Atlanta Symphony Orchestra adds players, reaches funding milestone

Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has been rebuilding its forces with the help of a $25 million musicians endowment campaign. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN
Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has been rebuilding its forces with the help of a $25 million musicians endowment campaign. CONTRIBUTED BY JEFF ROFFMAN

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is growing.

An ensemble that had shrunk from 95 to 77 players after bruising labor disputes in 2012 and 2014 is getting bigger, thanks to a successful $25 million fundraising campaign dedicated to endowing permanent new positions.

On Thursday, almost two years ahead of schedule, the ASO announced the completion of the campaign, which was capped off by a $2.5 million gift from the Delta Air Lines Foundation.

“Nobody expected for this to happen so quickly,” said Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the ASO. “We’ve been astonished and grateful at the way the entire community responded.”

Daniel Laufer, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association and associate principal cellist, said, “It’s fantastic news, quite frankly. Reaching this goal two years early is a very, very good sign.”

Explore A 2014 lockout that delayed the beginning of the season by nearly two months brought ASO musicians and Woodruff Arts Center management to the bargaining table.

The most serious issue for the players was guaranteeing the size of the orchestra, to maintain its major-league status. Management was reluctant to concede the final say on orchestra size. They reached an agreement that the orchestra would expand to 88 positions, with 11 new positions to be underwritten by a new fund drive.

The endowment would help hold costs down, which was important for an institution that steadily lost money. The contract stipulated that the money be raised and the 11 new positions be in place by the end of the four-year contract.

Launched in December 2014, the campaign proceeded at a quicker-than-expected pace. Donors gave $13.3 million in just seven months, and the ASO completed the 2014-15 season with a surplus — the first time the orchestra finished in the black in more than a decade.

As of this fall, the ASO has recruited six new players, has added three more to replace musicians who have retired or passed away, and also finished its second fiscal year with a surplus. (Part of the surplus is redistributed to the musicians according to a formula.)

Laufer pointed out that a stronger orchestra not only sounds better but is more attractive to future members, who like to see an ensemble that’s hiring, not shrinking. “It is something that musicians thinking of auditioning for any job like to see,” he said.

Barlament, who was hired as executive director a year ago, said, "Based on the schedule of funds committed, we're looking to have all but one position filled by end of this season."

The final hire would hopefully be in place by the beginning of the 2017-18 season, she said.

Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant and author of Adaptistration, a blog about orchestra management, said most orchestras in the ASO's budget range maintain about 86 full-time players. "It allows you to do a certain type of repertoire," he said. "You can program without having to hire more (part-time) musicians."

Laufer said the success of the drive shows that the city wants its orchestra to succeed. “The community recognizes that things are turning around at the ASO, and they feel confident investing in the ASO.”

ASO PREVIEW

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will flex its growing muscles in several upcoming performances:

The ASO under the direction of Robert Spano will perform Sir Edward Elgar's "Sea Pictures" and Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony," featuring Tamara Wilson, soprano; Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; and Brian Mulligan, baritone. 8 p.m. Nov. 3 and Nov. 5. $20-$89. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.atlantasymphony.org.

Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles makes his season debut conducting the ASO in performances of Mahler's "The Song of Earth," featuring Kelley O'Connor, mezzo-soprano, and Russell Thomas, tenor. 8 p.m. Nov. 17 and Nov. 19. $20-$49. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4200, www.atlantasymphony.org.