ArtsATL > Music > With ASO musicians everywhere but Atlanta, it’s summertime blues for classical fans

With ASO musicians everywhere but Atlanta, it’s summertime blues for classical fans

ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles is at Grand Teton this summer.
ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles is at Grand Teton this summer.
ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles is at the Grand Teton Music Festival this summer.

On July 6, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performed at Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. It was the orchestra’s last concert together until late September, when the new subscription season begins.

For the musicians, looking forward to a few weeks off is one thing, but an unpaid work hiatus of 2½ months is something else. If you’re a highly skilled orchestral musician, especially one with a mortgage to pay, where do you turn in metro Atlanta for summer work?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you look elsewhere. For some, a partial answer comes in playing at summer music festivals in other states. Grand Teton, Bellingham, Cabrillo and Wintergreen are among the festivals where ASO musicians are playing in orchestras this summer.

“To be honest, musicians have been going off to play summer festivals for years, but now they are much more actively seeking these things, because of the lack of any kind of summer season in Atlanta,” said Paul Murphy, the ASO’s associate principal viola and president of its players’ association, speaking by telephone from the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “One person I know used to come here for three weeks; now she’s staying for seven weeks. Why not? She might as well keep playing. That’s one of the things that is important — to stay in shape during an extended time away and to still have the musical inspiration.”

Ten ASO musicians are on Grand Teton roster this year. ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles is the festival’s music director. The music is serious, full-bodied symphonic fare.

“Musicians have more time to do festivals because there’s no work in Atlanta, so they can commit for more weeks,” said ASO violinist Christopher Pulgram by phone the day after the Reinhardt concert. Pulgram was en route to the Wintergreen Festival of Music in Virginia, where he is concertmaster. “In the 20 years I’ve been in the ASO, the longest that we’ve ever not played together [has been] three weeks. You can’t help but wonder how it’s going to feel when we do get back together. It’s hard to know.”

In an email, Murphy noted that in the years before the ASO labor dispute and lockout last year, its players had a 52-week contract with eight weeks of vacation. He said eight weeks is not unusual and that the musicians, who typically play a six-day workweek, need the time off to recuperate and heal from physical strains and injuries. Under their new contract, the musicians took a 10-week cut in paid workweeks and the paid vacation weeks were cut in half.

With the ASO not performing together for so long, it puts an enormous whammy on the city’s summer symphonic and classical music scene, because the ASO is the 400-pound gorilla in the room which used to make it happen. University venues are essentially shut down. Community orchestras and wind ensembles don’t fill the yawning gap. It’s also harder for Atlanta’s better-known chamber groups to hold classical summer concerts, because so many involve the very ASO musicians who are turning to out-of-state festivals.

Paula Peace, artistic director of the Atlanta Chamber Players, and her husband Michael Moore, the ASO’s principal tuba, are in Mexico this summer, in the colonial mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, an UNESCO World Heritage Site north of Mexico City. Peace is consulting for the big chamber music festival there, while finishing season planning for the ACP. Moore has taken along his small “practice tuba” to stay in shape, and he occasionally sits in with local jazz musicians, many of whom are U.S. expatriates. Both Peace and Moore are using the Internet to keep up with necessary day-to-day administrative work for their “back home” ensembles and projects.

Speaking by Internet phone, Moore said, “Given the long weeks off from the ASO, it is actually cheaper to be here in Mexico.”

Moore reminisced about how, years ago, the summer symphonic scene in Atlanta was radically different. “If it was a summer Sunday evening, you could usually expect to hear the ASO in Piedmont Park,” where its concerts would draw between 10,000 and 30,000 people. With the ASO summer series gone, he said, “musicians are sharing their talent elsewhere.”

This year, for the first time in six years, the ASO played two concerts in Piedmont Park, but in May and in the park’s promenade area, which has a capacity of around 3,000 people, far less than previous summer concerts on the park’s expansive south lawns.

ASO principal trombonist Colin Williams is playing with the New York Philharmonic for its summer half-season, which essentially falls within the 10-week break in the ASO season. During July, Williams played park concerts in the five New York boroughs and the orchestra’s residency at the Bravo! Music Festival in Vail, Colorado.

“I’m struck by how many people show up for those concerts and how well received and well supported that whole enterprise is,” Williams said of the park concerts. “It’s a big deal for the New York Philharmonic. One of the best ways to get to know your city is to go out and play for people in unticketed outdoor events. It’s one of the most important civic functions for an orchestra.”

ASO musicians have talked about the loss of summer park concerts, community performances at metro-area churches and community facilities, at Chastain Amphitheater and — at what was intended to be the orchestra’s summer home, in the manner of a Tanglewood — the Verizon Amphitheatre, where the ASO played only two summer concerts, on June 30 and July 5, before the 10-week break began. One other summer tradition absent this year is the ASO’s participation in the National Black Arts Festival with a community concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church, consistently a sold-out event. This is the first year that it will not take place.

“There has been a general degradation of our summer season over the last four or five years,” Murphy said, adding that he doesn’t know how much is attributable to market conditions, how much to lack of creativity in scheduling or how much to sheer lack of funding.

“There’s little opportunity for citizens of Atlanta to go and listen to great classical music,” Pulgram said. “I think that’s really sad. What is a person who loves classical music supposed to do for all those weeks?”

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