Climbing the Mountain: An Alpine Symphony

Such a curious piece, Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony.

The music itself is remarkable—and it’s no surprise that it has so many passionate advocates. Vladimir Ashkenazy has called it a profound musical experience. Emmanuel Villaume remarked that for him, conducting the score was like being a kid in a candy store: “The colors, mastering all these climaxes, mixing all these textures is absolutely fascinating and an exhilarating experience for a conductor. It’s an absolute total masterpiece.” And of course, Edo de Waart, who for years served as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Artistic Director, has made An Alpine Symphony one of his signatures. During his tenure, the Orchestra performed the work on several occasions; together they recorded a 1989 CD that earned raves.

But this is sweeping music that no CD or sound file can ever fully contain. It requires such a huge number of performers that orchestras’ business offices get twitchy whenever it’s scheduled—Strauss even includes a part for heckelphone, or baritone oboe.

That said, An Alpine Symphony is much more than an empty showstopper… it is a profoundly spiritual work that is immensely moving, too.

Thus, you don’t want to miss this week’s performances at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis.

Need to be convinced? Let me explain a little bit about what you’ll hear.

* * *

Let me say flat out that An Alpine Symphony is astonishing. While it is nominally about an ascent and decent through the mountains, there is so much more to it, too.

In the early 1910s, Strauss was in a philosophical mood. A series of events had touched him deeply, including the death of his friend Gustav Mahler. Inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, he began to think more broadly about the idea of humans striving toward greatness and achieving some sort profound enlightenment. How can a person achieve this awakening? Can a society as a whole achieve it, too? For many, the means to achieving this spiritual awakening is through organized religion; Strauss, however, felt this was inadequate and began looking elsewhere for enlightenment. Not just a pilgrimage, per se, but what about some sort of secular pilgrimage?

Ultimately, these ideas became the genesis of An Alpine Symphony.

This new work was designed to be a spiritual journey couched in the idea of climbing a mountain. As he wrote in his diary, this new work represented “moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.”

And this is indeed the crux of An Alpine Symphony. It has all the surface details of a straightforward hike up a mountain, including depictions of cowbells, birdsongs, and howling wind. But at its heart it is a profoundly spiritual journey.

In a way, I can’t help but think of a similar work by a contemporary of Strauss: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s visionary The Pilgrim’s Progress. This work, which had its origins at roughly the same time as the premiere of An Alpine Symphony, similarly focuses on the idea of a spiritual quest. And like Strauss, Vaughan Williams wondered what such a journey would look like outside of traditional Christian theology. As a result, he freely adapted John Bunyan’s famous allegory, tweaking the story so that it would resonate with anyone whether they were Christian or not.

But although they both outline a spiritual journey, The Pilgrim’s Progress and An Alpine Symphony differ in one key respect. Over the course of their respective journeys, the Pilgrim and the Alpine hikers face many incidental moments. But for Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim, these incidents are nearly always obstacles or challenges that must overcome—they distract him and seek to deflect him from his course. The destination is the only thing that matters.

But for Strauss, these incidental details are not to be avoided… they are to be savored. The moments are woven into the pilgrimage itself, so that the emphasis is not just on reaching the destination, but experiencing the journey itself.

* * *

And what a journey it is! An Alpine Symphony is a glorious 50-minute tone poem that seamlessly moves from dawn to dusk as a mountaineering party climbs to a mountain’s summit, and then returns.

The work opens in a murky world of pre-dawn darkness. While the opening chord is nominally B flat minor, it is a modernist tone cluster that seems to contain all the notes of the scale. The protagonists gathers their belongings and prepare for their ascent…

…and then the sun rises.

It is one of the most vivid dawns in all of music, breaking free in a wave of sound that never fails to stun. This orchestral blaze alone is worth the price of admission.

And with that, the journey begins in 22 sections that flow together without a break.

The “Ascent” is excited and hearty, full of energy for a day’s climb. Strauss uses a sturdy quarter-note theme to represent the hikers’ footsteps.

Here on the lower elevations, there are still signs of humans, and Strauss includes horns to signify distant hunters—they appear right before the “Entry Into the Woods.” Once inside the forest, Strauss creates a playful atmosphere by having the clarinet and flute mimic birdcalls. “Wandering Along the Stream” includes a swirl of strings; as the hikers pass by a waterfall, a stepwise harp figure suggests they see an apparition of a mountain spirit in the mist. “In a Flowering Meadow” follows, with the violins playing out a folk-like melody. A grand vista opens revealing a flower-lined pasture, and we hear cowbells and yodels off in the distance. At this point, the hiking party loses their way, in a chaotic section called “Through Thicket and Underbrush the Wrong Way.”

Worse is to come, as the hikers near the summit. “On the Glacier” is a treacherous, icy section that gives way to a hair-raising section, “Dangerous Moments.”  Here, the journey almost comes to an untimely end.

But the party perseveres, and is amply rewarded for its endurance. At “On the Summit,” the hikers literally reach high point of the work, and it is glorious. With music that recalls the sunrise at the beginning of the work—and also suggests the famous opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra—the mists part and the hikers see they have made it to the peak. It is a moment of profound understanding that words cannot adequately describe.

But there is more. With the most subtle of transitions, Strauss moves into the section, “Visions,” which forms the true climax of the work. The hikers gaze out on Creation… but this is about more than just taking in a vast landscape. At this moment, the climbers find what they are seeking. They are Elevated—finding spiritual fulfillment through their own strength, persistence, and communion with nature.

With that they turn and begin the homeward journey. Obstacles remain, but fortified by their success the party winds its way back down the mountain as darkness settles in again. The music harkens back to the opening pages of the work, but it feels somehow lighter—illuminated by the profound journey that has just taken place.

It is an astonishing journey, through both physical and spiritual realms. And in the end, we too find a quiet enlightenment.

* * *

The music alone is a powerful draw. But what moves this concert into the “can’t miss” category is the performers we have on hand. A brilliant conductor who specializes in this powerful score? Along with an orchestra playing at the top of its game? What are you waiting for?

