Preemptively Cancelling Concerts

Well… there it is. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has just cancelled its concerts running through November.

From the announcement on the ASO webpage: “ ‘We’ve made this decision with a great deal of reluctance,’ said Atlanta Symphony Orchestra President & CEO Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D. ‘Cancelling concerts is the last thing any of us wants to do, but out of respect for our patrons and the many people who play a role in producing the concerts we all enjoy, we feel we have no other choice.’ ”

Let’s look at this statement.

To begin, well… let me just quickly vent for a second and say that it is a pet peeve of mine when academics use or call attention to academic credentials in a non-academic situation. It rarely helps. And I say this as a former academic myself.

More to the point, “Cancelling concert is the last thing any of us wants to do….”

I really do wish I could believe this.

Unfortunately, in order to believe this statement, I would have to forget the fact that Dr. Stanley E. Romanstein Ph.D. had dragged his feet regarding contract negotiations for the last few months. And that he refused all requests to meet in person with the musicians in the final days leading up to the contract deadline. And that he also broke off all contact with the musicians at all in the last few hours before the previous contract expired, forcing the musicians to submit their proposal electronically. And that he shot down the idea of play-and-talk while negotiations continued, and locked out the musicians the first minute he was legally allowed to.

And it doesn’t stop there. In the days since the lockout, he has not made a single public gesture to keep he season going, nor made a single public call for renewed negotiations. Has he hit the media circuit begging the public to stay with the orchestra? Has he gone on talk shows with the now-standard offer to meet anytime, any place to reach a settlement? The only communication I’m aware of from the ASO came last week when the ASO leadership cancelled Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) auditions—a communication in which it blamed the union for everything that had transpired.

And now Romanstein wants the public at large to believe that preemptively cancelling all concerts through November is the “last thing” he wants.

Really?

I’m also disappointed that he feels he “has no other choice.”

With respect, Mr. Romanstein, your stunning lack of imagination is not my problem. Of course you have other choices.

I agree that a lockout and cancellation of part of a season is a last-ditch choice.  But let me be perfectly clear that it is way, way too early to implement such a desperate, final choice. To my knowledge, no one—no one—has given any indication that the ASO is so desperate for money that it can’t make payroll this month. I know of no creditors that are about to take over the organization and liquidate all assets. I have not heard that the board of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC, the parent company that oversees the ASO) had voted to disband the organization, as was the case for the San Diego Opera.

So unless you are holding out on us, it does not seem the organization is in the kind of imminent danger that would warrant such an extreme choice. Why do you have to impose a lockout right this very minute? Why do you have to cancel all your fall concerts right this very minute? Why not engage in play and talk, as many organizations do during difficult labor negotiations? Why not only cancel only the opening weekend?

And… why not engage in honest negotiations to break the impasse and find a solution to the situation?

The kinds of financial difficulties the ASO is experiencing need solutions that are well-conceived, comprehensive, and holistic; they hardly require a “Hail Mary!” pass. There are many other choices still available. Don’t limit your options too soon.

And even if the situation were as dire as you say, and there were no other options of any kind… I’m not sure why you and the WAC management seem to think this option will be successful and save the organization. Yes, theoretically the lockout might force the musicians to agree to a new contract that lowers labor costs… but it’s clear that the labor costs are not the real problem here. The ASO maintains that the musicians only account for 24% of the budget, so there are clearly other areas that need to be looked at. Plus, the musicians have convincingly demonstrated that the ASO’s assets and resources have been moved around to other areas within the WAC, meaning the ASO has suffered artificially-induced shortfalls while the WAC as a whole has thrived.

And of course, the musicians accepted a nearly-identical group of cuts two years ago, and it didn’t seem to help the organization’s finances. So why will such cuts succeed this time?

Finally, why do you think preemptively cancelling concerts will help the situation? Surely you realize that this action can infuriate your ticket buyers, who may continue to stay home even after this dispute is over. Worse, they could find other ways to spend their time and money, making it that much harder to get them to come back.

At what point do you start to realize that that your “choices” are not just bad, but they are making a bad situation worse?

* * *

But there is one other telling detail from this disastrous announcement. In the email sent out to the ASO’s ticket buyers, the ASO helpfully suggests that ticket buyers who are affected by the cancellations “may consider the full face value of your unused tickets as a contribution to the ASO.”

The full text of the email reads:

To our valued patrons —

Today we regretfully announced the cancellation of all orchestral concerts through November 8, 2014, including the opening performance of the 2014-15 season on September 25, due to negotiations between ASO management and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players’ Association (ASOPA) over a new collective bargaining agreement.

