Orchestra’s size resonates as big issue in Atlanta Symphony dispute

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

How big is the right size?: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, formerly at 95 full-musicians, now has a complement of 88, and management wants flexibility in the next contract in filling future openings. CONTRIBUTED BY THE ASO

With Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management determined to halt a decade of deficit operations in 2012, its locked-out musicians grudgingly agreed to a contract in which their pay was cut by an average of 14 percent and their full-time ranks were trimmed from 95 to 88.

The second ASO musician lockout in two years is again about money — salary, benefits, number of weeks of employment for the musicians; balanced books for management. But an equally big issue, looming larger this time, is the orchestra’s size.

Seeking a sustainable operating model, management wants to control the number of musicians (or, to employ the industry phrase, “the complement”) going forward. The players protest that making the orchestra any smaller will destroy its sound, and say they don’t trust ASO leadership with power over such a sensitive matter.

Among the several major areas of disagreement between the two sides, who made little progress in forging a deal in eight months of bargaining prior to the lockout, this could be a key one in potentially delaying the opening of the 70th anniversary season on Sept. 25.

The dispute has drawn national attention because of the ongoing travails of the orchestral industry and because the Woodruff Arts Center is the Southeast’s largest art entity, a nonprofit with its administration and four divisions operating on a combined $90 million budget that attracts 1.2 million to its Midtown campus yearly. The Woodruff dominates arts funding in a city with only three independent arts organizations with budgets topping $2 million: Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Opera and the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Still, the Woodruff has had trouble balancing the ASO’s world-class ambitions and its poor financial performance, causing the arts center’s overall credit rating to be downgraded last year.

“We’re all tired of hearing that management wants to maintain this orchestra as a world-class orchestra,” said Daniel Laufer, an ASO cellist and ASO Players Association negotiating committee member. “You can’t (cut) this orchestra any further. Either you try to maintain it and grow it back in the direction from where we came, or it’s over — it’s not the same orchestra any more.”

At issue is a management proposal in which ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein would negotiate with music director Robert Spano and Players Association representatives on whether and how positions would be filled as they come open. In cases where a consensus could not be reached, Romanstein would have the final say.

His unique proposal is not modeled on an arrangement at another major American orchestra, where typically the complement is set — and the number fiercely protected by the musicians — in the collective bargaining agreement.

Romanstein admits that it and other aspects of the ASO’s final offer before the prior contract expired are “different approaches than other orchestras have taken” but characterizes them as “courageous.”

“The (musicians’) fear is ‘Oh, they’re trying to negotiate the orchestra down to some small number,’” Romanstein said. “Not true in any sense. We’re simply asking for a strategic and thoughtful conversation about how we manage the size of the complement. It’s the same thing we do with any staff opening.”

Except symphonic musicians hold their combined sound as sacrosanct.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association president Paul Murphy said he believed the musicians had “managed to maintain” its critically praised sound despite the reductions of the last two years.

“But we’re at that threshold now,” the associate principal violist quickly added. “If they cut any further, it really will start to impact the artistic level.”

Murphy said fewer players demands a greater workload for every musician. “For instance in the viola section, we had 11, now we’re down to eight,” he said. “And that means fewer times where you’re rotated off, there’s more playing, you have to produce a bigger sound and make up for less players. It promotes a greater physical strain,” risking stress injuries. The ASO’s bass section also is “woefully short,” down from eight to five, Murphy said.

Even though conductors are typically neutral parties in orchestra labor disputes, ASO music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles addressed the complement’s size straight on in an open letter issued just before the contract deadline.

“There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed,” they wrote. “We must re-dedicate ourselves to the ASO’s founding principles of excellence and to the support of a full, robust, and world-class symphony orchestra.”

Freelance classical music critic James Paulk, who writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and classical music publications, said he’s “wrestled in my own mind” for two years over whether if the ASO’s sound has suffered from the shrinkage.

“If you’re playing Mozart, it shouldn’t matter at all, as you would normally not use anything close to 88 musicians, or 75 for that matter,” Paulk said. “But for Wagner, Mahler and the other big Romantic and Modern works, it becomes a factor. The sound from a bigger orchestra is more elegant and richer, with a deeper tone.”