This is why we go to live concerts.

Get your tickets now.



A Response to Virginia Hepner

While I was in London, I missed a curious tidbit from the labor dispute between the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), and the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) who have locked them out.

In brief, the musicians had raised questions about the actions of WAC Chairman Doug Hertz while he was serving on the Board of Administrators for Tulane University.  The musicians noted that Hertz was involved in a series of controversial cost-cutting actions directed against Tulane’s tenured faculty, and compared these actions with his similar cost-cutting plans at the ASO.

The curious point is that WAC President Virginia Hepner gave a strongly-worded defense of Hertz’s actions, as well as the actions of the WAC as a whole.

Her full quote reads:

The protracted financial challenges at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are very serious and threaten the health of the entire Woodruff Arts Center.   The ASO has had 12 years of accumulated deficits, a severe reduction in its endowment and an annual operating gap that we cannot afford to continue. Over the last eight months, ou team has proposed many potential scenarios to the musicians in an attempt to find a solution to the problem. We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation. We are saddened that they are attempting to disparage the reputation of Doug Hertz, our chairman.  He is widely recognized as one of the most successful and generous leaders in Atlanta and we feel extremely fortunate to have his ongoing support at The Woodruff Arts Center. Our fervent hope is that a federal mediator will bring calm to the protests, picketing and petitions and get us back to meaningful progress at the negotiating table.

I take great issue with this statement, and want to post a quick rebuttal.

* * *

“The protracted financial challenges at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are very serious and threaten the health of the entire Woodruff Arts Center.”

With respect, the WAC’s tax documents (the 990s) suggest a completely different story, one that is bolstered by information provided by the musicians. For one, it appears that the ASO is not the poorest performer at the WAC.

More to the point, there is also credible evidence that the WAC has systematically starved the ASO for funds over the past few years. The ASO musicians have pointed out that in both 2012 and 2014 the WAC received substantial funds from the sale of two properties and gifts that could have “mitigated or eliminated completely” the orchestra’s annual deficit in those years. After receiving a $15 million gift from the Woodruff Foundation in November 2011, the musicians noted, the WAC gave $5 million to the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum to retire debt. No funds were allocated to the ASO, which had an accumulated debt of $20 million. Perhaps the most curious fact that when the WAC sold off property, the proceeds were not shared with the ASO at all—in one case, the proceeds were donated to another non-profit.

There may be a perfectly benign rationale for all this, but I am skeptical.

Even so, this pattern of activity clearly demonstrates that the WAC’s revenue and expense streams are so intertwined, and so convoluted, that it is impossible to put all the blame on the ASO for the financial troubles of the entire organization.

Ms. Hepner, you would need much more evidence to make such a statement. And given the numerous opportunities for you to have done so, in response to many, many requests that you do so… well, I find it telling that you have not.

“The ASO has had 12 years of accumulated deficits, a severe reduction in its endowment and an annual operating gap that we cannot afford to continue.”

So you say. As I’ve argued, we saw similar strong, declarative sentences like this made by the leadership of the Minnesota Orchestra during the lockout in Minneapolis. But upon closer inspection, they turned out to be less than truthful.  In the case of Minnesota, it became clear that money was systematically, and deliberately, moved around the organization so that different “results” could be shown to different audiences.

Plus, the Minnesota Orchestra’s posted deficits were artificial.  As the minutes from the board meetings revealed, a PR firm was contracted to come up with a deficit number that would look serious enough to support management’s claim that substantial budget cuts were necessary, but not so severe that investors and donors would be spooked. The PR firm in question suggested a $6 million deficit; the Orchestra’s management subsequently manipulated its fundraising efforts and endowment draws to achieve this number.

With this sordid history in mind, I approach Ms. Hepner’s statement with a healthy degree of skepticism.

As I noted above, the ASO musicians have shown that the WAC received significant assets over the last two years, but chose not to allocate those resources towards the ASO. These actions have raised significant questions about priorities of the WAC leadership that have not yet been satisfactorily answered—is the WAC financially starving the ASO as part of a strategy to break the musicians’ union?

But there’s another thing I’m curious about. This is nearly the identical argument the WAC made two years ago during the last lockout. Logically, the WAC leadership would have had to have known about the financial problems the organization faced, and laid plans to address them. After all, the rationale for the previous round of concessions was that they would buy the ASO some much-needed time to get its financial house in order.

So what did the WAC do to right the ship?

Where was the capital campaign to grow the endowment, or at least support programming? Where was the boost in annual fundraising efforts? Where were the increased “good faith” gifts from major donors and corporations? Renewed marketing pitches? Audience building initiatives? Streamlined operations? Has the WAC done anything to improve the ASO’s finances?

It isn’t just me asking these questions… many are wondering the same thing. And we’re still waiting for answers.

It seems odd, then, that Ms. Hepner would bring up this point to bash the musicians—the financial failures of the past few years are a far bigger indictment of her administration than of the musicians.

And if the WAC hasn’t tackled the much bigger, much more pervasive financial problems within the organization, why on earth would simple pay cuts to the musicians make any difference?  All that will do is, again, buy a couple years’ time… and the situation will be identical to the one today.  We’ll all still be in the exact same place.

“Over the last eight months, our team has proposed many potential scenarios to the musicians in an attempt to find a solution to the problem.”

This statement is mendacious, at best. No, the WAC has only proposed one scenario: massive cuts on the part of the musicians. Granted, there are many ways that the cuts could be implemented, but the WAC leadership has made it clear that the total, aggregate amount of cuts is non-negotiable. As I’ve said before, a cashier asking you if you wish to pay for an item by cash, check, or credit card does not mean you are negotiating about the item’s price. Plus, these “negotiations” don’t change the fundamental fact that no one else is asked to make any sacrifices or come up with new ways of doing business.

I’m sorry, but the WAC is not negotiating solutions—it is demanding concessions.

“We continue to ask the musicians for constructive ideas to help us address these challenges and we are frustrated that they have turned a deaf ear to the situation.”

