As Smoke Clears, Atlanta SO Turns To Joyful Sounds

An exultant Robert Spano leading the Atlanta Symphony in the National Anthem on the belated opening night.  (Jeff Roffman)
An exultant Robert Spano led the Atlanta Symphony in the National Anthem on the orchestra’s belated opening night.
(Jeff Roffman)
By James L. Paulk

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which rose under the leadership of Robert Shaw to rank as one of America’s major ensembles, recently emerged from a bitter and divisive labor dispute — and finally got down to musical business on Nov. 13 with a belated opening night led by music director Robert Spano. Unfortunately, with only five days notice, there were a record 31 substitutes filling in for missing orchestra members who were unable to extract themselves from prior bills-paying gigs.

Trombone Nathan Zgonc and son,at a lockout rally in September.
Trombone Nathan Zgonc and son at a lockout rally in September.

The settlement, negotiated with the help of federal mediators, ended a nine-week lockout that had delayed the orchestra’s season and left the ensemble with a complement of 77 full-time players, a startling decline from the 95 musicians at the end of the 2011-2012 season. Management agreed to a “best effort” to increase the number to 81 by the end of the 2015-2016 season. The four-year contract calls for 84 players by the end of its third year and 88 by the end of the fourth.

The other major components were wages and benefits: management agreed to a 6% pay raise over four years, and the players agreed to concessions in health insurance. But the orchestra’s size clearly was the top issue throughout the negotiations. Reacting to a question about the earlier shrinkage and the increasing reliance on substitute players in an interview in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ASO board chair Douglas Hertz said, “It’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have in previous years.”

The audience on opening night gives the orchestra a standing ovation.
The audience on opening night gives its returning orchestra a standing ovation.

I wrote many of those reviews. What can I tell you? Each review is a brief meditation on “what happened last night.” Even if I had the space, it’s very hard to compare season over season. The cuts didn’t happen in a vacuum. The repertoire changes and rarely repeats in the following year. The ASO’s string section, the one most impacted by the cuts, has itself come under the influence of a dynamic young concertmaster, David Coucheron, who arrived four years ago but whose effect has continued steadily. Even the room changes: In 2013, Symphony Hall got a new shell, which significantly improved the sound from the stage.

But there is no question in my mind that size matters. A key difference between the ASO and, say, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, is simply that the Alabama has a 54-player roster. A complement of 95 is often considered the threshold for orchestras at an international level, and several top orchestras in America boast more than 100 members. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, has 106.

Associate principal viola Paul Murphy
Associate principal viola Paul Murphy

Players argued that substitute players lack the rapport that comes from playing together regularly, and a smaller complement tempts management to make do with fewer total players on stage. Paul Murphy, associate principle violist and head of  the ASO Players’ Association, said his section had been cut from 11 to 8, “and that means fewer times when you’re rotated off, there’s more playing, you have to produce bigger sound” and endure “greater physical strain.”

Not discussed was another effect: Orchestras with smaller complements tend toward programs that minimize the use of substitutes to hold down costs, so they play fewer of the great late-Romantic and contemporary works. We may be seeing some of this in Atlanta already. We get less Mahler and Bruckner than bigger cities. Of course, that might simply reflect the interest of music director Robert Spano, or it could be a concession to perceived audience preferences.

The downsizing began two years ago after an earlier lockout. Confronted with 10 years of annual deficits in the $2 million range and the erosion (to pay off debt) of the orchestra’s modest endowment, management negotiated a two-year agreement calling for a reduction to 88 players and a base salary of $75,918 for a 42-week season. (Prior to this, orchestra members were paid for a 52-week season even though they didn’t work all 52 weeks–not unusual in orchestras with full employment contracts.) Though some musicians receive extra pay, the average effect of that salary change was a 15% pay cut. Discussions at the time suggested these changes might be temporary. At least, that is how the players remember it.

Woodruff Arts Center, home of the Atlanta Symphony
The Atlanta Symphony relies heavily on fundraising by the Woodruff Arts Center.

Even after the cuts, deficits continued, causing a downgrade in the bond rating of the ASO’s parent, the Woodruff Arts Center, which also operates Atlanta’s High Museum, the Alliance Theatre, and several smaller entities. As talks progressed, this unusual organizational structure greatly complicated matters. While the musicians were negotiating only with the ASO management and board, it eventually became clear that the real power was in the hands of Woodruff’s management and its board. The layered structure makes it hard to know who’s doing what. In addition, the orchestra financial data is merged into Woodruff’s Form 990 reports, making comparisons with other orchestras more difficult.

