Atlanta’s greatest cultural edifice is nothing made of marble, steel or glass. But it is monumental, as anyone should understand who has heard the combined Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus do a big piece like the Verdi Requiem.
That great alliance of professionals and volunteers is scheduled to perform the Verdi work, an ASO standard since the days of Robert Shaw, next month at an event sponsored by the Atlanta Anti-Defamation League honoring the Jewish prisoners who learned and performed it in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II.
But like Midori’s performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, the world premier of Michael Gandolfi’s Concerto for Clarinet and Strings and dozens more potentially memorable performances, the Requiem may not be heard. The symphony musicians have been subjected to what sounds like a classic union lockout.
“In many ways, the ASO’s a family,” ASO president Stanley Romanstein says in a video presenting management’s case in the dispute. But, he goes on, “in addition to being a family, the ASO is also a business, and our business has a problem. We’ve lost money, serious money, every year for the past 10 years.”
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Player’s Association (ASOPA) says that it made major concessions before talks over a new two-year contract broke down, and disputes the amount of the shortfall in the projected budget.
Symphony musicians are relatively well-paid, but as a letter from ASOPA to the ASO board makes clear, the path to the symphony stage isn’t an easy one.
“Our instruments put many of us into debt that dwarfs student loans, auto loans, and even mortgages,” the letter says. “ASO musicians’ level of expertise is comparable to that of major-league athletes, surgeons, lawyers or top engineers: it takes virtuoso musicians and years of working together to develop the cohesive, subtle, powerful sound that the ASO capably produces week after week. If it was easy to plug musicians into a group and sound fabulous, every city would have an internationally recognized orchestra!”
At times in his video, Romanstein sounds like he’s channeling Paul Ryan: “If we’re to have that bright future that everyone in our family wants, we have to stop the borrowing and get out of debt, now.”
But musicians are, by the harsh necessity of their profession, “fiscal conservatives ourselves,” the ASOPA letter says. Romanstein refers to the musician’s salaries as the single largest part of the ASO budget; the ASOPA letter points out that this is 28 percent of the overall budget.
The simmering dispute has bled into another public relations nightmare for the ASO, its decision not to perform for a fifth season with the choirs of Lassiter and Walton high schools. There being at least a dozen good high school choirs to choose from in the area, this might not have been controversial if the schools hadn’t been informed, according to Cobb County Schools spokesman Jay Dillon, that they were “not diverse enough.” Not only was this something of a howler, given the overall complexion of the symphony and chorus, but it’s a most unfortunate headline for a time when the orchestra’s patrons are being asked to dig deeper.
Having “sat by in dismay” at the deteriorating situation, the musicians offered to perform for free at all the affected high schools.
Opinions about which side is right in the symphony contract dispute can vary as widely as tastes in music, but it’s important to understand both the symphony’s value to the community, and its fragility.
The ASO isn’t the only American orchestra to run into budget problems over the past few years, notably including the revered Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy last year under the leadership of Allison Vulgamore, Romanstein’s predecessor in Atlanta.
But there may be no city where the silencing of the symphony would mean quite so much to the cultural impression the city makes on the world. Through an era encompassing several superstar conductors and 27 Grammy Awards, the ASO has been both solidly traditional, embracing Shaw and his legacy, and cutting edge, in its patronage under Robert Spano of the contemporary composers sometimes referred to as the Atlanta School. (The recordings assembled by NPR blogger Tom Huizenga give a good sense of this.)
But as the musicians’ letter points out, great ensembles don’t stay together very long under such circumstances. Unless something changes pretty quickly, the city’s greatest cultural achievement is in danger of becoming a series of reissues.
The final performance in the ASO’s season which ended in June was an impressive staging of “A Flowering Tree,” an opera by John Adams, based on a South Indian folk tale of a maiden who learns to transform herself into a beautiful tree. After attracting the attentions of a prince, she is tricked by the prince’s sister into becoming a stumplike monster, wandering the land until she is returned to her original beauty by the prince’s return, in a finale filled with Adams’ lush harmonies and the visual pyrotechnics of Symphony V.o.
We can only hope the current drama follows a similar plotline, and the prince shows up quick. Right now, the opera is looking pretty grim.