ArtsATL > Music > News: ASO postpones start of the season; board member criticizes lockout, resigns in protest

News: ASO postpones start of the season; board member criticizes lockout, resigns in protest

The opening of the orchestra's 70th season is threatened. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The opening of the orchestra's 70th season is threatened. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The opening of the orchestra’s 70th season is on hold. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced on Monday that it will delay the opening of its 70th anniversary season, sending patrons a rather downbeat email announcing that it had “regretfully” postponed all concerts — starting with Thursday night’s concert featuring pianist Jeremy Denk — through November 8.

With the musicians locked out of Symphony Hall after failing to reach an agreement on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement, ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein said management made the decision with a great deal of reluctance. “Canceling concerts is the last thing any of us wants to do,” he said in a press release, “but out of respect for our patrons and the many people who play a role in producing the concerts we all enjoy, we feel we have no other choice.”

With a $2.4 million gulf remaining between musicians and management proposals, the two sides have not met since musicians were locked out without pay more than two weeks ago.

Management has now formally requested that both sides meet with a federal mediator, Allison Beck, a deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who recently negotiated for the New York Metropolitan Opera. The musicians have agreed to meet with Beck to discuss the possibility of mediation.

Criticism of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), the ASO’s parent company, is mounting. On Monday, a former ASO board member, Ron Antinori, told ArtsATL that he stepped down from his position last week, saying he felt powerless and had come to the conclusion he could do more to resolve the current standoff as an adviser for the musicians.

Spano and Runnicles, right, expressed their concerns for the future of the ASO.
Spano and Runnicles, right, have expressed concerns about the ASO’s artistic future.

“I didn’t feel that my voice and my opinions as a board member had much of an effect on what was happening,” Antinori said, noting that he did not know that management was planning to lock musicians out until just two days before the deadline for contract negotiations. “I am not privy to what WAC’s motivation is. That’s the elephant in the room. All I know is what I’ve heard: ‘We need to balance the budget.’ Am I suspicious? I honestly just don’t know. There does seem to be a mentality of ‘We don’t care if we destroy the orchestra as long as we balance the budget.’”

ASO management also faced strong words from principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles last week. Runnicles — who coauthored a letter with music director Robert Spano before the lockout that warned, “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed” — told the British newspaper the Guardian that the lockout is about “punishing” the musicians.

“And what on earth has that punishment got to do with two invested parties in a discussion-finding consensus?” Runnicles said. “It’s a one-sided attempt to force the orchestra to its collective knees. It also paints the orchestra as this intransigent group of musicians. But in fact they have shown extraordinary willingness to come to a common agreement, as what happened two years ago proves. The fact that it should have come to a lockout again is simply devastating.”

With musicians and management stuck in a bitter stalemate about the future of the orchestra, a key obstacle to agreement — which neither party seems willing to negotiate on — is management’s refusal to commit to any fixed plan on the size of the orchestra and health-care costs.

The company will not specify in the contract that the ensemble remain a certain size — a move that would break with standard orchestra practice across the nation. While musicians seek to increase the number of players from 88 to 89 by the fourth year, management will not commit to any fixed number at all. 

Management wants sole power to determine whether to replace musicians who leave the orchestra, an issue that is traditionally addressed in the collective bargaining agreement.

The company is also insisting on reserving the right to change any aspect of musicians’ health-care plan at will, rather than have health-care benefits as a part of a negotiated agreement.

Romanstein says he is trying to save the financial health of the orchestra.
Romanstein says the financial health of the orchestra is at stake.

Management argues that the company’s annual $2 million deficit, amid the uncertain economic climate, necessitates a more prudent and flexible approach. “These are the unfortunate economic realities we face,” Romanstein said in a press release. “If we are to have a strong future, we must take care of our business now to make sure we stay in business.”

Musicians, meanwhile, counter that the company’s demands undermine the very point of their contract and are likely to jeopardize the ASO’s standing as a world-class orchestra.

“The cancelation of the season is a deliberate attempt to starve us out and force us into concessions that would undoubtedly reduce the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to the status of a regional orchestra,” Paul Murphy, president of the ASO Players’ Association, said.

After management locked musicians out, Antinori said he invited board members to attend a meeting at his home to brainstorm possible solutions. About a quarter of the ASO’s 60 board members — plus Romanstein and Spano — attended and agreed to commit to end the lockout and persuade ASO board chair Karole Lloyd to support the board members in meeting with WAC. At the end of the meeting, the group committed to pledging $830,000, on top of their annual gifts, toward the ASO.

Buoyed by such a strong initial commitment, Antinori described his subsequent meeting with Lloyd and WAC president and CEO Virginia Hepner as “unsuccessful.” While Lloyd and Hepner agreed to reschedule the board’s canceled quarterly meeting and convene the executive committee to discuss the issues, they would not waver on allowing the musicians back into Symphony Hall. 

“I was just hoping that they might look us in eye and tell us there is a chance to reverse the lockout,” he said. “That’s not the reaction I got, and for me, it was the last straw. “

The WAC's Viriginia Hepner.
The WAC’s Virginia Hepner.

Even with all the negative press, Antinori said, the WAC seems staunchly committed to balancing the budget at all costs. “They don’t care if they’re the bad guys,” he said. “They’re the Darth Vader and yet they keep on insisting on their position. If they destroy the quality of this orchestra, which is considered world-class, I can’t stand behind them on that.”

