A Remarkable Letter in Atlanta

For some time now, I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on the various ebbs and flows of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra labor dispute.

And boy did it just get interesting.

For those who have not following this situation closely, let me provide a quick refresher. At roughly the same time that the Minnesota Orchestra lockout was implemented here in Minneapolis, a similar situation was unfolding with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In the fall of 2012, the ASO management implemented a lockout of the orchestra musicians that left them without pay, benefits, or insurance for roughly a month. Ultimately the musicians agreed to substantial concessions, including an average 15% pay cut (amounting to a minimum of $27,000 over the last two years). Also as part of the settlement, the ASO reduced the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88, and cut the season from 52 weeks to 42 weeks.

It is easy to see why the musicians agreed to the concessions—the ASO had posted a $5 million deficit, and by all accounts its finances were in bad shape. At the time, the musicians fully believed such cuts were crucial to helping the organization get back on its feet. Plus, the management indicated that such a bold move by the musicians would serve as a vote of confidence in the ASO throughout the community, and inspire donors to increase contributions as a result.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out.

Two years later, it is time to renegotiate the musicians contract… and the financial situation still hasn’t changed. In fact, the management has come hard at the musicians saying that once again, the musicians need to take sacrificial cuts to save the organization. As a result, talks have been contentious leading up to the September 6 deadline.

But now, as the negotiations begin the final phase, there has been a remarkable new development. Yesterday the artistic leadership of the ASO has come forward with a powerful letter warning the management of the substantial danger its cost-cutting plan poses to the overall existence of the ASO.

The letter is worth reposting in full:

To: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra September 2, 2014

– The Board of Directors
– The Management
– The Musicians

Although it is neither our place nor our intent to involve ourselves directly in the collective bargaining process between musicians and management, we feel compelled to write this letter. Our doing so bears inherent risks as it may be construed as our taking sides in what again has proved to be a contentious process. We both feel bound by a sense of responsibility and deep commitment to represent and remind everyone what the ASO is all about: its high musical standards and aspirations. Indeed we are charged by contract to create and maintain it.

In the heat of the current negotiation we fear these standards might easily be forgotten or compromised. Our emotional commitment to the ASO and its potential is profound. This prompts us to speak out lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands as temporary stewards. This is all the more poignant in that next season we celebrate the legacy of Robert Shaw. The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss.

This year’s contract negotiation repeats an unhealthy pattern of pitting musician and management positions as incompatible alternatives. The situation is not unique to Atlanta. There are positive examples to emulate but above all we must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony. The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.

Two years ago, our musicians accepted huge concessions with an expectation that, in so doing, both board and management would be able to steer the organization out of financial distress. We ask the board and management to acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made, and to examine other ways and areas to establish sustainability.

Sustainability must also be applied to a quality of the orchestra and the notion of excellence, not only to finances. There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed. We must re-dedicate ourselves to the ASO’s founding principles of excellence and to the support of a full, robust, and world-class symphony orchestra. We need a long-term agreement. The very nature of how the ASO interacts with its community is far better served without frequent interruption of collective bargaining. Creative innovation itself requires time. Conception, investment, and experimentation take time to implement, and cannot be assessed instantly.

As we reflect on our long and deep relationship with this remarkable orchestra, it is our fervent hope that our words would be used only as a reminder of the common purpose we share: the purpose to which the board has generously and tirelessly devoted considerable energy and personal resource – and that same purpose to which the musicians dedicate their lives and livelihoods.

We are both deeply committed and deeply concerned.

Music Director           Principal Guest Conductor



This is an incredibly bold statement—and quite possibly a risky move for the two maestros. During the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, Music Director Osmo Vänskä wrote an impassioned letter asking for an end to the dispute; it was widely reported that management was furious about Osmo’s letter and threatened serious retribution if he spoke out again. Spano and Runnicles could quite possibly experience similar pushback in Atlanta.

I’m deeply impressed by their thoughts and their conviction, and I don’t know that I can add much to their commentary.

That said, they make several points that I think need to be emphasized:

Orchestras are Non-Profit Enterprises. This seems so obvious to say, but it really does need to be repeated. As Runnicles and Spano rightly point out, the ASO is a not-for-profit arts organization. It is not a for-profit business. It was not created to make money for its owners or shareholders. It was created to make music.

Therefore, it is foolhardy to simply slap a for-profit business model onto the ASO and expect it to work. And, there is a grave danger in uncritically adopting a for-profit mentality onto the organization.

Yes, obviously the ASO needs to have solid finances. It needs to marshal the resources necessary to achieve its mission, and to steward these resources carefully. But the finances have to support the organization—not the other way around.

You Cannot Cut your Way to Prosperity. As a rule, organizations and businesses cannot cut their way to success. Yes, obviously sometimes an organization is faced with hard choices and has to make cuts. Yes, sometimes there have to be staff reductions.Yes, sometimes there are dire situations that demand radical structural changes or a new direction for the organization.

But that’s not what is happening in Atlanta. It appears that the entirety of the “plan” to save the ASO is to implement more cuts to the ASO’s core programming. This makes it appear that the cuts are being generated by ideology and politics, rather than finances.

