For Atlanta’s classical music scene, the latter part of 2014 was dominated by the nine-week lockout of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center. The second lockout in two years, it proved a rocky time for the orchestra’s musicians and a critical point in the history of Atlanta’s classical music community, closely observed and reported upon by local, national and international media. It also became a hot topic on the internet in both the blogosphere and across social media.
It was a critical point not simply because of the locally unprecedented degree of conflict between arts labor and governance, and the all-too-tangible human toll it has taken; nor for the deeply debatable tensions between artistic excellence and financial restraint, which are ever ongoing. Rather, it was a significant signpost at a crossroads of thinking about how the city’s arts should move forward: whether to continue putting more and more cultural eggs in a singular, centralized institutional basket or to pursue instead a kind of balkanization by which the fate of the city’s major artistic exponents is no longer so firmly held in one fist. How that thinking will manifest remains uncertain as the new year begins with those challenges looming.
The first half of 2014 had been a hopeful, artistically bright time for the ASO, including an all–Ralph Vaughan Williams concert by the orchestra and its chorus in late February, led by music director Robert Spano, which was subsequently recorded and released on CD. Although its September 9 release was terribly ill-timed — just two days after the Woodruff Arts Center management’s lockout of the orchestra began — that recording and an all-Sibelius CD released in November last year were both nominated for Grammy Awards. The final round of voting by eligible academy members is currently in process.
In a unique move, Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles graced the stage on the latter’s first appearance of the season, sharing the podium as conductors and performing together as duo pianists. The performance was also a memorial tribute to ASO contrabassist Doug Sommer, who died of cancer on February 27.
The ASO and Chorus also presented a beautifully rendered performance of Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem in late April, led by Spano, which toured to New York City, performing to great acclaim as part of Carnegie Hall’s centenary celebration of Britten birth, itself a part of the Britten 100 celebrations world-wide.
Also early this year, Atlanta Symphony named Joseph Young as its assistant conductor, as well as new music director of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, replacing longtime ASYO director Jere Flint. Flint had also been an ASO staff conductor and one of the orchestra’s section cellists for 47 years.
Young came on board in June and conducted a combined pro-youth concert plus several outdoor concerts at Piedmont Park and Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta. With the ASO lockout beginning in September, all of the ASO conductors were “off-podium” while it persisted.
The ASO returned to the stage with its chorus in mid-November for a belated and rocky start to its 70th season, presenting only two subscription concerts with repertoire that diverged from the original plans for those weeks before turning attention to a “sci-fi”-themed pops concert and annual holiday concerts.
The Atlanta Opera continued to show its developing worth as a regional company under new general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun and music director Arthur Fagen, with performances of Gounod’s Faust and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the early part of the year, then, in the fall, the first production entirely planned by Zvulun since his arrival last year, a fairly traditional rendition of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
The company’s 2014–15 season opened, however, with a celebration of the 25th anniversary season of Atlanta’s chorus master Walter Huff, with concerts of opera choruses at Emory University’s Schwartz Center and Kennesaw State’s Bailey Performance Center.
In the chamber music scene, Atlanta Chamber Players experienced a profound but smooth transition of artistic leadership from founding director-pianist Paula Peace to incoming director-pianist Elizabeth Pridgen. Both Peace’s final concert and Pridgen’s debut as artistic director were high points for the ensemble this year.
Peachtree String Quartet also experienced change as the summer came around, losing cellist Jennifer Humphreys when she departed for Texas to play in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. This fall, the quartet played one pair of identical concerts to open the new season, each to good reception, in suburban Duluth and their Atlanta home venue of Peachtree Hills Recreation Center, with cellist Karen Freer replacing Humphreys.
In contemporary music, Atlanta-based composer Alvin Singleton was elected to membership in the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of the highest honors awarded in the arts in the United States. Another highlight of the year for Singleton was the subsequent release of Sweet Chariot, the most recent CD of his compositions.
Robert Spano expanded his presence as one of Atlanta’s notable composers in cloth, a summer collaboration with choreographer Lauri Stallings and her glo creative entourage, to critical acclaim, performed at the Goat Farm Arts Center’s Goodson Yard in September.
Bent Frequency launched its “Duo Project” in February with percussionist Stuart Gerber and saxophonist Jan Berry Baker. Baker and Gerber toured 10 newly commissioned works for the duo, performing them in over 20 concerts across the United States. In May, they were also ensemble-in-residence at the Tage Aktueller Musik festival in Nuremburg, Germany.
In April, the entire Bent Frequency ensemble of musicians were artists-in-residence at Sam Houston State University’s Contemporary Music Festival. At home, the group’s collaborative concert with Chicago’s Spektral Quartet in early December was a highlight of the hometown season.
Also on the touring scene, in February, high-tech contemporary music ensemble Sonic Generator made its first international appearance joining forces with members of the Orchestre national de Lorraine and conductor Jacques Mercier at the Arsenal Concert Hall in Metz, France. Sonic Generator ended its season with a riveting concert at Ericson Clock. But, alas, there were no Sonic Generator concerts scheduled in the fall — possibly another casualty of the ASO lockout, with three shared musicians obliged to seek temporary out-of-town work.
In another turn for the city’s classical music fans at large, radio listeners of WABE 90.1 FM’s classical music-focused programming became upset late this year by the decision to cut its classical music programming on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and replace it with news and talk shows. While the station has contemplated increasing its news content for years, they hit the accelerator after Georgia Public Broadcasting took over daytime programming on Georgia State University’s WRAS 88.5 FM, replacing student disc jockeys with a news/talk format.
The move by GPB and GSU controversially crossed a long-observed “demilitarized zone” among area broadcasters by directly entering Atlanta’s public radio market. Longtime residents know that the political rifts between city and state public broadcasting entities is many decades old, and what some observers have long suggested — a unified approach that would merge the two — remains nowhere in sight.