By James L. Paulk
ATLANTA — The trauma at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra over the past four years, with the musicians locked out on two different occasions, is part of a pattern occurring with orchestras across America as they confront increasing costs, shrinking audiences, reduced government support, and the challenge of fundraising in an uncertain economic era. Yet each orchestra has its own unique personality and issues; the story of Atlanta’s crisis and the way it has risen to the challenge is both a cautionary tale and an inspiring example of cooperation and leadership.
From its founding in 1945 until the 1960s, the ASO rose to become a respectable “regional” orchestra: professional, but with little in the way of national recognition. Its big break came with the arrival in 1967 of Robert Shaw as music director. Shaw, who had previously achieved fame with his Robert Shaw Chorale, set about improving the orchestra’s sound and building a professional chorus that would become one of the greatest choral groups in the world.
During the Shaw era, the orchestra’s budget rose, as did its roster. In 1988, Shaw was succeeded by Yoel Levi, who retooled and refined the orchestra, creating the signature sound, anchored by burnished woodwinds. Recordings from the Levi era, especially those of Mahler’s symphonies (he recorded almost the entire cycle) hold up quite well against iconic recordings from better-known ensembles. There were tensions with the orchestra’s board, however, and Levi’s tenure ended in 2000, setting the stage for the arrival of Robert Spano, who continues to lead the ASO.
An acclaimed champion of new music and a charming figure well liked throughout the classical music world, Spano gave the orchestra a friendly, swashbuckling image at home and developed its international reputation, while leveraging his popularity to attract a dazzling parade of marquee soloists.
But hidden beneath the orchestra’s artistic success was a steadily worsening financial situation. In 2005, the orchestra unveiled plans for a striking, Santiago Calatrava-designed Symphony Center to replace the unpopular, acoustically challenged Symphony Hall as its home. The new hall was marketed as a way to supercharge the orchestra’s place in the sun. For a time, fundraising was brisk. But the effort, blindsided by the recession, came to naught, and the project was abandoned in 2008. Subsequent plans for a new hall at the current location were also shelved.
Meanwhile, with deficits mounting and with substantial debt, management and the players union failed to reach an agreement, and in 2012 the orchestra was locked out. Eventually, a two-year contract was negotiated, with major cuts to the orchestra. Musicians’ pay shrank by about $14,000 per year. The season was reduced by 10 weeks. At the same time, management reduced the complement (the number of full-time musicians) from 95 players to 88. The accumulated debt was eliminated by shrinking the endowment by $18 million. But deficits mounted again, even with the smaller budget.
As the contract expired and the 2014 season approached, the parties found themselves at an impasse. Instead of the expected improvements, the offer from management removed the floor from the complement, still at 88, so that the orchestra could be shrunk without limit, and substantially increased the players’ contribution to health insurance. There was no agreement, and the orchestra found itself again locked out.
The battle that ensued was unlike anything in the history of Atlanta’s arts community. Boosterism has a tenacious hold here, where all performances of everything must receive standing ovations, and the local religion dictates that “we have the best football team, the best schools, the best doctors,” and, of course, the best orchestra. The musicians played on this sentiment, shocking the community with the idea that its prized orchestra was being decimated. The orchestra’s CEO, Stanley Romanstein, came under bitter attack and resigned, saying his continued leadership would be an impediment.
Spano, who, like most of his counterparts elsewhere, had stayed above the fray, eventually wrote a letter, along with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, warning of dire consequences from further cuts to the complement.
Meanwhile, musicians fled for greener pastures at an alarming pace. The dispute was resolved in mid-November, nine weeks after the lockout began, and the 2014-2015 season opened with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But only 40 full-time players were on hand for the opening, with the remaining chairs filled by temporary musicians. Many of the regular players had taken temporary gigs elsewhere, and 11 were gone for good, leaving a complement of only 77.
A contract had been reached that raised salaries back by 6% and slightly increased the contribution to health care. But the major victory for the musicians, and the one they’d held out for, was an agreement to restore the complement back to 88 in stages, to be funded by a new Musicians’ Endowment Campaign, which was to raise $25 million to endow the salaries of the musicians.
