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Locked out ASO musicians picket in front of a sign advertising shows that may not take place. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

Locked out ASO musicians picket in front of a sign advertising shows that may not take place. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

With less than two weeks before the opening night of a new season, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra would usually file into Symphony Hall this week with violins and bassoons, trombones and flutes for rehearsals. 

Instead, they spent the past week standing outside, holding placards that said, “No More Cuts” and “Excellence not Negotiable,” in front of an electronic billboard that advertises concerts that seem less and less likely to happen.

Alcides Rodriguez, a clarinetist who joined the picket one morning at rush hour, said he has already made plans to leave Atlanta to play Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 for the New York Philharmonic later this month — one of several ASO musicians who have agreed to perform with other orchestras this fall. “Even if the Atlanta symphony season does start, I won’t be here for opening night,” he said. “I get the feeling this is going to be a long battle.”

More than a week after the ASO management locked out musicians after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, there has been no move — from either party — to continue negotiations. Not only is there a $2.4 million gulf between the company and its ensemble, but the two sides are locked in an entrenched power struggle about the kind of orchestra they want to emerge from a new contract. 

Musicians say that the company’s managers have ditched the orchestra’s core mission, outlined by its board of directors in 1998, “to build on our foundation of artistic excellence.” They also accuse management of failing to deliver on promises it made in 2012, after that year’s lockout, to steer the company to financial health. 

Management, meanwhile, says the current business model — with the orchestra generating an annual $22 million in expenses yet only $18 million in revenue — is simply unsustainable. Its “last, best and final” offer requires musicians to adopt a more flexible attitude to the size of the orchestra and the terms of their health-care coverage contributions.

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

Romanstein says he is trying to secure the financial health of the orchestra.

As the days pass, both sides seem to be digging in their heels. Musicians say management has not responded to its latest contract proposal, but merely invited them to submit a new one. A spokesman for management said there is “virtually no difference between musicians’ first proposal and their last” — a claim the musicians dispute.

A major sticking point — one the musicians say they are unwilling to negotiate on — is management’s refusal to commit to a certain size of the orchestra. This would break with decades of U.S. orchestral history; all of the nation’s top companies have long specified the number of musicians in their collective bargaining agreements. Under the management proposal, the company’s president and CEO, Stanley Romanstein, would have final say on whether to fill orchestra vacancies.

Romanstein, who declined requests for an interview last week, has said he is simply searching for a more “prudent” approach: under management’s proposal, any time a musician retired or departed, Romanstein would engage in a strategic conversation with music director Robert Spano about the importance of the vacant position. Romanstein, however, would hold the ultimate decision-making power.

With bad faith and resentment already high after the musicians agreed to decrease the size of the orchestra in 2012, they fear that would become a tool to cut the ranks of full-time players. “If we drop any lower, we won’t be able to put on a full range of performances,” said Daniel Laufer, associate principal cellist and a negotiator with the Players’ Association. “They say, ‘Trust us, depending on the budget we’ll hire people.’ We don’t trust them.”

Kevin Case, a Chicago arts labor attorney, said that ASO management’s demand to change such significant conditions of employment at will amounts to a clear case of union busting. “If one party is unilaterally determining the terms and conditions of employment, it defeats the whole purpose of having a collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “It makes the contract meaningless.”

Jessica Oudin

Jessica Oudin

After having agreed to severe cuts in pay and the size of the orchestra in 2012, musicians argue that management’s proposal will further erode the orchestra’s standing as a world class orchestra. In its nearly 70-year history, under such esteemed music directors as Robert Shaw and now Spano, the ASO has gained worldwide acclaim and recorded more than 100 albums and racked up 27 Grammy Awards in such categories as Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance.

“Management doesn’t seem to want to make any sort of commitment to upholding high artistic standards,” said Jessica Oudin, a violist on the ASO Players’ Association’s negotiating committee. Oudin emphasized that the division between musicians is not just financial but philosophical. “Those entrusted with the future of the orchestra don’t seem to have a vision that would support its growth.”

In an unusual move before the lockout, Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles authored an open letter that expressed concern about the orchestra’s artistic future. “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.”

Atlanta is by no means the first orchestra in recent years to be locked out — two years ago, in Minnesota, musicians were locked out for 16 months — but it is extremely rare for musicians to face two lockouts in as many years.

 “What is so stunning is that management would go down this path again,” said Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. “Management got what they wanted last time. They forced musicians to make cuts, yet still they couldn’t make it work. Musicians feel betrayed.” 

In a press statement, the ASO Players’ Association accused the Woodruff Arts Center, the nonprofit that serves as the umbrella organization for the orchestra, of “manipulating” funds earned and donated to the ASO to “force” the company to continue to post deficits. 

Randy Donaldson, a WAC spokesman, called this “totally laughable.” The WAC, he said, provided $3.7 million in support to the ASO last year — $2.6 million in absorbing costs for shared services and another $1.1 million in a funding allocation. “These numbers don’t include the fact that the ASO’s budget includes no assessment for rent,” he added.

Much of musicians’ ire has focused on Romanstein, whom they claim has broken promises made during the first lockout to restore financial stability to the orchestra. They have also questioned why Romanstein received a $45,000 bonus on top of his $335,000 salary in 2012, just before musicians’ pay was cut. 

GSU's Seaman says the ASO financial picture is "frightening."

