With Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management determined to halt a decade of deficit operations in 2012, its locked-out musicians grudgingly agreed to a contract in which their pay was cut by an average of 14 percent and their full-time ranks were trimmed from 95 to 88.
The second ASO musician lockout in two years is again about money — salary, benefits, number of weeks of employment for the musicians; balanced books for management. But an equally big issue, looming larger this time, is the orchestra’s size.
Seeking a sustainable operating model, management wants to control the number of musicians (or, to employ the industry phrase, “the complement”) going forward. The players protest that making the orchestra any smaller will destroy its sound, and say they don’t trust ASO leadership with power over such a sensitive matter.
Among the several major areas of disagreement between the two sides, who made little progress in forging a deal in eight months of bargaining prior to the lockout, this could be a key one in potentially delaying the opening of the 70th anniversary season on Sept. 25.
The dispute has drawn national attention because of the ongoing travails of the orchestral industry and because the Woodruff Arts Center is the Southeast’s largest art entity, a nonprofit with its administration and four divisions operating on a combined $90 million budget that attracts 1.2 million to its Midtown campus yearly. The Woodruff dominates arts funding in a city with only three independent arts organizations with budgets topping $2 million: Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Opera and the Center for Puppetry Arts.
Still, the Woodruff has had trouble balancing the ASO’s world-class ambitions and its poor financial performance, causing the arts center’s overall credit rating to be downgraded last year.
“We’re all tired of hearing that management wants to maintain this orchestra as a world-class orchestra,” said Daniel Laufer, an ASO cellist and ASO Players Association negotiating committee member. “You can’t (cut) this orchestra any further. Either you try to maintain it and grow it back in the direction from where we came, or it’s over — it’s not the same orchestra any more.”
At issue is a management proposal in which ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein would negotiate with music director Robert Spano and Players Association representatives on whether and how positions would be filled as they come open. In cases where a consensus could not be reached, Romanstein would have the final say.
His unique proposal is not modeled on an arrangement at another major American orchestra, where typically the complement is set — and the number fiercely protected by the musicians — in the collective bargaining agreement.
Romanstein admits that it and other aspects of the ASO’s final offer before the prior contract expired are “different approaches than other orchestras have taken” but characterizes them as “courageous.”
“The (musicians’) fear is ‘Oh, they’re trying to negotiate the orchestra down to some small number,’” Romanstein said. “Not true in any sense. We’re simply asking for a strategic and thoughtful conversation about how we manage the size of the complement. It’s the same thing we do with any staff opening.”
Except symphonic musicians hold their combined sound as sacrosanct.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association president Paul Murphy said he believed the musicians had “managed to maintain” its critically praised sound despite the reductions of the last two years.
“But we’re at that threshold now,” the associate principal violist quickly added. “If they cut any further, it really will start to impact the artistic level.”
Murphy said fewer players demands a greater workload for every musician. “For instance in the viola section, we had 11, now we’re down to eight,” he said. “And that means fewer times where you’re rotated off, there’s more playing, you have to produce a bigger sound and make up for less players. It promotes a greater physical strain,” risking stress injuries. The ASO’s bass section also is “woefully short,” down from eight to five, Murphy said.
Even though conductors are typically neutral parties in orchestra labor disputes, ASO music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles addressed the complement’s size straight on in an open letter issued just before the contract deadline.
“There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed,” they wrote. “We must re-dedicate ourselves to the ASO’s founding principles of excellence and to the support of a full, robust, and world-class symphony orchestra.”
Freelance classical music critic James Paulk, who writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and classical music publications, said he’s “wrestled in my own mind” for two years over whether if the ASO’s sound has suffered from the shrinkage.
“If you’re playing Mozart, it shouldn’t matter at all, as you would normally not use anything close to 88 musicians, or 75 for that matter,” Paulk said. “But for Wagner, Mahler and the other big Romantic and Modern works, it becomes a factor. The sound from a bigger orchestra is more elegant and richer, with a deeper tone.”
By comparison to Atlanta’s complement of 88, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians issued a letter of support for their ASO peers this week that included a sharp rebuke of the ASO’s administration, has a contracted size of 106 full-time players. The Cleveland Orchestra, still known for the robust sound that the late George Szell built as he expanded its ranks as music director more than a half-century ago, has 104.
The Minnesota Orchestra, which underwent a 16-month lockout that caused an entire season to be lost and led to the departure of musicians and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, is playing with 77 full-time musicians this season because it could not audition for and fill open positions quickly enough. Its agreement signed in January calls for it to rise to a full complement of 95 musicians over the three-year deal.
Even if a contract is forged in time for the season here to start on time, the ASO’s full-time ranks will be at a reduced number. Because of defections, retirements and deaths, the orchestra now has 78 musicians under contract. An ASO spokesman said substitute musicians will be used to fill in when required by individual pieces of music.
Meanwhile, ASO management has postponed all auditions until the dispute is resolved.
Romanstein denies that he has a set number in mind for the ASO’s complement, saying that it would simply “give us great flexibility in how we hire and under what circumstances we hire. If it’s a position we need to fill right away … OK. But what we have now is a fixed number in the contract and when there is an opening, we are legally obligated to make a full-time hire for that position right away, (with) lots of rules and regulations governing how we do that.
“We want to be responsible financially; we also want to support the art,” he continued. “And we think that flexibility could position us in a very different way to keep those things in balance.”
ASO Players Association negotiators believe Romanstein has targeted a number far less than 88 and say they aren’t buying the idea of him controlling the orchestra’s size.
In fact, the musicians’ final proposal before negotiations broke off was to increase the complement over the next four years to 89.
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