A Disgusting New Low

You know, over the course of the Minnesota Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera labor disputes, I’ve seen a lot of ugly things. Managements in both the disputes resorted to hard-ball tactics and inflammatory rhetoric as part of a deliberate ploy to demonize the musicians and other workers. Again and again, these arts “leaders” denigrated the very art forms that their respective organizations were built to celebrate.  Sadly, such things are often par for the course in a labor dispute, especially when the stakes are high.

But nothing could prepare me for the low blow the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra inflicted today.  They went after their youngest supporters.

At issue are the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) auditions, which would take place shortly. In an email sent to the youth and their parents, the ASO elected to cancel the auditions.  And, they chose to include a gratuitous dig at the musicians’ union, blaming them for the entire mess.  The email reads:

“Dear Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra Candidates and Families:

We were very hopeful that auditions for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra would occur during negotiations, as they did during the last labor dispute in 2012. However, the Atlanta Federation of Musicians has issued a mandate to all musicians in the local union, prohibiting them from supporting the upcoming auditions. This is an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events.

In light of this development, we find ourselves in the regrettable position of having to postpone the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra auditions until the current labor dispute has been resolved. We will begin processing refunds of your application fees immediately. Please watch your email inbox for updates on your refund in the next two to four days.

Thank you for your patience in this matter. For more information regarding the ongoing contract negotiations, please visit: http://www.atlantasymphony.org/2014musiciantalks

ASO Musician Contract Negotiations | Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Facts and updates on Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 ongoing negotiations with the ASO Player’s Association.”

So to recap, the ASO is telling music students that their orchestra was taken away by the mean, nasty people at the mean, nasty union, who are not letting the auditions happen because… they are mean and nasty. And to find out more on the situation, the disappointed youth are invited to look at the ASO’s self-serving talking points about the dispute (which as many have pointed out, don’t seem to be addressing the issues the public is concerned about).

And the ASO did so in an email that neither the musicians and Atlanta Federation of Musicians could respond to.

Really? Really? It is hard for me to express how repugnant I find this. Let me point out three things about this email:

1. This interpretation of events is patently false. Let us be clear… it was the ASO management that went nuclear. It’s not as if the unions are just looking for trouble; all this is happening because the ASO management has unilaterally chosen to lock out the players, denying them their pay, benefits, and access to the building.  I also take issue with the ASO’s “hope” that the auditions could take place during “the negotiations.”  It was the ASO leadership that ended the negotiations, making this quite an empty hope indeed.

Everything that is happening is the direct result from the ASO management’s actions, and their deliberately-chosen strategy. While obviously unfortunate, this turn of events is anything but “unexpected.”

If the ASO is unhappy with how things are going, they have no one but themselves to blame.

And let me point out that the ASO management also has the unilateral power to end the lockout and get the auditions going again. Right now. As a bewildering array of people have said, this situation could end tomorrow if the ASO management agreed to the kind of play and talk strategy that is used all the time in labor disputes across the country. So why doesn’t it do so, rather than blame “the union” for the results of its actions?

One final point here.  The email specifically states that the “Atlanta Federation of Musicians has issued a mandate to all musicians in the local union, prohibiting them from supporting the upcoming auditions.” (emphasis added)  They say there was no such mandate.  Does the ASO have proof otherwise?

So… as I see it, the ASO’s entire summation of the situation is completely and irredeemably false.

2. This is needlessly inflammatory. There are many, many ways such a letter could be crafted. The obvious choice would be to go with neutral language that didn’t actively blame anyone, but simply notes that the auditions won’t be held until the dispute is resolved. Short, sweet, succinct.

So why the heavy-handed attempt to get the children to blame the union? How on earth will that make anything better? All that will do is infuriate people—not just the musicians who are the ASO’s product, but the community as a whole. Even if 100% of the resulting rage was directed back at the musicians, what is the benefit? What good does it do to have the vast sea of potential funders, donors, ticket-buyers, employees, advocates, and civic boosters think the musicians are greedy, unfeeling pigs?