GSU’s Seaman says the ASO financial picture is “frightening.”

In 2012, the ASO faced an accumulated deficit of $23 million and a projected annual budget deficit of $5 million. Management eventually persuaded musicians to accept a $14,000 annual cut in salary, dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the season from 52 to 42 weeks. Those cuts, musicians say, have already taken a toll, with an unusually high number of musicians who have parted ways with the orchestra, either to retire or to take on positions with other companies. 

With management declining to commit to any fixed size of the orchestra over the next four years, musicians say they are left to 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 — to 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, yet however good they are, musicians argue that an orchestra filled with part-time players cannot develop the intense musical rapport required for a top-tier symphony. 

“I can understand why both sides are really nervous,” said Bruce Seaman, associate professor of economics at the Nonprofit Studies Program in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, who described the company’s financial picture as “frightening.” 

In such a situation, Seaman said, the long-term solution for management would be to explore creative forms of community outreach and audience development and find alternative sources of revenue, while asking for more sacrifices from musicians in the short-term. Yet after the severe cuts and implicit promises already made in 2012, he added, the company would be unwise to put all the burden on musicians.

“If the cuts are too draconian, there’s a risk of a downward spiral,” Seaman said. “You’re not going to solve the problem by reducing the size of the orchestra.”

Both sides, Seaman said, should evaluate with open minds and resist the temptation to be too alarmist. While some cuts might have to be made, orchestras cannot perform a full repertoire without a critical mass. “If there are only 55 players in the orchestra, is it really credible to suddenly hire 40 part-timers to play ‘Ode to Joy’? On the other hand, it might be reasonable to have 23 players in the string section instead of 25.” 

Across the country, many orchestras are contending with financial issues. According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey, the number of adults across the country who attended at least one classical music event a year dropped from 11.6 percent in 2002 to 8.8 percent in 2012. This summer, the New York Metropolitan Opera only narrowly managed to avert a lockout. With unions resisting management plans to cut musicians’ pay by 17 percent, the Met extended its deadline and brought in independent financial experts to mediate a four-year contract. Musicians eventually agreed to take an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, another 3.5 percent cut in six months and then a 3 percent pay increase in the second half of the fourth year.

After being silent during the 2012 lockout, Spano wrote an open letter last week saying the orchestra's artistic integrity should not be compromised.

After being silent during the 2012 lockout, Spano wrote an open letter last week saying the orchestra’s artistic integrity should not be compromised.

Yet not every orchestra is facing a decline in attendance or contributions. In 2013, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated record levels of attendance and fundraising, receiving the two largest gifts in its history, totaling $32 million. Even some orchestras that have struggled are now rebounding. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which locked out its musicians in 2012 before reaching a new agreement that cut musician salaries by 32 percent, recently reported substantial growth in ticket sales and subscriptions. The Cleveland Orchestra, which experienced a labor strike in 2010, announced a balanced budget in 2013, as well as growing audiences and an increased endowment. Even the Louisville Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy nearly four years ago, reported a $20,000 budget surplus last month. 

In Atlanta, musicians represent about 25 percent of the total ASO budget. According to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, that is substantially lower than the top orchestras around the country, which average about 40 percent. In contrast to Atlanta, ICSOM claims, musicians in Houston, Dallas and St. Louis represent 43, 33 and 45 percent of their respective orchestras’ total budgets.

After the 2012 cuts, Atlanta musicians slid to the bottom rung of the nation’s leading orchestras in terms of take-home pay, according to ICSOM. After the 2012 cuts, Atlanta musicians took home less pay than their counterparts in other leading orchestras around the country. This last year, they earned $76,000, while musicians in Dallas and Houston earned $91,000 and $87,000, according to ICSOM. 

Atlanta also has one of the smallest ensemble sizes and is the only one to agree to a permanent reduction. Many, like the New York Metropolitan, the New York Philharmonic and Boston, have stayed the same. Some, like Baltimore and Indianapolis, have agreed to temporary reductions. Others, like Dallas and Houston, have actually expanded in size. 

While the managers of the ASO have yet to formally cancel opening night, they have postponed today’s quarterly board meeting. Already, the company has lost the support of several donors. After a barrage of criticism on the ASO’s Facebook page, the company disabled comments and cited “unrelenting personal attacks on our management and our staff.”

Tonight at 6:30 p.m., in support of the musicians, the ASO Chorus will gather in front of the Woodruff Arts Center and sing a portion of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a work scheduled for the upcoming season. 

Meanwhile, musicians have received an outpouring of support from ensembles across the country. On Wednesday, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra voted to send $16,000 to Atlanta — and many of Atlanta’s players are now making plans to play for orchestras across the country over the coming months. A number of companies, including the Minnesota Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra and the National Symphony, have offered to hire ASO musicians as temporary players even stretching out into 2015. 

Standing on Peachtree Street last week, William Wilder, 67, assistant principal percussionist who has played with the orchestra for 45 years, said he would not be traveling to work elsewhere. After watching the orchestra grow from a 36-week to 52-week season over the decades, and then seeing it start to decline, he feels resolved to fight for its future.

“This dispute is not just about money,” he said, noting that he was already eligible for social security and retirement. “This is about supporting the idea of artistic excellence and upholding Robert Shaw’s vision of Atlanta having a world-class orchestra.”

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