Through a spokesperson, Lloyd declined to comment, saying that board matters are confidential and she will not be speaking about any of them with the media.

It is very rare, if not unprecedented, for an orchestra to cancel opening night, said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. Typically, management would enter into “play and talk” negotiations with musicians to avoid canceling performances. “Orchestras know it is a huge loss to miss opening night,” Ridge said. “It’s critical to get the audience excited for the opening season, so this is bad business.”

While Atlanta is not the first orchestra to cancel performances after a lock out — orchestras in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Indianapolis canceled shows after locking out musicians in 2012 — this is the first time in decades that Atlanta has canceled opening night.

Two years ago, ASO management locked musicians out for nearly a month, but both sides came to an agreement in time for its first performance of the season. With the company facing a projected $5 million annual budget deficit at the time, management persuaded musicians to accept a 15 percent cut in salary, drop the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduce the length of the season from 52 to 42 weeks.

The mood is more uncompromising now. Musicians argue they have already demonstrated flexibility by agreeing to severe cuts, while management has not upheld its part of the bargain and steered the company to a more stable financial position since the 2012 lockout.

Both sides seem to be preparing for a long lockout. Management has postponed auditions for its vacant principal bass position, as well as Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra auditions. Meanwhile, the locked-out musicians will perform an independent concert, including chamber orchestra works by Bach, Handel and Puccini with guest conductor Mary Hoffman, at Terminal West in West Midtown tonight. While some of the musicians have made plans to take on part-time work with other orchestras around the country, others have set up private businesses over the last two years to ensure they can earn additional income.

Some fear that Atlanta’s lockout may be as protracted as the one in Minneapolis, the longest in orchestral history. In 2012, musicians with the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out for 16 months after refusing to agree with management proposals to cut base wages by nearly a third, from $113,000 to $78,000 a year. The mood was particularly acrimonious, with Osmo Vänskä, the ensemble’s music director, resigning to protest the lockout and even suggesting that the company’s then president, Michael Henson, resign.

“It’s mind-boggling that Atlanta would want to pull a Minnesota, after all the carnage there,” said Ridge, noting that two months after an agreement was negotiated in Minneapolis, the company announced that its president, Henson, would step down. The ensemble’s former music director, Vänskä, then returned on a new two-year contract.

Bruce Ridge says the ASO cannot grow if it diminishes its product.
Bruce Ridge says the ASO may be looking at a long lockout.

In Atlanta, the negotiations are complicated by the fact that the orchestra is run by the Woodruff Arts Center, a nonprofit organization that also serves as the umbrella organization for the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre.

Since the lockout, musicians and their supporters have questioned the financial judgment of its parent company. In a press release last week, the ASO Players’ Association claimed that in 2012 and 2014 the WAC received substantial funds from the sale of two properties and gifts that could have “mitigated or eliminated completely” the orchestra’s annual deficit in those years.

After receiving a $15 million gift from the Woodruff Foundation in November 2011, the musicians noted, the WAC gave $5 million to the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum to retire debt. No funds were allocated to the ASO, which had an accumulated debt of $20 million.

In response, management said the Woodruff Foundation had requested that those funds be specifically directed to retire debts associated with the High and the Alliance. The remaining portion was to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as HVAC and information technology, throughout the entire Woodruff campus.

As musicians began to negotiate with management in early 2014, the WAC sold the 14th Street Playhouse for $1.9 million. Musicians have questioned why the WAC donated $1 million to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta (CFGA) to support local nonprofit arts groups rather than use the funds from the sale to address the orchestra’s deficit.

Randy Donaldson, a spokesman for Woodruff, said management gave proceeds of the sale to the CFGA — an organization for which Hepner serves as an investment committee member — because that organization donated the property to the WAC in the early 1990s. The remaining $900,000 was retained for the arts divisions of the Woodruff to support up-and-coming local artists. Given the history of the donation, “it only seemed right and fair to give money back to the community,” Donaldson said. 

In April 2014, after selling the 14th Street property that was supposed to have housed the new symphony hall, the WAC decided to use $4.5 million to prepay loans associated with the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre. Musicians have questioned why those payments, scheduled to take place over four years, were prioritized over ASO’s deficit.

All proceeds of the sale, approximately $21 million, were used to pay off debt. Such debt reduction efforts, Donaldson said, will ultimately benefit the symphony, adding $1 million annually in reduced interest and principal expenses. “Any different application of sales proceeds would be a short-term, stopgap measure that would not address the systemic deficits affecting the ASO,” he added.

The musicians also noted that the ASO received additional anonymous gifts totaling $3.1 million during the last fiscal year. One gift, management said, was applied to fund specific expenses in the 2014 ASO budget, which reduced the deficit to $2 million. Another, larger portion came about because a long-term donor, who had supported the ASO with gifts of about $250,000 to $300,000 a year, terminated a trust and indicated that the annual gifts would no longer continue. The ASO board decided to devote the donor’s regular annual gift amount of $300,000 to the 2014 budget, setting aside the remainder for future years.

 “The bottom line is this: the leadership of the arts center wants financial and artistic success for the ASO,” said Donaldson. “Any implication to the contrary is absolutely wrong.”

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