This dispute is going to end one day, and the ASO will need these people’s support to get the organization back on its feet. It will be much harder to do so within a culture of mutual, seething contempt.  Which brings up my related, final point:

3. This ham-handed approach is self-defeating in the long run. I’d like to ask the ASO management to think hard about this: What happens in your best case scenario, where outraged parents and disappointed youth turn on the musicians? How will you get these young musicians and their parents back into the fold?

And in the broader picture, if you manage to get the general population to think that the musicians are heartless, greedy bastards willing to crush the dreams of bright-faced youngsters… how specifically do you plan to turn around and convince the public to support the orchestra again?

This is an enormous problem. This approach may gain the ASO management a degree of short-term advantage, but it will vastly complicate the management’s job moving forward over the long-term.

But… I don’t know that this will give the ASO a short-term advantage. By and large the youngsters auditioning for the ASYO are close to the musicians already. They are the musicians’ students. They’ve watched the musicians on stage. They admire them. And now, some faceless stranger launches a vicious smear against their teachers, mentors and friends?

I sure know how I’d react. And there would be Hell to pay.

And I’m clearly not alone.  Faced with a similar situation here in Minnesota, a new group emerged: the Young Musicians of Minnesota under the intrepid leadership of Emily Green.  With a little help and a lot of gumption, Emily created a new group to show solidarity with the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, and has turned it into one of the most remarkable ensembles in the state.  (My personal favorite action the group took was to play an impromptu concert outside of the headquarters of US Bank—the offices of lead negotiator Richard Davis.)

* * *

As I’ve said before, I’ve been stunned at the ASO management’s actions of late—they smack of amateurish incompetence. But this goes beyond the normal give and take of a labor dispute… even a heated labor dispute.

The ASO management is going after the children. As a labor negotiation tactic.

“Despicable” to too polite a word.


[Addendum:  Based on information that came to light via Mark Gresham in the comments below, I’ve learned that the press release sent out to the public differed from the email sent to the parents in a small but hugely significant way.  For more on the story, click here.]



34 thoughts on “A Disgusting New Low

  1. Another example of Virginia Hepner and her henchman Stanley Romanstein’s desire to burn the organization to the ground. Maybe after the dust settles, Romanstein will get another job with a big raise just like Allison Vulgamore did in Philadelphia and declare bankruptcy wherever he ends up too? Step away from the gas cans people!


  2. Also worth noting is that management has known all along that this would happen. But they let the kids continue to believe that the auditions were still occurring, letting them stress and frantically prepare for the upcoming auditions.

    Really, though, this is just another in a long string of ASO’s management alienating and refusing to connect with their audiences, especially young audiences (you know, those ones that are crucial to the future of not just the ASO but the survival of classical music itself).


  3. Thank you and Emily Hogstad for your incisive commentary. Please keep up the good work. We hope the handful of people controlling management, and we know who you are, value their reputations more than the admitted necessity or repairing a bond rating by the unfortunate means of attacking the perceived weakest link in the expense/revenue equation. I am an ASOC member since the days of Shaw.


  4. Yes, I am an infuriated parent of a disappointed auditionee, but he and I are certainly mad at the appropriate people. We are completely supportive of the mentors and friends who are our professional musicians.


  5. “MANDATE?” Wait… I got a copy of the ASO press release to news media on 9/15 at 3:58pm (because I AM the media) and the word “mandate” was not used in it, rather at the “request” of the AFM. So what’s happening? Are the ASYO youth and parents being given entirely different wordings than the news media is getting? I want someone to forward me an actual copy of the e-mail sent to youth and parents. Musicians of the ASO know how to contact me by e-mail. Do it. Now. I only need one.Thanks in advance. (Scott Chamberlain, you should also get in touch with me. I want to know what’s behind the version you have that says “mandate.” I’ll trade with you.)


  6. So, what is the truth about the musicians not being allowed to participate in the auditions then? Did ASO completely fabricate this notion? That’s hard to believe ASO management have that much imagination, and would put a complete lie in an email to a large group of people. Seems like you’re not telling part of the story here. It would be helpful to address that point if you’re right.

