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Locked-out ASO musicians schedule concerts; no new talks as season opener nears (update)

Former ASO Associate Conductor Michael Palmer will lead the orchestra.
Former ASO Associate Conductor Michael Palmer will lead the orchestra.

The musicians locked out by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra last month when their collective bargaining agreement expired have decided to bypass the middleman and put on their own concerts this week.

As ArtsATL first reported late Saturday night, the ASO Players Association will perform free benefit concerts at the Center for the Arts at North Atlanta High School on Northside Drive on Thursday and Friday, September 20 and 21.

“This is a very significant performance for us,” says Christina Smith, the orchestra’s principal flutist and a member of the musicians’ negotiating team. “We’ve not been together for several weeks and we can’t wait to play together. It’s also an opportunity for the public to show support for us and for our fund-raiser.”

The orchestra will perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” Overture under conductor Michael Palmer. ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron and Associate Concertmaster William Pu will perform the Double Violin Concerto by J.S. Bach.

“We wanted to choose things that showcase the orchestra,” Smith says. “And from a practical standpoint, we wanted to select things we all are familiar with.”

Palmer is a former ASO associate conductor and the director of the Bellingham Festival of Music in Washington state, as well as the Charles Thomas Wurm Distinguished Professor of Orchestral Studies at Georgia State University.

There will be no admission charge for the two performances, but audience members are encouraged to make donations that will be earmarked for the musicians’ health care coverage. “Our health insurance was canceled,” says Smith. “We have several members who are undergoing cancer treatment. We have others with pre-existing conditions. The donations will go towards that.”

The North Atlanta High School facility seats 600 people, and reservations are required. Those wishing to attend should email rrcolbert@atlanta.k12.ga.us or call 404-802-4728 to reserve seats. Emails should include the name of the person making the reservation and the number of seats wanted.

Smith says that, while no other concerts produced by the musicians are scheduled, there may be more.

She says there have been no negotiations between the musicians and ASO management since the lockout late last month. The ASO is scheduled to open its season October 4, and that opening now appears to be in real jeopardy. “It’s quite demoralizing and disconcerting,” Smith says. “We want to perform.”

Melissa Sanders, the ASO’s senior director of communications, said ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein was out of the office Monday and Tuesday and unavailable for comment, but that he may comment on the musicians’ concert and the state of negotiations when he returns Wednesday.

Negotiations between the ASO and the union that represents its musicians broke down after a tentative agreement was rejected by the Woodruff Arts Center’s executive board. The Woodruff is the ASO’s parent organization.

The orchestra has accumulated an estimated $19.8 million in debt since 2003. Romanstein has said it ran a $4.5 million deficit in fiscal year 2012 and that that is expected to grow in 2013. The union contends that the actual deficits for those two years are less than half that amount.

The collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight August 26, and the next day, the musicians’ access cards to Symphony Hall and its parking decks were deactivated. On August 31, their health benefits were canceled.

The two sides are $600,000 a year apart.

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