From New York, Atlanta Symphony musician takes stock of the lockout

The hard-fought collective bargaining agreement that Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians and management reached last weekend was heartily applauded at the New York Philharmonic, which, if the trend continues, might come to be called the ASO North.

Three long-time Atlanta musicians are playing with the Philharmonic this season: hornist Richard Deane, trombonist Colin Williams and clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez. They joined bass trombonist George Currin, who started there the prior season.

Though there was much gnashing of teeth among supporters of ASO musicians about recent and potential future defections spurred by the just-ended two-month lockout, sometimes players depart for their own reasons. Deane said he was motivated by the opportunity to move up one position from the third horn he played in Atlanta, into the associate principal’s chair, at one of the country’s top (or “Big Five”) orchestras.

Deane served as a fill-in musician at the Philharmonic in 2012-13, moving his wife Jill and sons Slater and Isaac to the Big Apple for a year to try it out for a potential permanent move, so he missed the month-long lockout that preceded that season in Atlanta. But he followed the labor strife closely then and even more so this fall, this time working as a full member of the New York ensemble. This season, he’s living solo in a shoe-box Manhattan apartment near work (Lincoln Center) and commuting home to see his family every six weeks or so.

The horn player is officially on leave from the ASO, thankful for the flexibility of music director Robert Spano and others back home, and could return to Atlanta next season. But he’s hoping things continue to go well in his new job and that his family will make the move permanent with him next summer. In the meantime, he’s got one foot in each orchestra and uses “we” when discussing both.

Having joined the ASO in 1987, and walked picket lines in an 11-week strike here in 1996, Deane has a seasoned perspective. We sounded him out …

On getting to play alongside former ASO colleagues in New York: “The three guys up here with me now are just first-class people and great musicians and it’s wonderful to have a buoy to tie your boat up to sometimes.”

On how much the 2012 ASO musician lockout and the prospect of another one this year factored in his decision to leave Atlanta:I’m being completely honest, it was no factor at all. I knew I wanted to try (for his current position) because it’s the New York Philharmonic obviously … and this opportunity for personal growth was too great at this point in my life (at 52) to turn down.

On how the ASO compares to the more heralded Philharmonic: “The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony are as good as any orchestra in the world. All you have to do is go to a concert or listen to one of their recordings. Just the other day I put on the Mahler (Symphony No.) 7 from the late ’90s and I could not believe how good it was.”

On how working for the orchestras compares: “New York has the resources that allow it to do things that keep the energy flowing within the ensemble. It treats its musicians unbelievably well. You are are so valued. Anything that you need to do your best is what they want to provide you. Everyone who works for or in the Philharmonic is extremely proud of what the orchestra does. So as a result, the pockets are a little deeper and there’s more involvement. I see more of that up here than I did there.”

On what he hears that’s different in New York, which has a full-time complement of 106, while Atlanta will start this season with 77: “The sound when you’ve got 10 more string players is different, and with 10 more string players, people are able to take relief time and don’t have to play every single service (and can avoid repetitive-stress injuries).”

On the concern he sensed when he returned to the ASO last year, a season before another difficult deal would need to be struck: “We wanted to do our thing, get out there and make music, but everyone saw the writing on the wall. And you would oscillate back and forth between being fearful and trying to do something about it and then putting your head in the sand.

“At the end of the year it was a little difficult for me, because I knew I was leaving and felt really guilty. Because I can remember the way I felt during the strike of ‘96, wanting to work to make sure the Atlanta Symphony stayed the same or better than it had been. I knew that this battle was going to be as big or bigger than ‘96, and it proved to be bigger.”

On the why he regrets that the bottom line was such a big issue in negotiations (where management demanded more concessions from the musicians after 12 consecutive year of operating deficits): “I understand that the Woodruff Arts Center feels like they have to pay the bills. I have to pay my own bills; that’s hard to do. But why else would you have an incredibly expensive thing like the Atlanta Symphony or the New York Philharmonic unless you have aspirations for greatness? There’s no other reason for it.”

On if ASO management and musicians can pull together after the extended contract strife: “There’s an opportunity to move on very successfully from where we are right now. What’s important is if the next ASO president and CEO and successive chairs and board members can just get on the same page with the musicians and really start to nurture the greatness. Then the healing will happen very quickly.”