    On one other item: you say that the ASO has the unilateral power to end this lockout. Well, so do the musicians. Who is an objective observer to believe is more at fault?


    • As I understand it, the musicians do not have the power to end the lockout unilaterally. Management must agree to negotiate, and at that point the musicians could, theoretically, accept any proposal they choose to. But for now management has refused to negotiate, and has literally locked the musicians out of the building.

      Yes, ASO made a “last, best, and final offer” which included the ability for management to unilaterally reduce the orchestra size over time. I think it’s fair to call that a “poison pill,” and it’s the first I’ve seen that in orchestra negotiations. The musicians could just as easily make an offer which includes a 106 musician complement and point fingers at management saying they could end the lockout if they’d just accept the deal. Both are obviously unreasonable.

      The status quo – if no drastic actions were being taken by either side, strike or lockout – would be to “play and talk.” The terms of the old CBA (collective bargaining agreement) would apply until a new settlement was reached. The ASO management instead choose the nuclear option from day one after the CBA expired. And they could return to the status quo at any time.


    • The musicians have said they want to continue playing and working while they negotiate. The management said no.

      The only way the musicians can end the lockout is by conceding to all of management’s demands. Management, on the other hand, has several options: they could agree to let the orchestra play while they negotiate, they could let the musicians submit another proposal, they could propose a new contract themselves that meets the musicians halfway, or *they* could concede to all of the musicians’ demands.

      That’s why I think it’s unfair to put blame on the musicians at this point. From an objective point of view, it’s clearly the management that has refused to negotiate, instead taking a hard-line stance (“our way or the highway”).


    • Hello Christine,

      My name is Jessica Oudin, and I am a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I also serve as a member of the ASO Players’ Association (ASOPA) – or the Musicians’ negotiating committee. I just wanted to attempt to answer some of the questions you posed in your comment above.

      The Musicians of the ASO were locked out by the Woodruff Arts Center at midnight, September 7th 2014 for the second time in two years. Our paychecks have been stopped, our healthcare coverage will be terminated at the end of the month, and our key cards have been deactivated. We have literally been barred from entering the Woodruff Arts Center.

      We know how deeply our audiences and our community appreciate our ongoing commitment to music education; however, we can no longer provide one service while being denied the opportunity to provide the other. We had hoped to avoid this unfortunate situation by proposing to “play and talk” – or to work under the terms of our old contract without any disruption to the ASYO program or ASO season – while we continue to search for a new agreement. In the last month alone, three orchestras utilized a “play and talk” while continuing to negotiate a new contract with their managements. However, the WAC refused this request, and we can no longer continue to serve in the WAC’s education programs while they forcibly silence the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This situation pains us deeply.

      There was no “mandate” from the American Federation of Musicians; rather, the AFM simply asked of their members, “Please do not accept any offer of employment in connection with the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. If contacted to judge auditions, please notify the local immediately.” The ASYO auditions have historically been run by ASO Musicians, and once the lockout is ended, we the Musicians hope to return to doing what we do best: performing symphonic music at the highest artistic caliber while providing world-class music education opportunities for our students and our community.

      If we had the “unilateral power” to end the lockout and reinstate our paychecks – please trust me, we would! In 2012, the Musicians agreed to every single concession demanded by the Woodruff Arts Center in an attempt to get back to the concert hall and ensure that our season would continue without disruption. Now, only two years later, we continue to search for a solution, and have made additional proposals to management that have been ignored. Management refused to meet at the bargaining table in the last two days before our contract expired, nor have they subsequently moved from their demands articulated in their last, best, and final (unacceptable) offer to us on September 5th.

      I hope that this helps to clarify the situation somewhat.

      Jessica Oudin

      Liked by 1 person

      • So, if I read between all your posturing and rambling, the answers to my questions are:

        1. The musicians are not mandated, but strongly “asked” by the larger union not to cooperate with the auditions. I guess it’s really likely that any musician will go against that “request”? Just like when leadership “suggests” that all members fully take advantage of their sick leave policy and not jeopardize safety by going to work feeling slightly bad? Sounds like a union mandate in all practical effect.

