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Atlanta: a no-go, bad-ass orchestra

Players in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra offered $4 million in wage concessions to help bridge a $20 million accumulated deficit. The board of the Woodruff Center locked them out without pay or healthcare for three weeks in order to squeeze an extra $1.2 million.

The players finally caved in. The process has left the orchestra looking like one of the less accessible no-go areas of a ruined downtown. Players around the country are refusing to audition for vacancies in Atlanta, knowing its bad-ass reputation. Some of the best Atlanta players are auditioning elsewhere.

The musicians who have been left trapped in its negative equity deserve our fullest sympathy in the months and years ahead. Nothing less than a total culture change in the Woodruff Center’s management will restore this stricken orchestra.

The orchestra has a music director, by the way. His name is Robert Spano. No-one has heard a peep from him. What kind of leadership is that?

Here’s the ASO’s press release:

ATLANTA — A two-year labor agreement between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA), the Atlanta Federation of Musicians, Local 148-462, and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management was announced today. This will allow the Orchestra’s 2012-13 season to open as scheduled on Thursday, October 4, 2012, with Music Director Robert Spano and the renowned violinist Midori.


The new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the musicians covers the period from September 23, 2012, through September 6, 2014, and amounts to $2.4 million in annual contractual savings. Additional savings will come as a result of ASO senior staff compensation —which will be reduced by 6% for the duration of the two-year contract— as well as unfilled staff positions, and savings from foregone wages and benefits from the musicians.


Management must still generate at least an additional $2.5 million in earned and contributed revenues to balance the annual projected budget deficit gap of $5 million. The Orchestra’s accumulated deficit is approaching $20 million — its annual operating budget is $45 million and its annual revenue is approximately $40 million.



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  1. Simone Genuini says:

    Bob Spano is what you call a “Time Beater”. The rest is absolutely stiff like a wood music making. He played good politics with Alison Vulgamore that land him the job in Atlanta. Let’s see how long he will last in Atlanta!!

  2. Maestro Flash Montoya says:

    Dear Norman,
    stateside “bad-ass” has evolved into a positive expression, like “that’s a bad-ass Ferrari.” I’d be quite flattered should I have a “bad-ass” reputation, but I don’t think that’s what you’re referring to.
    Best regards

    • Firsttime poster says:

      Yes, that confused me too.

    • Flash is right – “bad-ass” is a badge of honor on this side of the pond – although I have never once heard it uttered in reference to a major symphony orchestra in anything but a colloquial exchange between players – as in “Yeah, Chicago’s brass section in the 60s was bad-ass.” Certainly something you’d never hear in the loge of a hall…;-)

    • Yes. I recollect a review of one particular singer’s performance. The singer was called, “bad-ass,” in the most flattering terms. In context, it means tough, cool and something to admire.

      I found the use of the term very confusing; I assumed the article suggested it was a tough, cool orchestra forging a new way.

  3. Norman:

    At least on this side of the pond, music directors have usually remained silent in matters regarding management/musician negotiations (think Leonard Slatkin in Detroit). It seems as though the U.S. MD can be caught in the middle of a public battle that will end up being ugly on all sides. That being said, it would be hoped that Mr. Spano and others would work behind the scenes to assure that such things do not occur in the future. The MD has duties to management, i.e. assisting fundraising efforts in all ways possible. That is an expectation of his/her duties to an American orchestra. The service to the musicians should be obvious although he/she should be working diligently with management to assure the quality of the product and its contribution to the community.

    • Brian, I seem to remember Slatkin saying a few words. Nothing incendiary, just expressing his personal distress and his sympathy for the musicians.

    • I think Nagano said something in Montreal too. Music Directors do walk a fine line, though. These issues are complex and I think we all agree that the business model in many American orchestras is in need of serious rethinking, and musicians need to be in on the process in a much more active way. I think if everyone understands what is involved, what everything costs. and the process needed to get that money, and there is proactive involvement of everyone who is affected, then these types of horrible situations can be avoided.

      And yes, badass is definitely assumed to be a positive term in the US. I was really confused reading this headline!

  4. Norman, to the best of your encyclopedic knowledge, when was the last time that a conductor of a major orchestra (in the USA or elsewhere) went public in support of musicians during a labour disruption?

    • Phew, Colin, that’s a tough one. Anyone else remember?

      • Just remembering Ivan Fischer standing up on stage before performances of Kent Opera . Arts Council funding withdrawn and that disappeared without trace.

        Presuming that “management” are not total idiots, in fact probably more financially astute than the average musician, getting them some support and constructive help in sorting out a problem for the benefit of everyone would not be a bad thing. Badgering them with endless criticism and interpretation of events based on minimal knowledge of the actual situation and hearsay does nothing to help anyone (except journalists probably). Showing impartial genuine concern, yes.

