ASO maestros Spano, Runnicles speak up about contract negotiations

In the ongoing contract negotiations between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its musicians, heading toward a midnight Saturday deadline, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles are supposedly a neutral party, the equivalent of Switzerland.

ASO music director Spano and principal guest conductor Runnicles are neither management nor part of the Atlanta Symphony Musicians Players’ Association. Still, on Tuesday night, the two took an unusual step: emailing an open letter to ASO board, management and musicians that, importantly, included a note of support for the latter.

Though they assert from the top that they don’t want to take sides, the maestros do ask ASO leadership to “acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.”

The letter encourages a quick and peaceful settlement that would avoid repeating the discord from negotiations two years ago and expresses their wish for a long-term agreement that would allow the 70th anniversary season to start on time on Sept. 25.

Spano and Runnicles further write that they “fear” that the orchestra’s high musical standards might be forgotten or compromised in the heat of negotiations.

“Our emotional commitment to the ASO and its potential is profound,” they write. “This prompts us to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards. This is all the more poignant in that next season we celebrate the legacy of Robert Shaw (music director from 1967 to 1988). The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss.”

ASO management was quick to respond Wednesday morning with a statement of its own, saying it “agree(s) with the sentiments expressed” in the maestros’ letter, but with an asterisk.

“Most of all, we agree that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone associated with the ASO,” management’s statement continued. “But neither is the continuation of operating deficits that have been ongoing for 12 years nor the consequences they bring. They have led to concerns from our donors and a precipitous decline in our endowment.”

The exchange of statements was the most public development in negotiations that have been conducted close to the vest for months by both sides.

Spano’s participation was in stark contrast to two years ago, when he had no public comment during the increasingly heated talks that led to a musician lockout. Even after an agreement was struck a little more than a week before the season was to start, Spano declined to speak about putting the pieces back together.

“From a historical perspective, it is atypical for musical directors to get involved” in contract matters, Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus said Wednesday. He noted however that in the “post-economic-downturn labor environment,” musical leaders are becoming “increasing involved both overtly and behind the scenes.”

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To read the full text of the Spano-Runnicles letter and management’s response, go to artsculture.blog.ajc.com.

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