It’s a bit embarrassing to read this, as it is demonstrably untrue. The WAC negotiators dragged their heels for months leading up to the lockout, and refused to meet with the musicians at all in the final days before the contract expired. The WAC has also engaged in delaying tactics as the two sides entered into mediation, and launched a public relations campaign against the musicians. As a labor negotiation tactic.

And Ms. Hepner states the musicians have turned a deaf ear to the situation?

“We are saddened that they are attempting to disparage the reputation of Doug Hertz, our chairman.”

In two separate interviews (here and here), Mr. Hertz insulted every writer covering the ASO lockout, the much-loved artistic leadership of the ASO, and the musicians themselves by suggesting they were “crazy people.” No… I think Hertz is disparaging his own reputation, quite without the help of anyone else.

Plus, his previous actions at past organizations are public knowledge, and obviously germane to this labor dispute. The musicians are right to bring them up.

“He is widely recognized as one of the most successful and generous leaders in Atlanta and we feel extremely fortunate to have his ongoing support at The Woodruff Arts Center.”

Interesting. Three things here. First, one could point out that the musicians of the ASO have won 27 Grammys, and give greatly of their time and talents to their community. Are they not also successful and generous? Why no comparable praise for them?

And just a few sentences ago, Hepner stated that the organization is in dire financial straits, racking up deficits and seeing a collapse in the endowment. But Doug Hertz is the leader of the organization, and presumably presiding over these troubles. With respect, doesn’t he bear any responsibility for them? By Hepner’s own statements above, it seems that “extremely fortunate” is a bit hyperbolic.

Which brings up the final point. Hertz may be successful in his for-profit business. But does he have expertise in non-profit management? These are very different things. In the same way that a manufacturing magnate will not automatically be successful at running a healthcare facility or a hotel chain, a for-profit leader might not have the necessary skills to run a non-profit. There is a completely different skill set involved, and each area requires an entirely different business model.

“Our fervent hope is that a federal mediator will bring calm to the protests, picketing and petitions and get us back to meaningful progress at the negotiating table.”

Fascinating that your “fervent hope” is for a “calm to the protests,” rather than a resolution to the dispute. Or for that matter, a strong, unified organization ready to face the financial and artistic challenges of the future.

I’d also point out something. Ms. Hepner, you could calm the protests right now by stopping the lockout and engaging in play-and-talk while negotiations proceed. Why don’t you, if calming protests is your fervent hope? Such power is entirely in your grasp, right now.








A few short weeks ago there was a new development in the ongoing labor dispute between the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). Following a few false starts, both sides agreed to meet with federal mediator Allison Beck to try and find a resolution.

Those who have been following the most recent rash of labor disputes rippling through the world of classical music could foresee one of two potential outcomes, based on the experiences of two different ensembles.  On the one hand, the move toward mediation could follow the path of the Metropolitan Opera, where mediation brought both sides together, leading to a mutually-acceptable compromise. As Alison Beck was a key figure in these negotiations, there was certainly hope that she would be able to bring both sides together in Atlanta, too.

The other possibility is that the attempt at mediation could follow the path of the Minnesota Orchestra. While this case also involved an eminent peace-maker (Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland), no accord was reached. The Minnesota Orchestra negotiators ultimately refused Mitchell’s proposals, arguing that if they accepted them they would “lose leverage” to use against their musicians.

So what would be the result in Atlanta? Would a seasoned veteran be able to hammer out an agreement? Or would both sides end up as far apart as ever?

Well… based on the developments of the last 24 hours or so, my impression is that we’re closer to the Minnesota model, rather than the Met model.

And sadly, looking at the actions of the WAC thus far, I’m increasingly suspicious that it has only agreed to mediation as part of a stalling tactic.

* * *

To begin, it appears that the WAC representatives are only indifferently taking part in the mediation process, as evidenced by a letter sent to the ASO board of directors. (Oddly enough, the ASO board is only indirectly involved in negotiations—it is the WAC’s board that has the real authority to make decisions.) In this letter, the musicians note that the two sides have met only twice since Allison Beck came on-board, and that after the second session on October 8, WAC management asked for a “pause” with no additional negotiating sessions scheduled.

“We have not heard from the WAC about the results of the ‘pause’ they sought in the mediation process,” wrote the musicians, “but clearly, once again, they arrived at the table with neither proposals nor the ability to authorize a deal.”

In response, the WAC sent out a letter of its own. In it, WAC spokesman and negotiator J. Thomas Kilpatrick gave bland assurance that there was no pause, and certainly no attempt to stall negotiations. He also noted that “We look forward to meeting next week and are prepared to continue to bargain in good faith.”

With respect, I simply don’t believe Mr. Kilpatrick.

I want to be clear that I am not accusing him of lying—I have no direct knowledge of the negotiations and have no basis or justification for doing so. But still, based on the words and actions of the WAC leadership to date, it would be foolish to take any of their statements at face value. Why so? Well, leaders of the ASO and WAC have a history of making statements that are not exactly true.

Allow me to provide some examples.

  • Back when the lockout first began in early September, the musicians accused then-ASO President Stanley Romanstein of going back on his word. They noted that when the last lockout ended back in 2012, Romanstein made a commitment to the musicians that the ASO would not seek similar concessions in the future. Because of this, the musicians have seen the current lockout as a specific betrayal of trust. When asked if he had indeed made such a promise two years ago, Romanstein vehemently denied it. Well, an audio recording of Romanstein actually making that very remark has indeed emerged, leading to broader questions about the WAC’s truthfulness. Writer Drew McManus, for example, openly expressed “concerns about a larger, calculated degree of duplicity and whether or not it was limited to this one senior WAC executive or the entire executive committee.”
  • Last month, the ASO leadership sent out misleading emails cancelling the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) auditions. In the version sent to the press, the ASO was studiously neutral about the cause of the cancelations, but in the version sent to the students and the broader public, it explicitly blamed the union. Making different statements to different constituencies does not help your credibility.
  • And finally, there was the leadership’s “announcement” that both sides had agreed to mediation in the first place. This was news to the musicians—they had not agreed to mediation at the time, and in fact had not even been contacted by the proposed mediator.

