genuine hero. 

One remaining question is whether the “recent unpleasantness” will lead to the departure of key board members (both boards) who personally contribute and raise the lion’s share of the orchestra’s total budget (earned income from ticket sales and other core operations generates only about $6 million a year), or will make it more difficult to recruit new ones. Historically, people rally together after a crisis like this one, but previous disputes were less intensely personal and vitriolic than this one. At one point Hertz, the Woodruff board chair, said, “It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people?”

The great hope here is that Atlanta’s image-conscious business community will rally to its orchestra in its time of need. Never underestimate the power of boosterism in the Old South.

In the meantime, the orchestra’s 70th season finally opened on November 13 with a concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “Let us sing songs that are more cheerful, full of joy!” exclaimed the mighty chorus. The orchestra was greeted by a sold-out house unlike any I’ve encountered here. The energy and celebratory atmosphere was electric, with sustained waves of ovations and people blurting out cheers. 

But one of the ironies of the lockout was that many players had sought work as substitute players elsewhere in order to make ends meet, all while denouncing the ASO’s increasing dependence on substitutes. With only five days’ notice, many were unable to extract themselves from these gigs, so on opening night the orchestra had a record 31 substitute players (of 71 total musicians) and many key players were missing.

That, together with atrophy and the shortened preparation time, took a toll. There was a murkiness in the first two movements of the Ninth that I’ve never encountered here, and a lack of overall precision. Coucheron performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with a silky tone, and the chorus was almost back to its usual form. But it was obvious why the originally scheduled performance of Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” had to be scrapped. The orchestra just wasn’t ready.

Things went better for the program a week later, which featured a new symphony by Richard Prior (his Symphony No. 3). New music is the ASO’s forte, and for this one the orchestra delivered. As players trickled back, 20 of the 76 musicians were substitutes. But Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, the sort of thing these guys should be able to knock out with little rehearsal, revealed serious intonation issues and a lack of tightness. Spano seemed to be coddling the orchestra, with conservative dynamics and tempi. 

For this concert, it was as if the audience from opening night had left town, to be replaced by the typical one, with empty seats everywhere and a predictable response to everything.

Questions remain, and not just about the evolution of the orchestra’s sound as things fall back into place. Can Atlanta pull together to sustain a world-class orchestra, or are we seeing an orchestra in retreat?

Atlanta is hardly the first city to face this quandary. The aforementioned Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, which had 80 full-time players, went into bankruptcy in 2003 after desperate financial struggles, wrenching labor-management battles, bitter sniping and a crippling strike. Ironically, the Adrienne Arscht Center for the Performing Arts, whose concert hall was planned as its home, was not completed before the orchestra shut down.

Today, the Miami Symphony Orchestra, which consists entirely of “per service” (part-time) players and has a budget of about $1.5 million, performs a short season there, as does the Cleveland Orchestra, which drops in for a few concerts each season (these are quite lucrative, a rather different example of the “carpetbagger syndrome”).

When I was in college, the saying was: “if you give a party, you gotta pay the band.” Here’s hoping Atlanta will find a way to do just that, and future Georgians will be able to hear the ASO Chorus sing the words from Beethoven’s Ninth: “Joy . . . your magic reunites. All men shall be brothers.”

(A slightly different version of this article was first published in Classical Voice North America.)

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