The orchestra sounded shaky and uneven over the first few concerts after reopening, affected not just by the departures but also by the lost rehearsal time. Then things settled down, and by the end of the season the orchestra was sounding much like its old self. And attendance, rather than dropping off because of the lost portion of the season, actually improved.
The real hero of this episode, according to both management and musicians, was an ASO board member and retired Coca-Cola executive, Terry Neal, who stepped in as interim CEO after Romanstein’s departure. With no orchestra experience and the stigma of having been part of the board, Neal did not, on paper, seem an obvious choice to restore the trust and morale of the musicians. But that is what happened.
According to Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s director of artistic administration, Neal “figured out that his job was to open up channels of communication. As an outsider, he had nothing to lose. He got people talking and he told them the truth.” And Daniel Laufer, an ASO cellist who chairs the Players Association, agreed: “He really did a remarkable job in building trust and communication. He was seen almost every day in rehearsals, concerts.”
Meanwhile, the various bodies that deal with the ASO’s finances went into high gear. The structure isn’t a simple one. The orchestra has its own board and fundraising, but it is also a component of the Woodruff Arts Center. Symphony Hall is part of the center, along with the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum, but the WAC is much more than just a landlord. Much of ASO’s budget is raised and parceled out by the WAC. Insiders see its President and CEO, Virginia Hepner, and its chair, Doug Hertz, as the real decision makers when it comes to the orchestra. Indeed, during the lockout, the musicians mocked the WAC with a parody Facebook organization: “The Woodruff Center for Orchestra Lockouts.” (Hertz returned fire: “It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people?”)
And then there is the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, Atlanta’s premier charitable foundation, created by one of Coca-Cola’s millionaires. The settlement was made possible with pledges of substantial increases in funding from the foundation, which was already the orchestra’s most important benefactor. Today, the orchestra’s complement has climbed back to 82, meaning it’s ahead of schedule to return to 88 musicians by 2018. The Musicians’ Endowment Campaign had raised $17.25 million of its $25 million target.
A new CEO, Jennifer Barlament, was hired in September 2015. Barlament, who previously held a position at the Cleveland Orchestra and whose new title is executive director, grew up in Atlanta, where she studied clarinet with members of the orchestra, giving her an inside edge as a musician.
The ASO’s budget numbers are tricky because of the way they’re inflated. The orchestra owns a couple of venues that are used primarily for pop concerts, though the orchestra does play a few concerts at each. Chastain Amphitheater is a charming, much loved outdoor space with areas for picnics. And in 2008, the ASO built the awkwardly named Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park, a 12,000-seat arena in the far north suburbs. The idea behind both ventures was to raise funds for the ASO by renting them out for pop concerts. Thus the total budget is more than $30 million, but only around $22 million of that actually has anything to do with the orchestra.
The orchestra recently announced plans to turn over the operation of both Verizon and Chastain to Live Nation, a major concert promoter. Whatever is going on in the budget, it clearly isn’t enough to keep things going without difficult choices. “One of the hard decisions we made was to reduce the number of marquee artists,” Mirageas said at the time of the 2015-2016 season announcement. In practice, this means more use of the section leaders as soloists, especially the orchestra’s popular young concertmaster, David Coucheron. For other guest slots, the orchestra is turning to young up-and-coming artists.
The current season includes a hefty amount of choral programming built around the 100th birthday of Shaw, who died in 1999. But a recent concert, heard Feb. 20, was indicative of the changes. Cristian Macelaru, a fine young conductor who has yet to gain international stature, was on the podium for an all-Russian program with violinist Karen Gomyo featured in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The orchestra sounded first-rate, and Gomyo was excellent. Nothing was amiss, but the real question is whether, starting next season, the shortage of big names will erode subscription and ticket sales.
Nor is the ASO yet back to where it was four years ago, according to Laufer: “We still have a much smaller string section than we need. Some sections of brass and woodwinds are quite thin. And compensation took a big cut from what we need in order to be competitive. We still have a shortened season, with 10 weeks of furlough.”
However, even Laufer agreed that there is “an enormous difference” in the mood of the musicians since the lockout days. Without exception, everyone I spoke with — musicians, administration, board members, and fans — expressed the sentiment that things are looking up. There is even gossip, once again, about a new concert hall.
James L. Paulk is a freelance music critic based in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. During the past seven years, he wrote regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.