For these reasons, I feel it would be foolhardy to trust any statements from the WAC without first verifying them with independent sources.

But there is another problem with Kilpatrick’s description of events… it just doesn’t make sense.

Again let me reiterate: the musicians have been locked out by management against their will. Right now, they are going without pay and insurance, and under Georgia state law they are ineligible for unemployment. But they still have mortgages to pay. They still have tuition to pay. They still have a whole series of bills to pay. And if they have any kind of medical condition ranging from pink-eye to cancer, they have medical bills to pay.

It is not in their best interests to delay. Even for a moment.

So of course they’ve been anxious to restart negotiations. The musicians want this resolved as quickly as possible. That is precisely why they sent their letter to the ASO board—to try to get the WAC negotiators back to the table and keep discussions moving along.

This is what makes Kilpatrick’s account of events so bizarre. As quoted by Howard Pousner:

“Kilpatrick said that after ‘extensive discussions’ with the mediators on Oct. 7 and 8, the negotiation teams adjourned to update and add to their original proposals. ‘In the words of the mediators, it was time to put some of the shared ideas “on paper,” ’ Kilpatrick wrote. ‘This was precisely what ASOPA had asked us to do — make new proposals to show our good faith.’

“The attorney said he called the mediators on Monday with an offer for the sides to meet on Wednesday, then [Alison Beck’s associate Richard] Giacolone notified him on Tuesday ‘that the union was not available for a meeting this week.’ With Beck out of the country next week, Kilpatrick recounted that Giacolone confirmed on Wednesday that he will lead negotiating sessions next Tuesday through Thursday.”

First, Kilpatrick seems to suggest that Federal Mediator Alison Beck told the WAC leadership to take a week or so and write up a new proposal. Really? To what end? And how much time could he need for this exercise?

Kilpatrick and the WAC certainly know the sticking points of negotiations. They have to know the areas of concern for the musicians, as these points have been covered extensively in the press. And surely Kilpatrick had an inkling of how far the WAC would go when he walked into the room—if he didn’t, why was he a negotiator? I mean, this is how negotiations work… both sides send in deputies who are knowledgeable about the key issues, and are authorized to engage in the process and make decisions.

I have to believe that if Kilpatrick was asked to put some ideas on paper, he could have written up new terms on the back of an envelope and slid it across the table right there and then. If there was a larger question or if he needed feedback from someone higher up, he could have stepped quietly into another room and made a phone call.

How much time does he need?

But then, the story gets even weirder. Kilpatrick goes on to describe that for some reason, when he finally got his ideas on paper, he called the mediation team only to discover that “the union” was not available for a meeting—this is unfortunate, in that the Alison Beck was out of the country the following week, and any negotiations that occurred during this time would have to be conducted by her associate, Richard Giacolone.  So, more delays.

I’m sorry, but this story makes no sense.

If it is in their best interests to negotiate, why would the musicians (not “the union”) so blithely wave off an opportunity to meet over an entire week, especially since the head mediator was unavailable the following week? Not to disparage Richard Giacolone’s abilities, but why would the musicians willingly seek to bypass the services of a top federal mediator, and further complicate an already complicated situation, when they so clearly want to end the dispute? What possible motive would they have for such a delay? What advantage could they possibly hope to gain from it?

Isn’t it far more likely that this is simply a delaying tactic, as the musicians allege? Isn’t it more logical that the WAC is hoping to delay the proceedings as part of its clear strategy to starve out the musicians—to inflict maximum financial pain so that they’ll accept painful concessions they would never otherwise agree to?

* * *

At the end of the day, this is just depressing. Many had hoped that Alison Beck would be able to come in and find a solution that both sides could agree to. But based on the WAC’s actions of the last two weeks or so, I think it’s clear that it doesn’t want a solution… it just wants to starve out the musicians.

And I don’t quite know how Ms. Beck will be able to work around that.



A London Holiday

Thank you for visiting my blog! I’m running off to London, St. Albans and Canterbury for a holiday, and don’t plan on posting until I return. In truth, I thought it would be a tad excessive to ask our house-sitter to water the plants, keep the kitchen clean… and to write articles on federal mediation, non-profit management, and the intricacies of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra labor dispute. Not since I’m already making them deal with our famously unfriendly cat.

Please check back later; and in the meantime, you are welcome to check out my playlist honoring the great city of London.





A Horrifying Interview with Douglas Hertz

Well, it has been an active day on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) front. On the one hand, there was an explosive press statement made by the musicians. And now to bookend the day, there is an exclusive interview with Douglas Hertz, chairman of the Governing Board of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC).

I thought I was going to have a quiet evening, but Mr. Hertz’s comments really need to be addressed.

* * *

“ ‘I disagree that the public has sided with the musicians. I think the artists’ friends have sided with the artists. But I think the corporate community and the philanthropic community understands, like any businessperson would, we’re not going to make an investment in a business that keeps losing money.’ ”

Mr. Hertz, with respect, this can be reversed to say exactly the same thing about you and the board: “I think the corporate community has sided with the board.”

Of course your like-minded friends feel the same way you do… that’s just how the world works.

The real question is to what degree the public at large thinks about this topic, how passionately they feel, and what they as a whole decide to do as a result. You sidestep those issues entirely… but those are the issues that will ultimately determine what happens here.

And I do find it striking that you seem to think the public might be on your side—although public pressure has already forced Stanley Romanstein to resign. And, apparently, you to agree to this interview.

“ ‘It’s frustrating, because the whole allegation, whether it’s by musicians or supporters of musicians, or journalists who want to take the musicians’ side — I’m using “journalists” pretty loosely … for them to allege that the WAC doesn’t want a fantastic symphony orchestra, or the governing board doesn’t want to take care of the musicians, is so far off base if they looked at the facts.’