And, it feels like cuts are being sought for an end unto themselves, without thinking of the negative implications for the organization.

But this is a terrible course of action.  As Spano and Runnicles point out, at some point the cuts become too deep, and the organization cannot adequately fulfill its mission. This will almost certainly spark a death spiral where the ASO loses musicians and financial support due to reduced programing and a diminishing presence in the community.

For example, during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout the audience advocacy group SOS Minnesota (SOSMN) demonstrated the powerful negative impact of reducing the number of concerts in its report, “The MOA Debacle: Unlocking the Truth.” Over the last few seasons before the lockout, the MOA had substantially reduced the number of concerts it performed; even though the fiscal year started on September 1, the Orchestra management kept pushing the season opening later and later until it didn’t occur until October. Unfortunately, as SOSMN showed, that reduction in the number of concerts was directly related to the Orchestra’s drop in earned revenue.

Cutting concerts didn’t save money—it simply reduced income.  Which necessitated more cuts.

The Musicians are Not Easily Replaceable. In nearly all of the classical labor disputes, the managements and their allies have put forth the argument that musicians are essentially disposable. Managements have repeatedly stated that music schools are brimming with talented folks, so everyone can be replaced with a dirt-cheap substitute. The Louisville Orchestra famously tried to replace its musicians by advertising on Craigslist. The thinking seems to be that no one can tell the difference, so who cares?

This is false.

And a moment of thought would reveal just how wrong-headed this thinking is. I mean, do we apply that same logic to any other team of skilled professionals? Take a crack special forces team in any of the armed forces. Would, for example, a team of Navy SEALS work just as well if we threw together a random assortment of guys with guns? No. The team is effective because each person has exceptional skills, and is a top performer. More important, the team has trained extensively together, making them much more cohesive and effective. As a result, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is for this same reason that great business leaders spend great time and energy in creating great teams of their own… and fighting to keep them together. Conversely, this is why the Pro Bowl isn’t as much fun to watch—instead of, say, a well-disciplined defensive line, you have a bunch of individuals.

It should surprise no one to learn that an orchestra functions in exactly the same way. It isn’t just that the individual has to be supremely talented… he or she has to be the right fit for the team. The individual has to possess a whole host of professional skills and personal qualities that enhance the ensemble as a whole and make it greater than the sum of its parts.

The ASO is an Extraordinary Ensemble. Simply put, the ASO is unique, with a rich legacy of artistic excellence. As a singer, let me tell you that the late Robert Shaw led the ASO in legendary performances—together, they presented concerts and recordings that set the standard for choral performances in this country. I mean, have you ever heard his renditions of Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms or Duruflé’s Requiem? If not, stop reading, head out to your library, music store or online source immediately… and begin listening now. I’ll wait.

See what I mean?

And this legacy has been continued by Spano and Runnicles, who also have led the ASO in absolutely stunning performances. Runnicles’s Carmina Burana, and Spano’s rendition of Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony and Fifth Symphony are in constant rotation at my house, along with many others. Don’t believe me? Go and listen to these recordings, too… I’ll wait.

See what I mean?

Consigning such an ensemble to Death By a Thousand Cuts is unforgivable.

It is also unnecessary. There are other possible solutions that can help solve the financial problems, but don’t fundamentally damage the group’s artistry.

* * *

I realize the ASO has problems, and some of them are serious. But the solution is not, as Spano and Runnicles point out, to simply implement more cuts. That approach was tried two years ago… causing demonstrable harm to the ensemble without providing the promised results.

So why should we just try the same approach again? What would be different?

If the ASO is truly in dire shape, far better to go the route of the San Diego Opera and bring all stakeholders into the room to find collaborative solutions. Put everything on the table, and look at the issues holistically.  It worked there, and such an approach could work in Atlanta, too.

But as Spano and Runnicles rightly point out… keep the ASO true to its mission of making world-class music.



3 thoughts on “A Remarkable Letter in Atlanta

  1. When I got the packet for the upcoming ASO season I got so excited by seeing Sergei Krylov coming back that I forgot the two year agreement was up. I am _very_ disappointed that I got a new season’s worth of tickets before checking up on the negotiations.

    This round of negotiations has already cost the ASO several excellent musicians, and at least some of them are the _young_ talent (you know? The talent that should be learning the ropes and replacing the retiring talent?). This upsets me very much.

    What Romanstein, and crew, don’t seem to realize is that by degrading (in whatever way) the orchestra we, the listeners, are paying to come see and hear, they are giving us less incentive to support them with ticket sales (when is the last time you didn’t see a full house for Beethoven’s Fifth? I saw it at the ASO last year). And that’s after they’ve reduced the number of concerts we can choose from to buy tickets for!

    I am very, _very_, tempted to call up and ask for a refund of my season tickets and then just not buy any more of them until the management is fixed.


  2. Thank you for covering this situation so eloquently and passionately. We whole live in Atlanta are figuring out what “Save Our Symphony ATL” looks like. Atlanta needs this great Orchestra.


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