Music again at Symphony Hall, but little harmony

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is a major force in the city’s cultural life. Beginning months ago, when the contract negotiations between the symphony and its players were just heating up, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has dug into the organization’s finances and kept readers up to date on the contract talks. Look to us for more unmatched coverage in the days and weeks to come.

With a new two-year deal in place, musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra went back to work last week gathering under the direction of conductor Robert Spano for “boot camp” to get ready for Thursday’s season opening concert.

Four floors up in the executive suites, ASO President Stanley Romanstein couldn’t hear the music, but said he has listened to the musicians carefully during the grueling and increasingly acrimonious seven-month contract negotiations.

“It has been incredibly difficult,” Romanstein said. “We asked the musicians to do extraordinary things and they have done them. They are our friends, partners and co-workers. It is difficult time for all of them.”

Even after the musicians voted to accept the deal, their representatives issued a withering press release accusing management of “under-performance at nearly every level for the past decade.” Feelings are still raw as the season draws closer.

“There will be a lot of difficulty moving forward with the relationship,” said Joel Dallow, an ASO cellist and one of the chief negotiators for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association. “We will continue to address the real problems that we feel have not been solved by forcing us to take huge concessions.”

But Romanstein, who was hired in 2010 to help stem a tide of red ink, wanted to talk about what united managers and players. “Both sides had common goals and common objectives: to be artistically vibrant and financially stable,” he said. “If you have one without the other, you are in trouble. We are now in position to have both.”

Romanstein brought the negotiations to a head two weeks ago by saying he would cancel several early-season concerts if no agreement was reached last week. “It came down to the wire,” he said. “There are so many moving parts to launching a new season. We wanted to respect our subscribers and honor our audience.”

Ferdinand Levy, an economist and labor expert who has been a season ticket holder for 41 years, said he was disappointed with the terms of the agreement and shocked at how the musicians seemed outmaneuvered by ASO management.

“They lost because they had no strategy. I wonder who was counseling them,” said Levy, the former dean of the Georgia Tech College of Management. “You have got to be willing to go on strike. Having said that, did they even have a strike fund? No, so they didn’t even have a threat of a strike. You can’t strike without money to feed your kids.”

The musicians had been without pay or benefits since the previous contract expired Aug. 25.

But Levy also questioned the performance of management, predicting that the underlying issues that fueled the conflict will lead to further strife, especially given the short lifespan of this contract.

“If the management hasn’t been as successful as they could have been in the last five to 10 years, they are not going to be successful in the next five to 10,” Levy said. “It doesn’t work that way, and as long as the current management survives, nothing will change in the next two years.”

Virginia Hepner, president of the ASO’s parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center, had been on the job only weeks when the conflict broke into the open. She called Thursday, the first time that the musicians were scheduled to gather, a “good day.”

“I am proud of all the people involved to reach a conclusion,” Hepner said. “I know it was a challenge, but it was critically important for survival and our ability to thrive. You never want to put anyone through that type of stress without reason.”

The ASO has a very big reason: a mounting debt that is projected to reach $20 million next year.

During negotiations, players’ representatives had painted the Woodruff as insisting on cuts even beyond what the ASO executives would have accepted. Both Romanstein and Hepner said that was untrue.

Thursday’s rehearsal was the first time the musicians had gathered at Symphony Hall under Spano’s direction in months. The boot camp was originally set to begin Tuesday, so the musicians lost only two days of preparation for the season.

Under the terms of the new contract, players’ salaries will effectively be slashed by creating a 10-week summer off-season during which they receive only partial pay. During that period average salaries will go from $1,729 a week to $330 a week. Benefits will remain in force year-round.

The contract also reduces the number of full-time musicians from 93 to 88, a reduction that was already achieved through attrition, meaning that no musicians will be laid off. In another concession, musicians will now pay $10 a week for health insurance. Under the last contract, their health benefits were covered 100 percent.

The ASO expects to save $5 million to $5.2 million in players’ compensation over the length of the contract, which expires Sept. 6, 2014.

As part of the settlement, Romanstein, CFO Donald F. Fox and three ASO vice presidents also will take 6 percent pay cuts. That didn’t satisfy union leaders, who had demanded much wider cuts among administrative staff.

“You can’t talk about an organization being on the brink of extinction and just go after the musicians,” Dallow said.

But Romanstein said top ASO officials and administrative staff have made sacrifices for years. “I took a pay cut when I walked in the door, and we were willing to do additional things as senior leadership,” Romanstein said.

He also pointed to positive signs that, he said, show the way to a more financially stable future. “This is an emotional time, but if you look at the facts, one of the things you will see is that our contributed revenues have risen 3 percent in each of the last three years. Our earned revenues have increased more than 3 percent,” he said.

“We have driven administrative costs down, narrowed the budget deficit. Facts will suggest we are doing a pretty good job.”