With 4-year deal, can Atlanta Symphony finally get back in tune?

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Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano will lead the ASO and Chorus in the inaugural Shift Festival in Washington in 2017. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano insisted music should begin as soon as possible after the two-month musician lockout ended Saturday with the agreement on a four-year contract. Spano will lead the orchestra and ASO Chorus in Symphony Hall concerts Thursday and Saturday. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO.

After a rancorous two-month musician lockout that captured international media attention and scorched a trail through social media, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management and its players sounded a rare harmonious note in announcing a four-year collective bargaining agreement on Saturday.

“With this agreement, the Woodruff Arts Center showed a great commitment to maintaining a great orchestra in Atlanta,” said Paul Murphy, president of the ASO Players’ Association, the musician’s union. “That’s something I had feared was not the case, but I was heartened ultimately.”

Virginia Hepner, president and CEO of the Woodruff, the ASO’s parent nonprofit, said in a statement announcing the accord, “Over the last several difficult weeks of negotiations, both sides recognized that we all share the same goals and aspirations — we all want a world class orchestra that the musicians and city are proud of and one that has long-term financial stability.

“We believe this new agreement is one that will allow us to achieve those goals.”

Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of many labor negotiations, this one has been harsh, reflecting poorly on Atlanta’s arts support and ambitions as a cultural mecca.

The dispute has drawn wide 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.

The work to clean the tarnish of the nine-week lockout begins almost immediately.

In a surprise decision, the delayed 70th anniversary season will hurriedly launch on Thursday with music director Robert Spano conducting the orchestra and ASO Chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.

On Friday, when Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service acting director Allison Beck announced the tentative accord, orchestra officials believed a delay until Nov. 20 would be necessary to give players guest performing with other orchestras time to return and to rehearse.

But Spano, who took a strong and unusual public stand in support of his musicians during the lockout, pushed for the music to begin as soon as possible. Featuring concertmaster David Coucheron, the opening Symphony Hall program will repeat on Nov. 15.

The four-year deal, nurtured over the last month by mediators after the first month of the lockout produced no talks, finally brings resolution to the biggest sticking point throughout the negotiations: the size of the orchestra.

The ASO will start the 2014-15 season with XX musicians. By the end of the four-year contract, the "complement" is contracted to be XX. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO.

The ASO will start the 2014-15 season with 77 full-time musicians. By the end of the four-year contract, the “complement” is contracted to be a minimum of 88. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO.

The ASO, which was trimmed from 95 to 88 full-time players in the 2012 collective bargaining agreement, will start the delayed season with the 77 remaining musicians. That is the contracted number for year two, as well (though management has agreed to a stated goal of 81). The “complement” is contracted to grow to 84 by the end of year three and 88 by the end of year four.

The pact also calls for a 6 percent raise for the musicians over the four years and provides them a new high-deductible health care plan suggested by the players. The plan will double premium contributions, to $20 per week per musician, while saving the ASO $38,500 annually.

“What we did was allow enormous flexibility and a period of stabilization that the ASO and WAC management wanted building those numbers back,” associate principal viola player Murphy said of the complement. “But ultimately we will have the fixed complement of 88, and management has voiced its desire to have a larger orchestra than that, to build back to the 95 that we used to maintain.

“I have confidence in our development team,” he continued, “and I think that working together, musicians and the staff and the board and the community can achieve great results in the coming years.”

While many musician supporters and observers applauded the deal on social media, others questioned if the outlook is really that rosy for the ASO, which has finished the last dozen years with deficits, including $2 million in fiscal 2014.

“The Woodruff Arts Center hasn’t shown in 12 years that they can get profitable,” said Ron Antinori, a retired Atlanta businessman who resigned from the ASO board six months after being appointed to it when he said his efforts to quickly end the lockout were rebuffed by orchestra and Woodruff leaders. “What’s going to happen now that changes that trend? It’s not this agreement. This agreement is not going to resolve the bigger issue.”

Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant whose orchestra industry blog, adaptistration.com, has been a national go-to source on the imbroglio, viewed the protection of the complement as “a win” for the Players’ Association.

Before the lockout, management had refused to commit to specific numbers of full-time players, instead proposing a unique arrangement in which it would negotiate with Spano and musician representatives on whether and how individual musician positions would be filled as they became open. In cases where there was not a consensus, the administration would have had final say.

The Players’ Association held firm, and ultimately prevailed, that further reduction in their ranks, requiring a reliance on substitute players, would turn the Grammy-winning orchestra into a minor-league group.

But McManus said that it’s a mixed victory for the musicians at best.

“The part that is unanswered in all this is all of the structural problems that have cropped up since 2012,” he said, referring to allegations by the musicians in a string of Players’ Association statements and their supporters of mismanagement and even malfeasance by ASO and Woodruff leaders. Another issue that surfaced during the lockout were charges by Antinori and other ASO board members that the symphony board had been rendered toothless by the Woodruff’s governors.

“If all of those issues are truly as important as they were made to be by those individuals, the deal in and of itself doesn’t necessarily solve those problems,” McManus said.

Woodruff president and CEO Hepner, who was unavailable for comment Saturday, has defended the art center’s fund-raising and general support of the orchestra during a difficult economic time and said better days are ahead if it can perform with a more sustainable model.

Antinori still believes leaders were wrong to choose a lockout instead of a pay-and-talk strategy employed by some orchestras amid labor disputes.

“I think it’s had a disastrous effect,” Antinori said, noting the handful of musician departures since the end of the 2013-14 season and the lockout. He bemoaned “the lack of empathy by WAC, the big stick they were using.”

