Why Atlanta Symphony musicians are happy

A peaceful round of negotiations has yielded a new contract for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians that will carry the orchestra through the 2020-21 season, it was announced Monday.

The new contract will build the ensemble back to full strength and provide built-in salary increases. The old contract was set to elapse in September of this year.

Statements from representatives for the musicians and management emphasized the civility of the process leading to the agreement.

“The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are pleased that respectful and productive negotiations resulted in this new contract,” said cellist Daniel Laufer, chair of the Atlanta Symphony Players’ Association.

ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament said in a statement, “The team approached this negotiation in a remarkably collegial and collaborative manner, working together towards an achievable compromise that offers both artistic progress and financial sustainability.”

That friendliness was in contrast to the bruising conflict between the orchestra and the Woodruff Arts Center, which led to lockouts in 2012 and 2014, picket lines, and harsh words. Ongoing deficits and deteriorating relations also brought about pay cuts, a shorter season and a shrinking orchestra.

By the time the fore-shortened 2014-15 season finally commenced, nine weeks late, the orchestra had dropped from 95 to 77 members.

But the new contract, hammered out that year, also included a commitment to raise $25 million in donations to endow 11 new positions in the orchestra. The musicians had to depend on the success of a fund-raising drive to bring their orchestra back to a viable size. "It was necessary to take a leap of faith," said Howard Palefsky, board chairman of the ASO.

That money was raised in short order, and six of the positions were filled by October 2016. Currently the orchestra is auditioning players to fill the last two open positions, which will bring the orchestra to an agreed-upon strength of 88 positions.

The new contract also includes a three percent annual pay increase for the musicians, which was underwritten by a contribution from a single anonymous donor.

The new contract will elapse at the same time that long-time director Robert Spano will take his leave of the orchestra. Spano will have served as music director for 20 years when he leaves his post in 2021.