        2. On the point about who’s responsible: I could equally say that musicians could end this lockout by accepting the terms of ASO. Just as you say that ASO could end it by accepting musicians’ terms. To an outside observer, it feels like both parties are equally able to give and end the confrontation — and equally responsible for causing it.


      • Christine (et al), one of the curiosities that occurred during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout was that blogs like this one attracted the attention of a person (or persons) who would post argumentative messages under a series of aliases. I see that one of these personalities has weighed in on a post over on Slipped Disc that referenced my site, and there have been other indications that this person (or persons) has returned. Christine, your email seems to link to a Facebook site that was just created, and the IP address indicates that you hail from the same area that these phantom messages originated from. I allowed your first comment, but my patience for this behavior is quite nearly zero. Unless you can furnish further proof of identity, I will pre-emptively remove all further messages. Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The thing is, Christine, that two years ago this same thing happened and the musicians did finally decide to end the lockout by conceding to ALL of management’s demands. They took huge pay cuts, lost benefits, and agreed to reduce the size of the orchestra (which is a major issue and has a serious effect on the sound and quality of the orchestra). It was done with the understanding that these measures would restore the ASO to financial health and that management would do their part to cut costs and increase revenue on their end.

        Now, two years later, management has failed to do either. The CEO is getting bonuses on top of his $400k salary, the staff is still bloated (why do you have 68 staff members in a time of financial crisis?) and they have failed to improve their marketing efforts to bring in bigger audiences or increase donations. So instead of doing any of that, they’ve come back and said “nope, it’s coming from the musicians, again, and here’s what we want, there will be no negotiating.”

        I do not blame the musicians one bit for saying no, this is unacceptable. As someone who has been a lifelong patron of the ASO, I fully support the musicians in standing up for not only themselves, but the artistic quality of the symphony.


      • Christine. Do I understand you to be advocating that the musicians simply accept whatever management proposes? That they should just take whatever they are offered and be thankful for that without standing up for themselves and the future of the symphony?



      • By all means, Jessica, please keep posturing and rambling. Your reply was cogent, thoughtful, and respectful. The intended recipient was not. Regards and best wishes to you and Paul from a fellow violist in Houston.


      • Scott, don’t lock out that commenter Christine Pie — won’t we just be doing the same cowardly squelching of debate that the ASO did on their Facebook page? We can take criticism, no matter if anonymous. She makes some points that are worth addressing, no?


      • Hi Matthew and thanks for posting. In principle, I completely agree with you, and it was for this reason that I allowed the first two posts on. I would like for there to be healthy dialog going on here, and I agree that having a dissenting point of view can raise the level of conversation. I have had interesting disagreements in my comments—most notably with James Jorden from The Observer during the Met Opera crisis.

        Unfortunately, we ran into a very different kind of experience during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. One commenter, using a variety of invented aliases, started posting reasonably-sounding criticism, which encouraged people to engage her. Very quickly the exchanges grew hostile, and more frequent. Then other of this person’s aliases would jump in either pro or anti, and pretty soon the comment sections were overwhelmed with nasty and ultimately slanderous posts. It became ugly… to say the least.

        I am happy to allow rebuttals to my points, and I’m happy to allow posters to comment anonymously. But please believe me that this was a serious problem in the past, and I want to nip it in the bud.


    • What you later call posturing and rambling is actually a cogent explanation of the bind caused by inflexible management, indeed management that seems determined to completely undo the orchestra and its collective bargaining agreement. You suggest that the players are free to accept terms that include the eventual unchecked reduction of the current complement to any number management deems fit. In fact, accepting those terms is not at all acceptable for a collective bargaining unit. As concessions go, his one is aptly described by Ms. Oudin as a “poison pill”.

