Your Guide To The Arts In Atlanta

It took a moment to get over the surprise. Here’s what the ASO’s media relations department posted on Facebook today:

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Happy 60th Birthday to Maestro Yoel Levi, Music Director Emeritus of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra! Still making wonderful inspiring music.

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Levi has been persona non grata with the ASO’s management for most of the past decade. His photos did not appear in ASO publications or on its office walls, although his predecessor’s (Robert Shaw) and successor’s (Robert Spano) were usually prominent. Although Levi had been named music director emeritus, his name had vanished from concert playbills. Rather than celebrate Levi’s role in developing the orchestra, and the fact that he still lives in Sandy Springs and remains embedded in the community, the ASO seemed to hope the conductor would just go away.

That attitude reversed 180 degrees with the arrival of Stanley Romanstein as the ASO’s new president. This is from a June 28 profile:

Romanstein follows in the wide wake left by Allison Vulgamore, who left Atlanta in December after 16 bruising years of exhilarating growth and controversy. She is now president of the Philadelphia Orchestra — one of the most storied ensembles in classical music but suffering, like most American orchestras, from a severe financial crisis.

Romanstein arrived in Atlanta focusing almost entirely on the positive. “When you’re the new guy, you can ask a lot of questions without seeming to have an agenda,” he says.

Among the most heated topics is the noisy departure, after 12 years, of former music director Yoel Levi, some of whose fans accused the ASO administration of anti-Semitism. Levi’s tenure as music director ended in the spring of 2000, and for two seasons after he led a pair of concert programs. Then he vanished, as if he’d never been there. In recent years Levi has conducted the Atlanta Opera several times, worked with his suburban Paris orchestra in France and guest conducted internationally.

“The only blemish on the ASO record came at the tail end of Levi’s tenure,” Romanstein offers matter-of-factly. “I’d like to meet the guy. He played an essential role in shaping this orchestra, and if there was a rift between [the ASO] and Atlanta’s Jewish community, or perceptions of arrogance on our part, we’ll work to repair them. We’ll do it by talking about shared values, about what the ASO brings to the community writ large.” (Everyone interviewed for this article who shared an opinion said the rift was caused by clashing artistic goals or personalities; no one cited anti-Semitism as having played any role in Levi’s departure.)

The ASO in 2010: conductor Robert Spano, president Romanstein and board chairman Ben Johnson

After that profile appeared in the AJC, Romanstein told me he had indeed invited Levi to lunch, and the conductor promptly accepted. What’s so surprising was Romanstein’s openness in discussing the ASO’s strained relationship with Atlanta’s affluent Jewish community, members of which once supported the orchestra financially in a big way — until the Levi debacle.

It’s the most sensitive subject on the local arts scene, and even mentioning it is likely to be misconstrued by some. But with a debt that’s projected to reach $8 million within a year, Romanstein admits that the ASO needs to heal old wounds and cultivate its friends. Hence shout-outs like today’s Facebook message.

As he told me, “There’s a concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, or repairing the world. We have an obligation to try and fix the broken pieces. That’s what social justice is about. That’s what strong leadership is about. I have a fundamental interest in bringing people together, not building walls.” What’s not being discussed is an invitation for Levi to conduct his old orchestra.