As evidence, Hertz mentioned the work of other Woodruff governing board members including retired BellSouth executive Jere Drummond, “whose raised millions of dollars for the ASO’s endowment” and Paul Garcia, the recently retired Global Payments chairman and CEO, who along with Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson raised nearly $1.5 million over the last two years to reduce the orchestra’s deficit.

‘It makes you wonder, you know,’ Hertz said, ‘are we supporting a bunch of crazy people.’ ”

I understand that you are frustrated, but this is astonishingly petty.

So… first you insult any writer who might possibly think the musicians have a point by tossing out the line, “I’m using ‘journalists’ pretty loosely.” With respect, I don’t know that open contempt will help attract people to your point of view.

But you also completely avoid the question at hand… does the board want to turn the ASO into a minor-league ensemble to save money? You respond, in effect, that some people are still contributing large sums of money to it. Great. But that doesn’t answer the question. And makes me all the more curious to know if you plan to shrink the ensemble specifically to match the total that handful of gifts that has come in, rather than to seek out additional funds.

And finally… the fact that the musicians raise legitimate questions about your aspirations for the ensemble means you get to categorically insult them as “crazy people?”

Wow. Just… wow.

“ ‘The sad part of it is … there are not enough people that care. If the public cared maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. When you’ve got less than 5,000 donors in a metropolitan area of 5 million, that’s my concern. We (board, administration and musicians) need to be getting together and figuring out together how do we grow support for the symphony.’ ”

Mr. Hertz, I find this deeply disturbing on several levels. First, I would obviously question the notion that people don’t care. They do.  An earlier post of mine attracted 12,100 readers from all around the world. That’s an intriguing bit of data… you seem so sure no one cares in Atlanta, but given the ASO’s international reputation, there is a vast international constituency you could be drawing from. But you aren’t.

And let’s unpack your comment further. What businessman goes out into the world with the attitude that no one “cares” about his product, and just gives up? A successful businessman fulfills demands the customers don’t even know they have. A successful businessman creates a market for his goods. He creates an appetite for his product. He creates demand.

And he doesn’t do that by denigrating his product in statements to the press. He doesn’t try to turn the public against his product as part of a labor negotiation strategy.

And let me ask you something. Just seconds ago you insulted your musicians by suggesting they are all crazy. But you need their help in growing support for the symphony… you just admitted as such. How do you propose to get them to help you when you actively insult them?

“Well, we are very interested in exploring alternatives. We are not, cannot and will not move from ending up with a balanced budget moving forward. But there are a lot of ways to get there, and if we were to do it together, we may be able to find a way.”

As I’ve said before—this isn’t actually a negotiation if you won’t budge from the first (and only) number you propose. Think of it this way: a clerk asking if you want to pay by cash, check, or credit card does not mean the two of you are negotiating about an item’s price.

“ ‘Well, it’s my impression that our symphony orchestra got the same artistic reviews over this past year as they have had in previous years. We had 116 separate musicians that played with our orchestra (who were) not part of our (88-musician) complement — 116 additional musicians who sat in just last year. Yet no one’s told me that artistically that we were any better or worse.’ ”

It’s your “impression?” No one has “told” you?

Do I take this to mean you have no first-hand knowledge of the group you oversee?

Do you think it is good that a business leader has no such first-hand knowledge of his or her product?

Look, freelancers can absolutely be as talented as their counterparts with permanent positions. As subs, they can also bring passion, fresh ideas and flexibility to the group. Subs play a critical role in every standing ensemble. And yes, a group that uses subs can still sound great and get rave reviews.

But that’s not what you’re saying here. You are saying you just don’t care. You don’t care about the fresh perspective subs bring, or their passionate playing.  You don’t care about how much work it is to integrate them into the ensemble. Conversely, you don’t care about the added value permanent players can bring, or about how you could use their familiarity to the community as an advantage. You don’t care about personnel.  You don’t care about the orchestra sound—its brand.

You are simply saying you can’t tell the difference and you don’t care.

I can’t imagine being a leader of a group if I were so indifferent to it.

“ ‘Again, we’re criticized for not wanting a great symphony, right? But we signed Robert to a five-year contract (that’s just beginning) with a raise. And Robert’s getting paid. And we signed (principal guest conductor) Donald Runnicles to a three-year contract. He’s getting paid. So don’t criticize WAC management or the WAC governing board for not wanting to put our money where our mouth is.’ ”

“He’s getting paid”? That’s the criteria?

So proof that you want a great orchestra is…the fact that you haven’t unilaterally revoked the conductors’ contracts?

What an astonishingly low bar.

“ ‘Maybe Robert’s feeling a little bit guilty because he’s getting paid and the musicians aren’t. But he could be a big help in solving this.’ ”

Do you have any evidence to support this speculation?

Let me ask: is it correct that Spano provided $50,000 to finance a tour to Carnegie Hall that the board was ready to cancel to save money? Is it possible, then, that he has been appalled by the lack of support you and the board have given the organization, and is genuinely upset?

And is it possible that most observers would consider that he was justified in his feelings?

“ ‘Encouragement of the musicians to come back and talk. But he hasn’t been particularly constructive to this point.’ ”

Please consider. If you and he switched roles, would you suggest to the musicians that they should get back to the table, based on everything that’s been said and done? Or would you see the WAC’s actions as an existential threat to their interests?

“ ‘We’ve got a division of the arts center that threatens the ability of the other divisions (the Alliance Theatre, High Museum of Art and Arts for Learning) to produce the great work that they’re doing. We owe it to everybody to make sure that everybody is pulling their weight.’ ”

Really? So you are publicly stating that the ASO is the problem? That the ASO is a drag on the collective finances of the WAC? And as the problem it has to be brought into line? That’s worth remembering….

“ ‘Don’t forget, when you have earned ticket revenues of only $5 million and have salaries and benefits just for the musicians of $10 million to $11 million, you’re losing money from the very beginning. …Every day, we lose money.’ ”

I don’t think I can convey how disappointing I find it that the head of the WAC doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization, as defined by the IRS.

Mr. Hertz, the WAC is a non-profit. By definition, your earned income does not, and will not cover your expenses. As a 501 (c) (3) you are given the right to engage in fundraising to make up the difference. That is what you do. Just like every other non-profit in the country.

