With little more than a week before the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s next scheduled concert, musicians and management resumed talks with a federal mediator today in a bid to resolve their long and acrimonious labor dispute.
The players have been locked out of symphony facilities without pay for nearly nine weeks now, and the future of the season is uncertain. Two weeks ago, negotiations faltered with the musicians accusing management of leaving the table, and management warning that it would soon be forced to cancel more performances.
Since then, the ASO Players’ Association has offered further concessions, prompting management to set up another appointment with mediator Richard Giacolone of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. As musicians and management return to the table, there is a glimmer of a chance that they could reach an agreement before November 13, when music director Robert Spano is scheduled to conduct the orchestra and chorus in Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.”
Already, the two sides have come to a tentative resolution on health care. They have inched a little closer on wages: while management has not budged from its initial proposal of a 4 percent pay rise over the course of four years, the musicians have lowered their demand from 15 to 11 percent. The core issue remains the size of the orchestra.
The musicians are anxious to bolster up the ensemble, which was cut from 95 to 88 members in 2012, and has been reduced to 76 over the last two years after a spate of retirements and departures to other orchestras. Until two weeks ago, management refused to agree to any fixed size — a move that would break with standard orchestral practice across the nation. With the ASO suffering from a $2 million annual deficit, amid waning ticket sales and donations, management has argued that the current situation is unsustainable.
During the last round of negotiations with federal mediators, representatives of the ASO’s parent company, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), committed to maintaining the size of the orchestra at its current level of 76 for the next four years — a move that they said guaranteed no musician would lose his job. It is unclear how fixed the size of the orchestra would remain: if any musician retired or departed, management would decide whether to replace players on a case-by-case basis. Traditionally, it is addressed in the collective bargaining agreement.
The ASO Players’ Association countered on October 27 with a proposal that would maintain the size of the ensemble at 77 in the first year of a new contract, and offer management the flexibility to make “best efforts” to gradually increase it to 81 by the end of the second year. After that, it would require the orchestra rise to a minimum of 84 by the end of the third year and 88 by the end of the fourth year.
Until now, management has only agreed to extend its “best efforts” to increasing the number of musicians “as we can afford to do so.” During the last mediation effort, Tom Kilpatrick, WAC’s attorney and lead negotiator, assured musicians that management would commit to undertaking a major fundraising campaign to create endowed chairs in an attempt to build the orchestra up to 90 players.
With no fixed commitment to building up the orchestra, however, musicians say they can only speculate on what might happen. Some note that management is also proposing a voluntary early retirement incentive of $150,000 for experienced, tenured players who make up about a third of the company’s existing ensemble.
Management has argued that the early retirement offer, which would be paid for by a private donor, will not impact the orchestra’s repertoire, and that the company would simply bring in more part-time players. Already, the ASO has relied more on substitutes since 2012. The musicians argue that no matter how good part-time players are, an orchestra that relied too heavily on them would not be able to maintain the intense musical rapport required for a world-class orchestra.
“Management’s plan would reduce us to a small-town orchestra,” said Paul Murphy, a violist and president of the ASO Players’ Association, noting that the musicians were already feeling the strain after a wave of retirements and departures. “We need more of a commitment to building the orchestra back up.”
The musicians also propose that their annual base pay climb from its current level of about $76,000 to about $86,000 in 2018, noting that is still nearly $2,500 less than their 2012 wages. Management has presented the musicians as adequately compensated. Last month, Kilpatrick wrote in a letter to Murphy that the musicians’ previous proposal would add almost $10,000 to each musician’s base pay, excluding benefits, by the end of the fourth year. He also noted that the average musicians pay is $112,000, with some musicians earning more than $200,000.
“We believe that our current offer is more than generous under the circumstances for 38 weeks of work and four weeks of paid vacation,” Kilpatrick wrote.
As the two sides enter the latest round of negotiations — starting today, and continuing Thursday, if necessary — many of the ASO’s musicians are scattered around the country. Since the lockout, orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra have offered ASO players part-time work. The ASO’s principal flute, Christina Smith, has just ended a European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Last month, ASO management delayed the opening of its 70th anniversary season, canceling its opening night, featuring pianist Jeremy Denk, and all concerts through November 8. Since then, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the folk singer and songwriter, canceled her ASO Presents concert at Symphony Hall in a gesture of solidarity with the locked out musicians.
On November 13, Spano is scheduled to lead the orchestra in one of the ASO’s signature pieces, Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.” Their 2002 recording of the piece won a Grammy for Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance. Later in the month, Spano is billed to conduct an ASO premiere of the Third Symphony by Atlanta composer Richard Prior, as well as the Second Suite from Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The orchestra is also supposed to host a “Sci-Fi Spectacular,” with conductor Jack Everly, featuring music from Star Wars, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.