Breaking the silence they maintained during the 2012 contract dispute, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles have sent a strongly worded letter to ASO’s board, management and musicians claiming they are “deeply concerned” about “contentious” negotiations that threaten to jeopardize “the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands.”
“The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss,“ Spano and Runnicles cautioned. “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.”
Time is running out. After talking for more than eight months over management’s plans to cut musicians’ pay and health benefits and reduce the size of the orchestra, both sides have until September 6 to reach agreement on their 2014 contract. The musicians’ next meeting with management is scheduled for September 4.
Both sides have been tight-lipped about negotiations, saying only that they hope to avoid a repeat of 2012’s fractious labor dispute that saw musicians locked out of symphony facilities for a month without pay or health benefits. The musicians, however, have repeatedly warned that there is a limit to how many cuts the orchestra can endure without damaging the orchestra’s standing as the leading cultural institution of the Southeast.
Claiming they felt compelled “to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards,” Spano and Runnicles urged management to acknowledge the sacrifices the musicians had already made in 2012.
Acknowledging that it was “neither our place nor our intent to involve ourselves in the collective bargaining process,” Spano and Runnicles wrote that they felt “bound by a sense of responsibility and deep commitment to represent and remind everyone what the ASO is all about: its high musical standards and aspirations.“
In 2012, management forced musicians to accept an average 15 percent drop in salary, amounting to a minimum of $27,000 over the last two years. Citing an annual $5 million budget deficit gap, ASO dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the season from 52 to 42 weeks. For the first time in more than three decades, ASO no longer plays a full year — a marker of a top-tier orchestra.
In their letter, Spano and Runnicles argued that contract negotiations repeated an “unhealthy pattern of pitting musician and management positions as incompatible alternatives.” They pushed firmly against the possibility of another lockout and the prospect of further discord and disruption.
“We must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony,” they wrote. “The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.”
Spano and Runnicles urged management to explore new ways to overcome the orchestra’s financial difficulties. “Two years ago, our musicians accepted huge concessions with an expectation that, in so doing, both board and management would be able to steer the organization out of financial distress,” they noted. “We ask the board and management to acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.”
Amid the current mood of uncertainty, an unusually high number of musicians have parted ways with the orchestra, either to retire or to take on positions with other companies. Three senior members retired in 2012, one in 2013, and four more — with a combined service of 182 years — retired this summer.
“Achieving a 52-week season was a titanic accomplishment, and slipping back to 41/42 weeks has been a severe disappointment,” Carl Nitchie, the ASO’s departing principal bassoon, noted in a recent ASO musicians’ newsletter.
Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the Players’ Association, which represents musicians, said Spano and Runnicles’ words surprised and buoyed ASO musicians as they gathered for an update meeting this morning. “The letter speaks powerfully and eloquently for itself,” he said. “Maestri Spano and Runnicles are obviously both as communicative with a pen as they are with a baton.”
A spokesman for the ASO issued a statement Wednesday that said, “We fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter” — most notably, that musicians have made “significant sacrifices” in the last two years, that ASO’s high musical standards are “critically important and should not be compromised,” and “that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone.”
The statement, however, goes on to note that “the continuation of operating deficits that have been on-going for 12 years” is also not in anyone’s best interests. While the company’s poor financial health has led to concerns from donors, as well as a “precipitous decline” in the company’s endowment, the statement concluded that “we believe there are solutions that will allow the ASO management and musicians to balance the artistic and financial needs of the orchestra for the long term.”
As orchestras across the country struggle with financial deficits as a result of declining box office revenue and increasing costs, Spano and Runnicles suggested that a long-term agreement — without constant bouts between management and musicians every two years — might ensure greater stability and allow ASO to better connect with the community.
“Creative innovation itself requires time,” they wrote. “Conception, investment, and experimentation take time to implement, and cannot be assessed instantly.”