This isn’t a failure in your business model. It is your business model.

* * *

I find this whole interview deeply depressing.



The “Soylent Green” Model for Running an Orchestra

Oh boy. In a jaw-dropping press statement, the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) have laid some heavy charges against the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC)—the umbrella organization that manages the ASO along with three other Atlanta arts institutions.

They allege that the WAC is seeking, for all intents and purposes, to create a “Soylent Green” approach to managing personnel, whereby veteran players are summarily dispatched, and young music students are brought in as interns to fill the vacated slots.

Well, to complete the analogy, allow me to channel Charlton Heston and scream, “No! The musicians are people!”

* * *

The musicians’ full press statement, as posted on their Facebook account makes for some very disturbing reading. It is long, but I urge you to read it in its entirety (given that not everyone has or wishes to use Facebook, I’m appending it to the bottom of this post.)

To summarize, it appears that the the WAC and its Governing Board Chair Douglas Hertz are attempting to move the ASO in a new direction. The statement lists three core ideas:

1) Radical reduction of the number of musicians. Earlier statements from the ASO and WAC at the start of the lockout suggested that management wanted “flexibility” to reduce the size of the ensemble. But many observers were concerned that this term was never defined. The WAC had good reason to be coy—based on the information presented here, the goal seems to be to drop the size as much as possible.

2) Replace musicians with younger models. The above approach will make it difficult for the ASO to play anything but chamber works. As a remedy, the WAC seeks to fill the resulting holes in the ensemble with young music students that would be “paid” at rates appropriate to interns. The approach is to build something like the New World Symphony, which consists of fresh graduates in what is probably their first paid orchestral position.

3) A two-tiered approach to compensation. The ASO would adopt a system where any permanent players that were brought in would be hired for a probationary period, and not receive full pay or benefits. While this might make sense in a position where the new employee was being trained and not yet given a full range of responsibilities, this is quite odd for orchestral musicians.  Musicians are hired based on their ability to fit into the ensemble immediately and are fully expected to perform at the standards of the rest of the orchestra members the moment they arrive.

The musicians also point out that Douglas Hertz has a history of implementing these sorts of actions and business models; he attempted to eliminate tenure at Tulane University and replace the professors with a new cohort of nontenured faculty (reminiscent of the system of adjunct professorship).

* * *

Let me be clear… these changes would be an unmitigated disaster for the ASO and Atlanta as a whole, and I am very much interested to hear how the WAC responds to these charges.

What makes the musicians’ case so compelling is that the scenario they lay out is far more logical, coherent, and understandable in explaining the actions of the WAC over the last few months than anything offered up by the WAC itself.

Again and again, I’ve tried to understand why the WAC has acted the way it has. The only rational reason why it would move so swiftly to lock out the musicians, cancel two months’ worth of concerts and say there was no negotiating from its final offer would be if there was a clear, imminent catastrophe looming. In nearly every other scenario, it would make more sense to engage in play-and-talk or otherwise continue negotiations.

But the organization has done nothing to indicate that this is the situation. There has been no mention of imminent foreclosure, a coming default on loans, or an inability to make payroll. Maybe it’s thinking it doesn’t want to publicly spook donors and sponsors; but if collapse really was imminent, pride would have to go out the window and the organization would need to rally everyone.

How do I know? Because this is exactly what happened with the San Diego Opera. It was only days from closing. So it swallowed its pride… and made sure everyone knew the seriousness of the situation, and the extreme peril it was in as an institution. Then, without any formality, it asked everyone to be part of the solution. Every facet of the organization was looked at, and every sector was asked to be part of the solution. That’s how it was able to survive its very real crisis.

The WAC and ASO leadership have done nothing of the kind.

They dragged their heels over negotiations for months. They refused to meet at all with musicians during the final days before the existing contract expired. They cancelled board meetings where they could discuss options. They engaged in a negative marketing campaign against the musicians who are central to the ASO’s mission.

Again, none of these actions make any sense of there is an urgent crisis that truly needed to be resolved.

They do, however, make sense if they are part of a comprehensive plan to get rid of the musicians, as the musicians’ press statement suggests. Consider that the actions of the WAC and ASO leadership serve to:

  • Create a toxic work environment.
  • Reduce salaries, encouraging top talent to avoid the ASO.
  • Create bad feelings toward the musicians from the community at large, to make it less likely that the community will care whether the musicians stay or go.

As a result, the WAC and ASO would make things so uncomfortable that musicians would leave voluntarily, which would allow management to implement its plan without a highly visible and controversial round of firings. The WAC leaders could, in effect, shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, they left of their own accord, right?” And afterwards suggest that any negative statements from the musicians were nothing but the mutterings of disgruntled employees, and not to be trusted.

And in all cases, the musicians most likely to leave are those who have the most options elsewhere… and frequently command the highest salaries. We saw this play out in Minneapolis during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, where key players such as Burt Hara and Sarah Kwak left, with then-President Michael Henson publicly implying that the vacating musicians were being “disloyal.”

Again, the situation the ASO musicians describe sounds quite plausible, and is perfectly in line with the actions of the WAC and ASO leadership to date.

* * *

Allow me to editorialize a moment and point out that the business model that the WAC seems to envision isn’t just morally wrong, it is profoundly stupid… and stupid from a business sense.

What company has ever prospered by seriously degrading its core product?

Who is going to support this new organization? Will it do so at the same level in terms of donations, ticket sales, and sponsorships?

And people can tell the difference.  Remember when the NFL brought in cheaper, inexperienced referees to replace its expensive veterans?  Remember how fast the NFL had to backtrack?

But there’s more to it than that. What the WAC is apparently advocating goes beyond a new strategic direction or roadmap for the future… it fundamentally changes the character of organization, its product, and its relationship with its many and varied stakeholders—particularly the key relationships with the musicians who are the product. Such a thorough reset is not something that can be achieved top down. Or communicated weakly. A transformation of this scale need significant buy-in and lots of ground work laid publicly.