Robert W. Woodruff
Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff

Yet it would be difficult and quite expensive to extract the orchestra from Woodruff. Symphony Hall, the orchestra’s home, is provided rent-free, and much of the orchestra’s income comes from the fundraising efforts of Woodruff, which benefit all the organizations, and are separate from the orchestra’s own campaigns. The center was created as a result of a plane crash in 1962 in Paris. The 130 people on board comprised Atlanta’s arts leaders who had taken a chartered trip together. Their loss was a massive blow to the city’s cultural life. Coca-Cola magnate Robert W. Woodruff gave much of the money to build the center as a memorial.

During the eight months of talks that preceded the lockout and right up until the weeks before the settlement, management insisted on a proposal that would have removed the number of musicians from the contract altogether, a stance apparently unique in the world of major orchestras, along with a modest pay increase over four years offset by increases in the cost of health coverage for the average musician. Management added language about its “aspiration” to increase the number, but that hardly seemed reassuring after the last few years. The musicians, having given up ground in 2012, were expecting a significant raise and an increase in the number of total players.

Virginia Hepner, Woodruff president and CEO
Woodruff CEO Virginia Hepner

Things got pretty nasty. Board members were accused of wanting to “gut the orchestra,” of manipulating deficit numbers, and of insider dealing. ASO’s president and CEO Stanley Romanstein stepped down, saying he didn’t want to be an impediment, though it soon became clear that he had simply relayed the positions of his bosses at Woodruff, whose president and CEO, Virginia Hepner, was next to be vilified. Confronted with sustained attacks, the ASO turned off comments on its Facebook page. Indeed, this conflict illustrates the rapidly growing power of social media and the blogosphere to ramp up tensions in an already difficult situation.

The artistic issues at stake were, and remain, real. As things reached a standstill, Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles took the highly unusual step of publishing a letter stating there were “artistic lines which cannot and must not be crossed,” a clear indication that they would not hang around should the sound deteriorate further.

Music director Spano eventually spoke about artistic concerns.  (Angela Morris)
Music director Spano eventually made public his artistic concerns. (Angela Morris)

But any focus on the real cause of the dispute — a steady decline in both earned and contributed income — seemed lost in the flame-throwing chaos. Audited data show net losses from the orchestra running about $4 million a year, though money from ASO Presents offsets this by about $2 million, leaving an annual deficit of $2 million. (ASO Presents is a series of pop concerts and events for which the orchestra acts as a presenter and provides its facilities, including the suburban Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park). That amount, on a core budget (just the orchestra) of about $22 million per year, doesn’t seem like an insurmountable sum for a city this size.

Less than a decade ago, Atlanta seemed in the final stages of building a $300 million Calatrava-designed concert hall for this same orchestra, but that fell apart. (If the hall had actually been built, Atlanta could be in the same boat as Miami, which blew its money on a fancy hall only to see the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, its anchor tenant, go broke.)

The new settlement, a compromise for both sides, is predicated on a hoped-for increase in contributions. The board plans a major campaign to endow chairs. If it fails, the orchestra’s situation could become truly dire. To some extent, Atlanta’s struggle is not unlike those elsewhere, especially in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul or Philadelphia, which have recently gone through similar crises. Classical institutions seem to be in a long-term downward spiral almost everywhere.  But every situation is different, and Atlanta has its own set of problems. There is great wealth here, along with all sorts of technology and entertainment-related businesses: the Turner television empire, a thriving movie-making business, and lots of popular singers, particularly from R&B and hip-hop.

Inside CNN world headquarters, Atlanta
CNN’s World HQ: Atlanta’s classical music scene attracts older money better than new.

All these new enterprises, fortunes, and celebrities seem to exist in a separate universe from Atlanta’s classical scene, which lacks much in the way of diversity and skews toward an older demographic. The orchestra has tried mightily to build bridges, with all sorts of youth outreach and subsidized or free tickets, but progress has been slow. The ASO’s subscription audience is steadily shrinking, as is the audience for its classical programming overall. The orchestra’s key donors are from “Old Atlanta”: Coke, Delta, and a few banks, rather than the faster-growing new fortunes built on technology and entertainment.

