What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was deep into crippling contract negotiations that resulted in a nine-week musician lockout and the delay of its 70th anniversary season.
But as the ASO prepares to open its 71st season on Thursday, with musical director Robert Spano conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, all signs point to, well, a resurrection.
After all that contractual “sturm und drang,” the ASO ended up finishing last season with its first surplus in 11 years, administrators for the orchestra and its parent nonprofit, the Woodruff Arts Center, trumpeted this summer. Management announced at the same time that it is more than halfway to its $25 million goal to endow musician positions that would rebuild the ASO’s full-time ranks back to 88.
And just last week, the orchestra announced the appointment of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Jennifer Barlament as its executive director.
Opening night will begin with a red carpet welcome for patrons, followed by a champagne toast to ring in the season.
Given the distance the musicians, management and board members have traversed in the past 12 months, they should be handing out champagne bottles instead of flutes.
“Many of us sense renewed energy, passion and dedication toward our orchestra from our ASO board, the Woodruff Arts Center leadership and the Atlanta community,” Daniel Laufer, president of the ASO Players Association, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The fundraising efforts and results to date have been real evidence that our community has renewed confidence in our orchestra and that building a stronger financial foundation for the ASO is a sound investment to make for now and into the future.”
On what was to be opening night last year, the future looked not nearly so bright. The musicians wore black, appropriate for the funeral-like silent protest dubbed “A Deafening Silence” that they joined outside the Woodruff Arts Center — so close yet so far from Symphony Hall.
The protest signs hoisted by the swelling crowd of musician supporters bore messages such as “End the lockout. Start the music” and “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.”
The second lockout in two years was only 3 weeks old at that point, put in place by the Woodruff Arts Center, which was determined to dam what seemed to be an unending stream of red ink.
The lockout continued six more long weeks before federal mediators finally helped the sides forge a four-year-pact that trimmed the orchestra’s ranks to 77 full-time players but required management to build back to 88 by the contract’s final year. The musicians went to the mat over the size issue, arguing that long-term reductions would turn an orchestra on the rise into a minor-league ensemble.
Even with the ink barely dry on the collective bargaining agreement, Spano insisted that the 2014-15 season begin immediately.
As happy as everyone was to have concerts after the months of discord, critics noted that the ASO sounded a bit rough in the early going. That was understandable: The ensemble was playing at even less than the reduced complement of 77, with some players having committed to guest stints with other orchestras during the protracted lockout.
One of the season highlights came later, in April, when the ASO played the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Creation/Creator.” The work by the ASO’s Atlanta School of Composers member was released this month on ASO Media, the sixth recording on the orchestra’s own label.
It was one in a string of positive developments this summer, including the surplus and the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign fundraising news, that suggested a turning of the tide.
The rebuilding continued with last week’s announcement that Barlament, the Cleveland Orchestra’s general manager, will become the ASO’s new administrative leader.
In January, she will succeed retired Coca-Cola executive Terry Neal, who assumed a steadying interim role after ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned in late September 2014, saying that his continued leadership would be an “impediment” to a new labor agreement.
Spano, who just a year ago made a bold show of solidarity with his musicians during the “A Deafening Silence” protest, hugging them and telling them how proud he was of them for fighting management over the ASO’s future, sounded a different note this time.
The music director praised the ASO board and its search committee for its commitment of time and dedication to the extended search that landed Barlament, 42, who earned her bachelor’s degree in music in Atlanta at Emory University. She’s a 15-year orchestra administration veteran who moved up from the Omaha Symphony and Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra to become, in 2013, a member of the Cleveland ensemble’s senior management team.
“I am very pleased with the outcome,” Spano said. “Jennifer and her track record are very impressive, and I believe she will be a tremendous leader for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.”
ASO associate principal cellist Laufer added his voice to the local and national “bravos” about the appointment.
“All these steps give us cautious but real hope for the first time in many years,” he said, “that the ASO is finally on the right path towards recovery.”
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