ASO, musicians jockey for advantage as season hangs in doubt

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will have to cancel all October performances, including one at New York’s Carnegie Hall, if there’s no new labor agreement by early next week, ASO officials are warning.

With two weeks before the season starts and three weeks since management stopped the players’ pay and benefits, the two sides resumed talks this week.

“We are having substantive conversations,” said ASO cellist and union spokesman Joel Dallow. The musicians submitted a new proposal to management Wednesday, but he declined to offer any details.

The pressure is on for both sides: The ASO stands to lose upwards of $300,000 by cancelling a month of concerts, including $110,000 invested in the Carnegie Hall show, according to ASO officials. The musicians, who have a starting salary of $88,000, also stand to lose thousands of dollars apiece.

After weeks of stalemate, ASO President Stanley Romanstein sent an email to players’ representatives last week, saying that unless the two sides could ratify a contract by next Tuesday, the October shows would be scrapped.

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 Georgia 2018 election for governor certified between Kemp and Abrams
  2. 2 High school football player dies after breaking neck in game
  3. 3 Big day for Fields as Georgia routs Massachusetts

Thursday night, the musicians applied some pressure of their own. They held the first of two benefit concerts intended to affirm their relationship with their audience and raise money for players’ health care costs.

An hour before the free performance, patrons, fans and ASO subscribers mingled in the halls, securing their tickets, buying t-shirts and dropping money into open violin cases as donations. Musicians, dressed in all black, slowly made their way in carrying their instruments — some of which they hadn’t played in months.

“It feels great to be back on stage,” said violinist Christopher Pulgram. “When we played Beethoven’s 5th earlier in rehearsal, the whole orchestra lit up. It was a boom of sound. I can’t wait to get into the room surrounded by people who love music.”

Some musicians decried management’s tactics.

Michael Moore, a tuba player, was disappointed that the ASO cut off health benefits during the work stoppage. His wife, Paula, has a medical condition that requires her to go to the doctor regularly, but she hasn’t been since the musicians’ contract expired.

“They could have had a civil discussions,” Paula Moore said. “But they have created such hurt feelings, it feels like a betrayal.”

The recent moves by both management and the musicians are typical of such labor disputes, said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant.

“That’s the way these things happen — management works the back channels while the musicians reach out to the public,” McManus said.

Phil Ihrig and his wife Grace, who see about 15 shows a year, made a donation to the musicians’ health fund at Thursday’s performance.

“I am here to support the musicians and hear the music,” Phil said. “We were just concerned that it was not gonna carry on.”

Some patrons, in the meantime, are losing patience. A season ticket holder for 45 years, Dr. Arnoldo Fiedotin said Thursday afternoon that he has asked management to refund his money for this season. (Management convinced him to hold on a while longer.)

The ongoing dispute is also complicating the lives of both ASO sponsors and other artists who were slated to perform with the orchestra in October.

Lee Harper, whose Atlanta dance troop is slated for a Halloween show, said she stands to lose $10,000 in dancers’ salaries and costumes if the show falls through. The publicist for the famed violinist Midori, guest star for the season opener, said generating publicity has been hard since media organizations aren’t sure the show will go on.

Neither Romanstein nor the musicians would discuss the musicians’ latest offer Thursday. The orchestra is facing a projected $20 million debt, and the players had earlier offered to give up $4 million in compensation over two years. Management is insisting that they give up $5.2 million.

In his Sept. 13 email, Romanstein said that unless rehearsals can begin next week, the orchestra will not be sufficiently prepared. He also said that collaborators and others need advanced notice.

“Please understand that this is not an ‘ultimatum’ nor a ‘threat,’ but simply a timely response to the multiple demands of launching a new season,” Romanstein said in the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The musicians, for their part, saw a threat, which angered them.

“Anybody who can read English can see it’s a threat,” Dallow said.

The musicians also believe Romanstein is taking too many concerts off the table at once, arguing that the fate of each performance could be decided week-by-week. The players can be ready to perform a piece within days, said Dallow, the cello player.

“These are highly trained musicians,” he said. “Many of them are working on the music on their own.”

Beyond the financial losses, cancelling a showcase performance at Carnegie Hall would bring unfavorable publicity and a potential loss of reputation outside Atlanta, said McManus, the arts consultant.

The other October shows represent only a fraction of the symphony’s season of approximately 40 performances, but some of the most important. In addition to the appearance by Midori, other scheduled shows include performances of a Verdi requiem, the music of Simon and Garfunkel and a Carnegie Hall preview concert.

The southeast chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is sponsoring the Oct. 11 performance of Verdi as a fundraiser. It is a tribute to a Verdi piece played by prisoners in a World War II concentration camp, an act intended by the Nazis to falsely convey how well the Jews were being treated.

Plans continue to hold the fundraiser, Nigut said, including bringing in some of the surviving members of the concentration camp choir.

More from AJC