The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were wearing black, which would have been appropriate for Thursday night’s scheduled opening concert of its 70th anniversary season.
But the concert was cancelled earlier this week, another development in a whirlwind three-week lockout of the players by management of the orchestra and its parent nonprofit, the Woodruff Arts Center, that went into effect after the two sides failed to reach an accord on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Instead, the musicians donned their tuxes and gowns for a wordless demonstration that they dubbed “A Deafening Silence” on Callaway Plaza, outside the 15th Street entrance to the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC). Though many carried their instrument cases, there was no music, no speeches, just applause in support of the players.
The nearly half-hour protest was solemn, feeling more like a funeral, where black also is appropriate. When it ended and there were many quiet hugs, they seemed like the reassuring embraces of mourners rather than those of comrades in a cause.
Notable among those in the crowd giving and receiving hugs was ASO music director Robert Spano. As the participants assembled across Peachtree Street beforehand, the casually clad maestro shared welcoming embraces with his musicians, repeatedly telling them, “I’m so proud of you.”
But the gathering of roughly 300 ASO players, ASO Chorus members and their supporters was indeed a protest, accompanied by the usual complement of pointed signs. Among them: “Will Play for Food,” “End the lockout. Start the music” and “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.”
Aadu J. Allpere, a retired Coca-Cola executive who along with his wife Kristi is an ASO donor and volunteer fund-raiser, held a bumper sticker like a placard, though he couldn’t recall participating in a demonstration ever before. Its message: “Whack the WAC. Support the Musicians.”
Allpere had had them printed and was selling them for $10 each, planning to donate the proceeds to the ASO Players’ Association. He handed one to Spano, who smiled and nodded his appreciation.
Kristi Allpere said she and her husband and other donors and volunteers are angry at the Woodruff Arts Center for locking out the musicians for the second time in two years.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I don’t like what they’re doing.
“We always thought the Woodruff was the landlord,” she continued. “I think (arts center benefactor) Robert Woodruff is turning around in his grave at this point, as is (former ASO maestro) Robert Shaw.”
The Woodruff is, in fact, the Southeast’s largest arts entity, a nonprofit with its administration and four divisions (also including the High Museum of Art, Alliance Theatre and Arts for Learning) operating on a combined $90 million budget.
The center is an arts funding Goliath in a city with only three independent arts organizations with budgets topping $2 million: Atlanta Ballet, Atlanta Opera and the Center for Puppetry Arts.
But since the second lockout began, the musicians and their supporters have repeatedly questioned the stewardship of the orchestra by arts center leadership.
ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein has said the musicians’ offers prior to the lockout would add $2 million to $2.5 million in red ink. “So, unfortunately, their proposals take us in the wrong direction,” he said when the lockout began.
Romanstein and other leaders are demanding various concessions from the musicians, including giving him the ultimate power to determine the size of the orchestra, which was reduced from 95 to 88 full-time players in the contentious 2012 agreement.
Management said it is determined to halt a run of 12 consecutive years of red ink. The ASO had a $2 million deficit last year, down from $5 million two years prior.
After Thursday’s protest, ASO cellist Daniel Laufer said that he and other ASO Players’ Association negotiating committee members feel that too many major gifts have been directed into debt reduction and that more of the funds could be used to close the gap between the two sides’ contract proposals.
“They say the Symphony is not sustainable” under its current business model, Laufer said. “Except they’re making it not sustainable by their actions.”
In hopes of breaking the contract stalemate. ASO management said this week that it has proposed bringing in federal mediator Allison Beck, who was involved in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent contract ratification.
Laufer allowed that the musicians are receptive but have questions about the arrangement before agreeing to mediation.
He said the musicians, having made major concessions including an average 14 percent pay cut two years ago to “do our part,” are standing strong this time.
“I’ve been here 23 years,” the cellist said. “I’ve never seen the orchestra so united, quite frankly.”
Hear AJC arts reporter Howard Pousner discuss the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra labor dispute in a 10-minute segment on New York public radio’s WQXR here.