      As for the question of a request versus a mandate, you do not adequately demonstrate that there is no difference. As a body, the players own the responsibility for refusing this service, and doubtless deeply regret the situation that management has created necessitating their decision.


  7. Childish mudslinging tactics, courtesy of the people with an unfortunate amount of power and control within the classical music world in Atlanta.

    I think the system itself needs revamping, not just in Atlanta, but in orchestras everywhere, to give the musicians more power over the way their orchestras are run. The question is what would that look like, and how could we get there?


  8. If it were not crystal clear already, it certainly is now – Virginia Hepner has hit the self-destruct button and Romanstein and the management are doing her bidding to end the orchestra. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of ruthless, craven people would get involved in running an arts organization for the purpose of destroying it – surely there must be more lucrative fields if you’re in it for the money or the business reputation. And there have to be less acrimonious, damaging ways of dissolving the symphony’s link to the WAC and amortizing its debt if you simply no longer want the WAC to have an orchestra company. Certainly accomplished businesspeople who are leading an arts organization for the right reasons would be able to make this happen? The collective decades of hard work and musical excellence, the legacy of critical acclaim and more than two dozen Grammy awards, and the thousands of people of all ages brought to joy and inspiration over the years of their involvement with this fine ensemble. All gone if this management has its way.

    At this point I hope more than anything that there is a clear and achievable path to reorganization as an independent orchestra outside of the WAC and that enough of the musicians are committed to staying with it to bring the high artistic quality for which the orchestra has been known. Many of us in Atlanta have never taken this for granted.


  9. Gads, I hate how children are assumed to be unintelligent, shallow and powerless! The orchestra musicians are these students’ teachers, mentors, allies. In schools, the music room is often the only safe place for students to be themselves and find fellowship. How foolish the management is to assume that their paternalistic message about auditions will result in the students (and parents) all collectively turning away from the people who have likely been a crucial part of their lives!

    I remember feeling such pride in the students who formed the Young Musicians of Minnesota here, when they first emerged on the lockout scene to demand that the management restore THEIR orchestra. They felt an authentic, and valid, sense of ownership in the Minnesota Orchestra, and it pained them to see their teachers hurt. “Give us back our Orchestra!” read the signs. Indeed, Atlanta, return to your students their teachers, and their music.

    And for those of you who persist in doubting the power of “mere children,” I suggest you follow the story of not only Emily Green but her classmates as well who founded the YMM – the lockout and its resolution proved to galvanize within them a sense of passion, purpose, and plan that is so shockingly beautiful that I am often moved to tears to witness it.

    Look out, old nasty guard, these young people will be in charge someday, sooner than you think. They are keen to discern corruption, hidden agendas, and patronizing attitudes toward them. They are gaining ground in the world of performing arts, arts management, and overall social affluence. They will remember those who mistreated the people and art they love; after all, this “9-11 generation” has been taught to remember, Remember, REMEMBER. Hepner, Romansten, et al would be well-advised to consider the kind of epitaph that awaits them if they continue their foolish path of vexing the young constituency of the Atlanta Symphony – or the parents of this constituency.

    Give them back their orchestra.


  10. Unbelievable; just when I thought these clueless, out-of-touch, pampered buffoons couldn’t make matters worse, damn me but they succeed in doing just that!! Beneath contempt……………


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  12. Perhaps someone here could explain the Wiener Phil business model. Aren’t they self-owned?
    I know it would take quite some time to replicate it, and maybe it’s just not plausible, but I’d like to know. Like so much in the ed. biz, the ASO seems really top-heavy.


  13. Harry, I don’t know if it is still true, but when I lived in Vienna in the 80’s, the Austrian government spent more money per capita than any country on the world on the arts. People value the arts; the civic leaders value the arts; people pay a lot of taxes and my guess is that it would never fly here.


    • Thanks! It no doubt is still true, I’m betting. That audience is probably the most informed one for classical music anywhere in the world. The same is not true here, alas. I think the stats here for classical music lovers, or jazz, for that matter, is ca. 3% of the general population, and probably shrinking at that. Sort of a cultural “Dark Age.”


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