        BTW, negative equity and being trapped in it… money does not disappear, it goes somewhere, in this case also to musicians. I am sure they will also be keen to help management do what they can to clear this all up rather than create a total shambles that will end up in nobody wanting to rescue anything.

  5. Michal Kaznowski says:

    Sir Simon Rattle stood on the picket line outside the now non existant BBC Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham in suport of the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra in the early 80′s.

  6. The music director of Ohio’s Columbus Symphony (forgive me, I can’t remember his name, but he was Japanese) stood up publicly for his musicians during a labor dispute in the middle of the last decade. He was almost immediately fired by CEO Tony Beadle.

  7. I think I remember says:

    Larry Foster spoke out in favor of his musicians in Houston during a bitter strike in the 70s. It more or less ended his career with American Orchestras.

  8. Thanks, Michal — but look where he ended up! Poor Sir Simon was exiled to Germany to lead an obscure group called the Berlin Philharmonic. Clearly his pro-musician solidarity was the beginning of his career’s downward spiral.

  9. Mark Stryker says:

    American music directors stay mum because they are literally caught in the middle — they are hired by the board but cannot function without the goodwill of the musicians. Even fairly innocuous comments can easily be misconstrued, so as a result they tend to seek sanctuary behind a veil of neutrality. Slatkin stayed mum during the Detroit strike — he did not express public words of sympathy for the musicians as Norman suggests. However, he did work behind the scenes, talking with players, board members and management to do what he could to help bring about a resolution.

    The Columbus (Ohio) Symphony conductor referenced in Sam’s post was Junichi Hirokami, who took the players’ side and a 2008 dispute. In an interview with the New York Times he called the orchestra board “stupid people” and castigating them for not raising enough money. “I don’t care if they fire me,” he told the Times. The board obliged, dismissing him six months later.

    The only high-profile example that I know of in America of a conductor who took sides in a labor dispute who survived was Mstislav Rostropovich, who walked the picket line with the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington during a strike in the 1970s or ’80s. However, Rostropovich was uniquely protected politically from any backlash given his own personal history with the Soviet Union and his role as a symbol during the cold war.

    • Thanks, Mark. I thought I had seen a statement from Leonard, but it may have been a private communication.

    • What happened with Slava, I’m told, is this: On the second day of strike, the musicians picketed in an area of the Kennedy Center that was deemed off-limits to protests. Slava came out and marched with the musicians, not for the contract but to keep them out of jail, as threats had been made by the police that they might be arrested for illegal picketing.

  10. bratschegirl says:

    Mark Stryker has it right. Music directors of American orchestras, even if they maintain membership in the musicians’ union as some do, are officially “management,” and as such are obligated to toe the company line in public or else risk dismissal and future unemployability in the industry. MDs are not part of the musicians’ bargaining unit and have none of the collective bargaining agreement’s protections, only those of their personal contracts with the organizations, which can be renewed or not at the Board’s whim. They are truly in a no-win situation in these circumstances, since pissing off one well-placed individual can torpedo a career. A MD as visible to the public and as personally identified with the institution as, say, MTT in San Francisco, has perhaps some insulation from this risk, but the majority do not.

  11. Rena Fruchter says:

    I think it’s pathetic that Spano remained silent. Nobody cares whether he worked behind the scenes or not–the impression of his complete silence was that he left his entire orchestra to drown. A few words from him in support of his orchestra would have gone a long way toward showing the public and the administration that he cared. Instead, he comes off as someone scared to antagonize the administration, even when their actions were continuously reprehensible. It was clear that he cared more about having his job than supporting his musicians in their biggest time of need.

  12. This group of musicians has been beaten into submission by Dr. R. and his Woodruff Overlords. They are thoroughly demoralized, and deserve so much better than this.In my opinion, the largest obstacle to success here is the oppressive Woodruff/ASO governance structure. If I were called in to consult, these would be among my recommendations:

    1. Set the ASO free. Get out from under the Woodruff – go play somewhere else until a new hall can be built. Anywere. Get Woodruff to turn loose of the ASO’s share of the endowment.

    2. Sell SD & A to raise capital and pay off debt.

    3. Sell Verizon Ampitheater to raise capital and pay off debt.

    4. Completely overhaul staff, top to bottom and focus only on putting on great concerts and raising money.

    5. Create a musician/staff/board culture dedicated to making lives better through music.

  13. I agree with Nuvakwahu, and couldn’t say it better. The structure of WAC/ASO administrations makes it very difficult for people and companies to donate to the orchestra and know that the funds will truly support the orchestra. The ASO needs to be independent of the Woodruff Arts Center, and the sooner that happens, the better it will be for the orchestra. And yes, overhaul the staff! Does the ASO need almost one whole staff member per musician? Really?

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