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News: The sound of music returns to Symphony Hall as ASO musicians ratify contract

The musicians will be back at Symphony Hall.
In a statement, the ASO musicians sharply criticized management for "underperformance" by the orchestra.

The locked-out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ratified a new two-year collective bargaining agreement on Wednesday that ASO officials have called critical to the orchestra’s financial health. ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein said the agreement will allow the orchestra’s concert season to begin as scheduled on October 4.

“I am extremely pleased to know we have come to a resolution that will allow us to move our orchestra to firmer financial ground,” Romanstein said in a statement released Wednesday evening. “Arriving at these contract concessions wasn’t easy, but it demonstrates the great partnership that we’ve always had with our outstanding musicians — we are immensely grateful to them.”

“These are difficult and unfortunate economic realities we face,” said ASO Board Chairman Jim Abrahamson. “With this new agreement, I am confident we can have the strong future we all desire. We all want the same thing: an artistically vibrant and financially stable ASO that serves this community for years.”

Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association did not respond to phone calls last night seeking comment. In a news release, they called the ratification an “unprecedented and extremely painful move designed to keep the music going.”

The orchestra has accumulated an estimated $19.8 million in debt since 2003. According to the ASO, the agreement will result in $2.4 million in annual savings over its two years. In addition, senior staff members will take 6 percent salary reductions.

The ASO says it must generate an additional $2.5 million in income and contributions to avoid a budget deficit. Its annual budget is about $45 million, and its annual revenue is approximately $40 million. Romanstein has said that getting the debt under control is critical to the orchestra’s future.

“This new agreement is an important step in addressing the orchestra’s nearly $20 million accumulated deficit,” Romanstein said. “This contract, together with other initiatives, will allow us to close our annual $5 million budget shortfall, leading to a financially stable future.”

The agreement will mean $5.2 million in salary concessions by the musicians over the next two years, an average cut of about 16 percent for each. Under the terms of the deal, the ASO will go from a 52-week orchestra to 41 weeks this season and 42 weeks in 2013-14. According to the musicians, it’s been 31 years since the ASO didn’t play a full 52-week year.

The number of full-time musicians will be reduced from 93 to 88, with five currently vacant positions going unfilled. Musicians will also contribute to their health care insurance coverage for the first time.

The musicians did not strike the same conciliatory tone as Romanstein. They pointed out they will bear almost the full brunt of the ASO’s cost-cutting measures. They had asked management and senior staff during negotiations to take a similar pay cut to the one they accepted.

“The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO, and in light of these agonizing cuts cannot be cited as such in the future,” the news release declared. “[The musicians’] world-class performance is in stark contrast to that of the ASO’s leadership, both current and past. Management must be held accountable for underperformance at nearly every level for the past decade.”

The orchestra is scheduled to open its season October 4 with guest violinist Midori. A collaboration between the ASO and the Anti-Defamation League, “ADL Presents Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” is planned for the following week.

The last work stoppage at the ASO was in 1996, and it lasted 10 weeks before a new deal was reached.

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