What we have here feels like the meltdown two years ago at Netflix, where a leader with a small base of support made sweeping changes that radically changed the nature of his product and how users used it. On paper, and surrounded by like-minded supporters, this new model made perfect business sense. But nevertheless it nearly crashed the company.

* * *

The WAC leadership seems to be attempting a massive reorganization on the sly, and in direct contraction to its vague assurances that they really do want a world-class orchestra (although WAC President and CEO Virginia Hepner helpfully tells us that we are all free to define “world-class” in our own ways).

So in the end, I invite the WAC to respond to these very serious allegations from the musicians. Is this what you want for the ASO? And if not, why has every action you’ve taken to date seemed to show that it is?



* * *

 The musicians’ full statement follows:

During the many months of negotiations that preceded the present lockout of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Musicians by the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), numerous sources within the WAC shared with the Musicians several long-term strategic plan ideas for the ASO that were being quietly discussed among WAC Governing Board members. If implemented, these plans would permanently downsize the Grammy award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, destroying the prestigious reputation it has earned through decades of professional excellence.

During the summer of 2013, it was suggested multiple times both by Stanley Romanstein, the recently departed President and CEO of the ASO, and Virginia Hepner, the WAC’s current President and CEO, that the number of full-time tenured musicians of the ASO should be permanently reduced, and resulting vacancies could be filled with alumni from the ASO’s Talent Development Program (TDP), who would perform in an “internship” capacity. This suggestion was meant to replicate the design of the New World Symphony – a program dedicated to preparing highly gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in professional orchestras and ensembles around the world. In addition to elevating the TDP – and capitalizing on the funding that educational programs such as the New World Symphony and TDP sometimes enjoy – this proposal was designed to reduce musician expenses; the WAC/ASO expected to give these “interns” a small stipend for their efforts, instead of salary and benefits at all commensurate with that of full-time ASO Musicians.

In March of 2014, ASO Board Chair Karole Lloyd suggested to the ASOPA committee a two-tiered salary system, relegating all new members of the ASO to a severely reduced compensation package for the duration of their “probationary” periods with the Orchestra. Unlike in other professions, orchestra musicians are not hired with the expectation that they will grow into their jobs; a musician unable to consistently perform at the highest artistic level will likely not even win an audition, let alone achieve tenure. To demand that one musician be paid substantially less than his or her colleagues, all while performing the same work under the same intense pressure, exposes a profound deficit of understanding of professional musicianship on the part of the ASO’s Board Chair, Karole Lloyd.

Numerous ASO staff and Board members have told us that these ideas seem to have originated with the leadership of the Woodruff Arts Center Governing Board, including Board Chair Douglas Hertz. Mr. Hertz, who has a fine record of philanthropic work, also has an unfortunate history of trying to eliminate tenured positions within a workforce to reduce expenses.

Douglas Hertz was serving on the Tulane University Board of Administrators when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. In response to the financial problems the hurricane caused, Tulane then-President Scott Cowan proposed to eliminate tenured faculty at the university, and replace existing faculty members with less expensive, non-tenured new hires. This action was supported by the Tulane Board of Administrators, including Douglas Hertz, and the despite numerous lawsuits that ensued, notifications of release were issued to approximately 200 faculty members in December 2005. This action led to the immediate censure of Tulane University by the American Association of University Professors. (

Mr. Hertz’s Tulane University scenario is strikingly similar not only to the two strategic plan ideas described earlier for the ASO, but it also foreshadows one of the conditions of the “Last, Best, and Final Offer” that the WAC/ASO emailed to ASO Musicians on September 5, 2014. In this offer, the WAC proposed a “voluntary retirement incentive” in the amount of $150,000 to any Musician who had given over 30 years of service to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This offer, in conjunction with the WAC’s refusal to stipulate any minimum number of players – or complement size – required by the ASO, is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce the size of the orchestra, and reduce the costs associated with more established, longer-serving Musicians. This element of the WAC’s proposal also paves the way for the creation of the “internship” orchestra that was suggested earlier; by steadfastly adhering to the need for a “flexible complement,” as the WAC has done in every one of its proposals, it is entirely possible that the WAC Governing Board Leadership is laying the foundation to replace seasoned Musicians with less experienced, less expensive “interns,” similar to what Mr. Hertz helped to do with the professors at Tulane University. Lastly, if every eligible Musician were to accept this buy-out, it would cost the WAC $3.75 million, which well exceeds the amount necessary over the expired agreement to fund the Musicians’ proposal of September 6th in its entirety.

Additionally, Douglas Hertz has taken pains to remind the community that the ASO has been posting deficits for twelve consecutive years, and that the ASO “cannot have what it cannot pay for.” However, those deficits cannot be attributed to the Musicians, whose compensation has historically come in UNDER budget. It is the job of the ASO & WAC Boards and their staffs to raise the funds to support the ASO. Have the fundraising goals been raised to meet the needs of the ASO? The Musicians’ job is always to perform at the highest level of artistry, which has been demonstrated year after year. Furthermore, the Musicians have made tremendous sacrifices over the years in efforts to mitigate the institution’s financial problems. In 2004, the Musicians negotiated six months early to relinquish a contractual raise, which resulted in the extension of the then-current wage for an additional year and a half. In 2009, the Musicians volunteered a 5% cut in compensation. In 2012, the Musicians agreed to a 15% reduction in annual salaries, a reduction of full-time Musicians, and a reduction in the length of our season.

If the WAC and its Governing Board Chair Douglas Hertz are truly only interested in achieving a balanced budget, the Musicians have demonstrated through their previous actions a willingness to be a part of the solution. In contrast, Douglas Hertz’s previous actions demonstrate a willingness to break the backs of employees to achieve further financial concessions. The past and present actions of Douglas Hertz suggest that he is more interested in reducing the number of professional musicians in the ASO than he is either in securing financial stability or in preserving the high artistic standards of the institution he has a duty as a steward to serve and protect.