But McManus, who has blogged about numerous lockouts and strikes as money for orchestras and other large arts organizations tightened during the recession, characterized the degree of animus in the ASO crisis as typical, except for two aspects.

First were the quotes by Woodruff governing board chair Douglas Hertz in an AJC exclusive story that criticized metro area support for the ASO, fired back at the musicians’ for questioning the Woodruff’s stewardship (“It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people”) and even rebuked Spano for his overt support of his players (“Maybe Robert’s feeling a little bit guilty because he’s getting paid and the musicians aren’t”).

“I’m sure there were plenty of discussions between him and their attorney afterwards,” McManus said.

Given that maestros usually stay neutral in labor disputes, McManus also found “unusual” Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles’ politic public letter of support for the musicians that was followed by more strongly worded comments in the media.

“That was unique and very risky,” McManus said. “I’m very curious to see what happens to both of them.”

Through a publicist, Spano, who is guest conducting Miami’s New World Symphony this weekend, declined comment.

Murphy, who was driving to a wedding gig during an interview with the AJC — “Something I rarely do but I need the income until that paycheck starts coming back,” he acknowledged — said he had talked with music director earlier Saturday and “he was thrilled beyond measure.”

Meghan McCloskey, who posted a petition on change.org in late September urging the Woodruff Arts Center board to halt lockout, said she was happy it was over, as well, “although I wish the musicians received a better deal.”

More than 3,100 signed the petition over the last six weeks.

The Atlanta stay-at-home mom also joined forces with the nascent grassroots group Save Our Symphony Atlanta, whose Facebook page has more than 9,400 likes.

McCloskey said she believes the emergence of such support is the lockout’s silver lining.

“It has been wonderful to see so many people in the greater Atlanta area show their support to the ASO and the musicians by signing the petition, following SOSA and attending (benefit concerts and protests) — even if they aren’t classical music fans,” she said. It has jump-started a very necessary discussion on the financial health of the ASO.”

To educate leaders about that growing support in hopes of increasing arts funding, she said she plans to deliver the finished petition to the Woodruff board, with copies to Mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta City Council, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Fulton County Commission.

She might stop at Moe’s Southwest Grill at Ansley Mall along the way. Before the settlement, the eatery had planned to have a benefit for ASO players on Nov. 16.

“We have a lot of musicians who are regular customers of ours and I saw the strain that was being placed on them,” restaurant general manager Jamey Killingsworth said. “I wanted to do something to boost their spirits, have some fun, play their music. They’re good folks.”

The lockout “was something the city didn’t need,” he added. “A lot of the musicians were going to different cities to do fill-ins. I’m just tickled that they will get back and not miss the holiday season.”


ATLANTA SYMPHONY TIMELINE

May 31, 2012: After 10 consecutive years of operating deficits, the ASO’s accumulated debt rises to $23 million, including $18 million borrowed against earnings on the orchestra’s endowment.

Aug. 25, 2012: Musicians are locked out by ASO management, seeking significant concessions, when the sides are unable to reach a collective bargaining agreement.

Sept. 26, 2012: After a month without pay and benefits, players agree, with great rancor, to a $5.2 million wage reduction over two years (an average of $14,000 annually for each) and a cut in the orchestra’s size from 95 to 88 full-time musicians. The 2012-13 season starts on time.

Nov. 26, 2013: Moody’s Investors Service downgrades the Woodruff’s credit outlook from stable to negative. “The negative outlook is based on the deficit operations of the center and challenges presented by the symphony division,” it says in its report.

May 31, 2014: Orchestra finishes the 2014 fiscal year with a $2 million operating deficit on a budget of $37 million, its 12th consecutive year of red ink. Seeking to ease the financial pressure, the ASO and Woodruff’s boards agree to treat the $18 million borrowed against the ASO endowment as a distribution. That reduces orchestra’s accumulated debt to $5 million owed the Woodruff.

Sept. 7: After eight months of contract talks with minor progress, management locks out players for the second time in two years.

Sept. 22: With no negotiations for two weeks, management cancels the first eight concerts of the 70th anniversary season, through Nov. 8.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. CONTRIBUTED BY ASO

Sept. 24: Music director Robert Spano tells The New York Times: “This is a dire and critical juncture for the city of Atlanta, which is in danger of losing the flagship of its culture. If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?”

Sept. 11: ASO Players’ Association issues statement charging, “The Symphony has been placed in the position of turning deficits that have been engineered by the WAC with the intention and for the purpose of extracting more concessions from the Orchestra’s musicians.”

Sept. 29: ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein resigns, saying in a statement that he doesn’t want to be an “impediment” to management reaching a labor agreement with musicians.

Oct. 4: Responding to allegations by the musicians and their supporters of mismanagement and malfeasance, Woodruff governing board chairman Douglas Hertz tells the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “It makes you wonder, you know, are we supporting a bunch of crazy people.” Musicians issue statement that Hertz is more interested in the bottom line than in “preserving the high artistic standards of the institution he has a duty as a steward to serve and protect” and that he’s willing to “‘break the backs of employees.”

Oct. 7: Mediators with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service restart talks for the first time since the lockout began.

Nov. 7: Tentative accord announced by mediator.

Nov. 8: After a two-month lockout, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management and its players formally announced a four-year collective bargaining agreement.

Nov. 13 and 15: Opening concerts of the delayed 70th anniversary season launch.

HOWARD POUSNER


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