By comparison to Atlanta’s complement of 88, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose musicians issued a letter of support for their ASO peers this week that included a sharp rebuke of the ASO’s administration, has a contracted size of 106 full-time players. The Cleveland Orchestra, still known for the robust sound that the late George Szell built as he expanded its ranks as music director more than a half-century ago, has 104.

The Minnesota Orchestra, which underwent a 16-month lockout that caused an entire season to be lost and led to the departure of musicians and its music director, Osmo Vänskä, is playing with 77 full-time musicians this season because it could not audition for and fill open positions quickly enough. Its agreement signed in January calls for it to rise to a full complement of 95 musicians over the three-year deal.

Even if a contract is forged in time for the season here to start on time, the ASO’s full-time ranks will be at a reduced number. Because of defections, retirements and deaths, the orchestra now has 78 musicians under contract. An ASO spokesman said substitute musicians will be used to fill in when required by individual pieces of music.

Meanwhile, ASO management has postponed all auditions until the dispute is resolved.

Romanstein denies that he has a set number in mind for the ASO’s complement, saying that it would simply “give us great flexibility in how we hire and under what circumstances we hire. If it’s a position we need to fill right away … OK. But what we have now is a fixed number in the contract and when there is an opening, we are legally obligated to make a full-time hire for that position right away, (with) lots of rules and regulations governing how we do that.

“We want to be responsible financially; we also want to support the art,” he continued. “And we think that flexibility could position us in a very different way to keep those things in balance.”

ASO Players Association negotiators believe Romanstein has targeted a number far less than 88 and say they aren’t buying the idea of him controlling the orchestra’s size.

In fact, the musicians’ final proposal before negotiations broke off was to increase the complement over the next four years to 89.

NO CONTRACT TALKS

The opening of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 70th season scheduled Sept. 25 appears to be at growing risk, with the two sides at an impasse and with no plans to return to the negotiating table since management locked the musicians out last Sunday.9/7

Musicians and supporters continued to picket on Friday in front of the Woodruff Arts Center. CONTRIBUTED BY BOBBIE JACOBS TAUB

Musicians and supporters continued to picket on Friday in front of the Woodruff Arts Center. CONTRIBUTED BY BOBBE JACOBS TOUB

“As we have said before, we have offered to meet and have offered to bring a federal mediator into the negotiations,” ASO spokesman Randy Donaldson said, “but the union has not agreed to.”

The ASO Players Association said there is little to discuss after ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein sent them a letter on Sunday declining the musicians’ last offer as one that wouldn’t help “achieve sustainability,” and saying the distance was too great for management to make a counter-proposal.

Players Association president Paul Murphy said, “They are unwilling to negotiate and will not move from (what management termed its “Last, Best and Final” offer), and want the musicians to negotiate with ourselves.”

With no progress toward a collective bargaining agreement, ASO board chairwoman Karole Lloyd cancelled next week’s regularly scheduled board meeting — “because we do not anticipate any updates,” she wrote in an email sent on Thursday. HOWARD POUSNER

THE STORY SO FAR

  • The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has racked up deficits for 12 consecutive years, but the push toward a sustainable model took new urgency when the accumulated debt rose to $23 million by the end of fiscal 2012, including $18 million borrowed against earnings on the orchestra’s endowment.
  • Seeking significant concessions to halt the red ink, management locked out the musicians during tense 2012 collective bargaining agreement negotiations. After a month without pay, the players agreed with great rancor to a $5.2 million wage reduction over two years (an average of $14,000 annually for each) and other cuts.
  • In 2013, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the Woodruff’s credit outlook from stable to negative, largely because of the ASO debt.
  • The orchestra finished the 2014 fiscal year with a $2 million operating deficit on a budget of $37 million.
  • Eight months of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement this year proved unsuccessful. Management said its final proposal was for a four-year deal with an escalating salary increase topping out at 4.5 percent in the final year. The musicians propose a roughly 15 percent salary increase over four years — basically the amount the players gave up 2012. Another point of division was health care, with the musicians being asked to shoulder a greater share of the cost which they said would turn management’s raise offer into a net decrease.
  • Managment locked out the players on Sunday after the the collective bargaining agreement expired without a new one in place. HOWARD POUSNER

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