Romanstein Out, Eyes Turn to the WAC

Well.  Yesterday, Stanley Romanstein resigned as President and CEO from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). I did not see that coming. But given the fact that the ASO labor dispute has almost exactly paralleled that of the Minnesota Orchestra, albeit under an astonishingly compressed time frame… perhaps I should have.

I have been critical of Romanstein here, primarily in regards to the public statements he has made or have been released under his name. It’s probably clear by now that I did not agree with the business model he championed—as I’ve said repeatedly, my impression is that he is treating the musicians as personnel, as opposed to his core product. Plus, his strategy for future prosperity seemed to entail little more than forcing concessions from the musicians… even though that exact same strategy was tried two years ago without success.

I stand by my criticisms, and feel Romanstein’s departure is a positive move.

But as I take in this surprising turn of events, I have to wonder what the real impact of this move will be.

As the lockout has progressed over the last few weeks, many have openly wondered how much of this whole nasty affair was Romanstein’s idea, and how much was simply being dictated from much higher up on the food chain. Norman Lebrecht, a commentator of strong opinion, clearly believes that Romanstein was a weak leader “ordered” by his board to engage in a lockout, and that he was cast out by that same board the minute things started to go badly. Drew McManus has similarly pointed out that Romanstein would have to act in conjunction with the board of directors.

So, I think it is fair to say that the consensus view is that the board, not Romanstien, has been calling the shots.

But it is interesting to consider which board is calling the shots.

The ASO has its own board, of course, but there is a far more important player in the room—the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC). The WAC functions as an umbrella organization that oversees not just the ASO, but four arts divisions including the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum of Art.

And it is increasingly clear that the WAC is the real force behind the lockout.

This is hardly a new idea; the notion that the WAC is managing (or to be frank, mismanaging) the lockout is widely discussed around the country, including by the New York TimesMichael Cooper.

This impression was amplified over the past week, as ASO board member Ron Antinori resigned, specifically citing the fact that the ASO board has been kept in the dark about the lockout and could do little about it. ArtsATL has more on this story:

“I didn’t feel that my voice and my opinions as [an ASO]  board member had much of an effect on what was happening,” Antinori told ArtsATL, noting that he did not know that the management was planning to lock musicians out until just two days before the deadline for contract negotiations. “I am not privy to what WAC’s motivation is. That’s the elephant in the room. All I know is what I’ve heard: ‘We need to balance the budget.’ Am I suspicious? I honestly just don’t know. There does seem to be a mentality of ‘We don’t care if we destroy the orchestra as long as we balance the budget.’”

So for good or for bad, I think we can all agree that the real power broker here is the WAC.

And that raises a question. If the real power lies with the WAC board, does Romanstein’s departure mean anything? It is simply a quick public relations move designed to create a sense of momentum? Or a delaying tactic? Was he simply cast off for being unable to control the situation? Will the WAC become more directly involved, or start to act more openly? It is far too early to tell.

But it does mean the WAC bears close scrutiny.

* * *

And in that vein, there’s something I’m keeping my eye on—the way that the WAC has been handling the finances of the ASO.

And it appears that the ASO has been on the losing end of several transactions that could have greatly helped the orchestra’s bottom line.  The ASO musicians have pointed out that in both 2012 and 2014 the WAC received substantial funds from the sale of two properties and gifts that could have “mitigated or eliminated completely” the orchestra’s annual deficit in those years. After receiving a $15 million gift from the Woodruff Foundation in November 2011, the musicians noted, the WAC gave $5 million to the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum to retire debt. No funds were allocated to the ASO, which had an accumulated debt of $20 million. Perhaps the most curious fact that when the WAC sold off property, the proceeds were not shared with the ASO at all—in one case, the proceeds were donated to another non-profit.

The WAC denies any wrongdoing and states that all the transactions in question were completely benign. But taken together these transactions do come off as odd—a non-profit that’s reporting financial difficulties decides to sell off property… and donates the proceeds to another organization instead of using them to help its tattered bottom line? I understand there is some history there, but still….

I doubt I’m the only one wondering if these transactions were done to create artificial deficits for the ASO, which could be used as a weapon against the musicians when it was time to renew their labor contract.

A comparison to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout is instructive in this regard. The board meeting minutes from the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) in 2009 show that the MOA manipulated its finances to show different “truths” about the organization to different audiences. These differing accounts of the Orchestra’s finances came to light in an article that appeared in the Star Tribune (the state’s largest newspaper) on December 6, 2012:

For four years, the Minnesota Orchestra board has walked a tightrope between managing public perceptions about its financial health and making its case to cut musicians’ salaries.

As early as 2009, board officers were discussing how much money to draw from investments, and the advantage of reporting balanced budgets at a time when the orchestra was raising funds and seeking state money.

“Balances in 2009 and 2010 would support our state bonding aspirations,” Bryan Ebensteiner, vice president of finance, told the orchestra’s executive committee in September 2009, “while the deficits in 2011 and 2012 would demonstrate the need to reset the business model.” His comments are included in minutes of the finance and executive committees obtained by the Star Tribune.

It also came out that the size of the deficits posted in 2011-2013 were determined by the MOA’s hired public relations firm, Padilla Speer Beardsley; as a result, it seemed the deficits the MOA was reporting were somewhat artificial, and driven by other factors besides a tough economic environment.

State lawmakers were furious when this information came to light, and demanded the resignation of then-President Michael Henson, then-Board Chair Jon Campbell and then-lead negotiator Richard Davis. And indeed, all three quickly left the organization once the labor dispute was resolved.

With that background, it’s hard for me not to wonder if a similar game plan has been used by the WAC.

It also makes me curious to hear a fuller explanation about how the WAC’s budgeting process works and what its institutional priorities are.  Plus, I’d appreciate a fuller discussion about its expectations and goals for the ASO, and how they relate to the other members of the WAC family.

* *

So while I think Romanstein’s departure was a necessary step, I feel the problems go far beyond him. In fact, they go far beyond the ASO’s board, too—reaching up to the WAC board.

It is to the WAC that we must now turn our attention.