If an agreement is reached between ASO management and ASOPA before November 8, the classical season will be re-launched as soon as possible.

We are encouraging all of our patrons to keep their tickets until a new agreement can be reached. In the interim, there are a few options for you to consider.

You may exchange your tickets to a future Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert. A list of future concerts with good seating availability will be mailed out when the work stoppage is over in order to help you make a choice of concerts.

You may consider the full face value of your unused tickets as a contribution to the ASO.

You can request a full cash refund for any concerts that are cancelled. You will be reimbursed for any service fees.

Our ticket office will be open during normal business hours in order to assist you with exchanges or refunds. Patrons with complimentary tickets can exchange into another concert, pending availability. Parking may be exchanged along with your tickets on a space available basis. If space is not available, parking will be refunded.

Season ticket holders are encouraged to contact the ASO Season Tickets office at (404) 733-4800 with any questions.

The current list of concerts that will not be performed includes:

Opening Weekend – Sept 25, 27 and 28
Beethoven Symphony No. 9 – Oct 2, 4 and 5
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 – Oct 9 and 11
Lang Lang – Oct 15*
Ravel, Bolero – Oct 16 and 18
POPS!, Jason Alexander – Oct 24 and 25
FAMILY, Halloween Spooktacular – Oct 25
Grieg Piano Concerto – Nov 6, 7 and 8

*special presentation

For more information on the current contract negotiations, please visit our website at atlantasymphony.org/2014musiciantalks.

We deeply appreciate your patronage and look forward to continuing to make music in Symphony Hall.

Best regards,

Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.
President & CEO
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

 

So you want to cancel the concerts, and keep the cash, too? Really? Do I have to explain how embarrassingly inappropriate this is?

* * *

Well, the die is cast. By preemptively cancelling its first few months of programming, the ASO has removed any incentive for the musicians to negotiate in the short-term. From my perspective, the ASO has also alienated and tried to shake down its ticket-buyers. Coupled with its tone-deaf public relations campaign of the last two weeks, and I have to say I’m astonished… and not in a good way.

My short answer to Romanstein is that I don’t believe you regret this plan of action at all. Instead of a last resort, this feels like this is a first resort for you—a clearly defined “starve-them-out” strategy to break the union as swiftly as possible, regardless of the collateral damage.

 

Xochipilli

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12 thoughts on “Preemptively Cancelling Concerts

  1. Well said, Scott. One has to wonder why this has become such a familiar pattern. All of this happened here in Minnesota not too long ago, and the Minnesota Orchestra Association didn’t come out any better for it. Why, then, would the WAC and the ASO choose to repeat the MOA’s recipe for disaster? How do they think they’ll come out stronger at the end of this all? It truly baffles me.

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  2. Exactly, Scott. “Stanley E. Romanstein, Ph.D.” puts me in mind of Nabokov’s “John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.”, the supposed author of the psychopathologizing Foreword to Lolita.

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    • It has been time for a while to form a New Atlanta Symphony, or Atlanta Orchestra, or whatever they will be. Only in the last month has that become painfully clear – no one at the WAC seems to have the orchestra’s well-being at heart. The time for the deus ex machina mega-donation(s) is now, before any more of the musicians leave for other gigs. Whither our blessings?

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  3. Now the aso chorus is alienated-with the cancelling of beethovn 9th and the publishing of their letter, the soloists for the cancelled performances are not happy without any guarantee they will even consider a future.invitation, and the subscribers are being fleeced. What would it require for the aso board and the woodruff board to be “fired”… would picketers at romanstein or board members homes be effective? They may as well have cancelled thru december. Doubtful if this goes for any length of time that there will be any holiday performances, which I am sure.brings in a good chunk of change for the bottom line.

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  4. As a composer living & working in Atlanta with many friends in the ASO, I feel as though I’m watching an artistic catastrophe of Hindenburg proportions. Unlike Minnesota, the state of Georgia ranks 49th in spending for the Arts. I don’t think we could recover from a long-term lockout in similar magnitude to what happened to the Minnesota Orchestra. Sadly, I agree with your last statement that this is about union busting. Aside from that, the WAC also seems to want to “win” no matter the cost. They will be happy to “beat” the union, balance their budget and sit serenely on an artistic dystopia reveling in their victory. If my heart were any heavier at this moment it would fall through the floor.

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  5. I also found the whole press release to be totally disingenuous. I was stunned that they would take this action so quickly and didn’t believe for a moment that he ‘regretted’ any of it. You, sir, are my hero and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your insightful essays on behalf of the ATL Symphony Musicians.

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