There is also what I refer to as the “carpetbagger syndrome,” where money generated here leaves town. The Georgia-Pacific Corp., for example, is headquartered here and is one of the state’s largest employers, but gives little to the arts. I spoke with Curley Dossman, an amicable guy who heads their foundation. He explained that its funds are primarily earmarked for youth programs, entrepreneurship development, and forestry-related projects. I mentioned that David Koch, who owns the company outright with his brother Charles, ranked consistently among the top donors to Lincoln Center institutions (the David Koch Theater even bears his name). Dossman said: “David has been very generous in his personal giving to the arts, but has chosen to concentrate on New York and Wichita.” (Wichita is the brothers’ home town.)

Robert Shaw, music director of the Atlanta Symphony from 1967-1988.
Robert Shaw, music director in Atlanta from 1967 to 1988.

That said, the ASO is the crown jewel of the Atlanta arts scene and, in terms of classical music, the absolute glory of the Southeast. Robert Shaw was a magician, building the orchestra and the magnificent chorus — still, arguably, the best in America — as well as community support and audience. So effective was he that Atlanta Opera never had a chance even during the boom years for American opera, and today struggles with a budget in the $5 million range.

In recent years, the orchestra’s sound has thrived under Spano, who also added a special focus on audience-friendly new music  and steadily expanded the parade of superstar soloists. Spano obviously loves the orchestra and his adopted city, and the feeling is mutual. During the dispute, he was quoted reverently by all sides, a genuine hero.

One remaining question is whether the “recent unpleasantness” will lead to the departure of key board members (both boards), who personally contribute and raise the lion’s share of the orchestra’s total budget (earned income from ticket sales and other core operations generates only about $6 million a year), or will make it more difficult to recruit new ones. Historically, people rally together after a crisis like this one, but previous disputes were less intensely personal and vitriolic than this one. At one point Hertz, the ASO chair, said, “It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people?” The great hope here is that Atlanta’s image-conscious business community will rally to its orchestra in its time of need. Never underestimate the power of boosterism in the Old South.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra season opened
The Atlanta Symphony’s 70th season opened at last with two programs under Spano.

In the meantime, the orchestra’s 70th season opened Nov. 13 with a concert featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. “Let us sing songs that are more cheerful, full of joy!” exclaimed the mighty chorus. The orchestra was greeted by a sold-out house unlike any I’ve encountered here. The energy and celebratory atmosphere was electric, with sustained waves of ovations and people blurting out cheers.

But one of the ironies of the lockout was that many players had sought work as substitute players elsewhere in order to make ends meet, all while denouncing the ASO’s increasing dependence on substitutes. That, together with atrophy and the shortened preparation time, took a toll. There was a murkiness in the first two movements of the Ninth that I’ve never encountered here and a lack of overall precision. Coucheron performed Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with a silky tone, and the chorus was almost back to its usual form. But it was obvious why the originally scheduled performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony had to be scrapped. The orchestra just wasn’t ready.

Spano acknowledges Atlanta composer Richard Prior.
Spano takes a bow with noted Atlanta composer Richard Prior.

The second week’s program, starting Nov. 20, showed improvement. Again, the program was changed around. Laura Ardan, who has been the orchestra’s iconic principal clarinet since 1982 and helps anchor the woodwinds, the most distinctive element in the ASO’s unique sound, performed Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra with great finesse. Behind her there were a few iffy entrances, but the orchestra had its old transparent sound back.

Next up was the ASO premiere of Richard Prior’s Symphony No. 3. Prior is rapidly emerging as Atlanta’s preeminent composer, and the 40-minute work is his most ambitious score yet. Though relatively conservative like all the new music here (Spano and his programmers can be a bit patronizing), the work is engaging, with a wonderful range of colors and a strong biographical, emotional tension. This is the sort of thing the ASO does best, and it sounded splendid, despite the fact that, as musicians continued to trickle back, 20 of the 76 players were substitutes.

Things were going so well. Then came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, presumably chosen because it is the sort of foolproof warhorse this orchestra should be able to knock out easily, leaving more rehearsal time for the Prior work. So much for that theory. The performance was marred by wandering intonation in the strings and a lack of overall tightness. The outer movements went best, but the whole experience was a bit jarring.

For this concert, it was as if the audience from opening night had left town, to be replaced by the typical one, with empty seats everywhere and a predictable response to everything. Standing ovations have become a polite ritual here, robbing them of any meaning, so it was strangely startling when most of the audience failed to stand for Ardan.

Questions remain, and not just about the evolution of the orchestra’s sound as things fall back into place. Can Atlanta pull together to sustain a world-class orchestra, or are we seeing an orchestra in retreat?

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic and writes regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.