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ASO chief Stanley Romanstein discusses orchestra’s future and healing wounds from lockout

Romanstein says the new management team will bring fresh energy to the ASO.
Stanley Romanstein says a new management team will bring fresh energy to the ASO.

Having survived one of the most tumultuous periods in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s history, ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein said he is optimistic for the orchestra’s future and intends to move forward with plans to build a new, state-of-the-art symphony hall.

“We’re very committed to a new performance space,” Romanstein said. “Symphony Hall opened in 1968 and it is technically deficient and outdated. We need to provide the audience with the kind of experience they deserve.”

That news emerged from a wide-ranging interview in which Romanstein discussed the orchestra’s financial difficulties, the decision to replace three of its top leaders in a major management shakeup, and his long-range plans for its future.

The ASO raised about $100 million in donations to build a $300 million new hall, designed by famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, on 14th Street between Peachtree and West Peachtree streets. The project stalled when $100 million in anticipated state and local funding didn’t come through.

In 2009, the Woodruff Arts Center, the ASO’s parent organization, switched gears and approved a master plan to locate a new symphony hall at the corner of Peachtree and 15th streets. By then, the annual deficit, which has totaled nearly $20 million in accumulated debt, dominated the orchestra’s attention.

The orchestra erased about half of its projected $5 million deficit for this fiscal year through major contract concessions from its musicians after a four-week lockout in August and September. The two-year contract that the musicians accepted included a total of $5.2 million in salary concessions, an average pay cut of about 16 percent for each. The size of the orchestra fell from 93 to 88. Under the terms of the deal, the ASO will go from a 52-week orchestra to 41 weeks this season and 42 weeks in the second year. According to the musicians, it’s been 31 years since the ASO didn’t play a full 52-week year.

The shortened schedule dropped Atlanta’s orchestra from the symphony world’s major leagues, as defined by performing a full-time schedule.

Daniel Laufer

“The huge sacrifice we made has to be followed up by moves from management,” Daniel Laufer, the cellist who is president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association, said last week. “The next two years is a critical period to stabilize the institution and do a course correction. We’d like to get the orchestra back to major-league status.”

The first move was to shed some top management and its salaries. Romanstein announced last week that Donald Fox, executive vice president for business operations and chief financial officer for nine years, and Charles Wade, vice president of marketing for 15 years, were leaving their positions. In addition, John Sparrow, the ASO’s general manager and vice president of orchestra initiatives, left to pursue other interests. (Disclosure: Fox is the brother-in-law of ArtsATL Executive Director Catherine Fox.)

Sparrow’s departure was a big loss in the eyes of the musicians. “Until very recently, we had a very good working relationship with management, and John had a lot to do with that,” Laufer said.

Laufer noted that Fox was also in charge of overseeing operations of the Verizon Amphitheater at Encore Park and a telemarketing firm the ASO owns. “A lot of us feel someone has to be held responsible for the operation of Verizon and its underperformance,” Laufer said. “Charles is well thought of in his field. They’re probably looking for a new direction in marketing, and it will be interesting to see what it means moving forward.”

To help generate more money, the ASO purchased a profitable telemarketing firm in 2004 and then opened the Verizon Wireless Amplitheatre in 2008. “They were both designed to increase revenue and to stem deficits,” Romanstein said. “We tried to solve all our problems by looking at the revenue side. Revenue has become more limited, and we had to look at our staffing.”

The ASO did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the financial health of Verizon and whether the facility has met financial expectations. According to Variety, the concert business in general began to slump in 2009 and worsened in 2010, declining 12 percent from 2009. Verizon was nominated as Best Major Outdoor Venue by Pollstar in three of the past four years, and last year it was ranked 14th in terms of amphitheater attendance worldwide.

Susan Ambo, who was the ASO’s vice president of finance, has taken over the finance department. Julie Fish, who was the senior director of operations, is now the symphony’s operations and general manager. And David Paule, a former marketing director at Delta Air Lines who was the ASO’s senior director for development, became the new director of marketing. They began their new roles November 11.

The moves have not come without criticism. Ferdinand Levy, a retired professor of management economics at Georgia Tech and a longtime ASO patron, wonders why it took the orchestra more than 10 years to “clean house” even as it was amassing annual deficits. Levy said Romanstein’s mandate when he was hired in 2010 was to reduce the deficit and develop a larger audience.

“The methods he and the ASO Board must have decided upon is to squeeze both the size and the salaries of one of Atlanta’s premier arts organizations, and to chop off the heads of departments and promote their subordinates,” Levy wrote in a letter to Jim Abrahamson, chairman of the ASO’s board of directors. “That’s no way to enhance Atlanta’s reputation as a haven for superb musical arts and develop a larger audience.”

Levy also said that replacing the number one person in an organization with the number two person may be a good way to reduce costs but is not efficient. “You don’t promote juniors to the most senior positions in a department when the department hasn’t done well and the senior has been let go,” he wrote.

Romanstein said the decision to promote new leadership from within was made after consulting with the ASO board members, the Woodruff and community leaders.

“We’re in great shape as far as the artistic side,” he said. “We want to make sure the business side is equally equipped. The people who have left, we’re not pointing fingers; they’ve done incredible work. Sometimes you need new ideas and new energy. The new team in place is very enthusiastic.”

Romanstein said the first order of business is to work within a balanced budget and to chip away at an accumulated debt estimated to reach nearly $20 million by the end of the fiscal year. “The last time we had a balanced budget was in 2001,” he said.

In December, the ASO will launch a strategic planning process to create a road map for the next three to five years. Romanstein said the musicians will have a voice, along with the orchestra staff and board and the community at large. And part of that process will involve a new symphony hall.

“We’ve wrestled with the issue of when to move forward with the hall,” he said. “What I’ve heard is we have to get our finances in order first. Then we’ll turn our attention to a new hall.”

He said he doesn’t want to second-guess decisions that were made before he took the ASO position two years ago. He said that some of the orchestra’s financial problems stem from being handicapped by its current home in the Woodruff Arts Center. He believes that a new, state-of-the-art symphony hall will draw a larger audience.

“We have the smallest symphony hall of any major American orchestra,” Romanstein said. “We have fewer tickets we can sell; we have only 1,700 seats. And given the market in Atlanta, we can’t double the price of tickets.”

Levy, however, believes that a new facility isn’t the answer. “A new building is not a panacea. It’s what’s inside the building that matters,” he said.

An equally complex issue will be how to heal the rift between ASO management and the musicians that was caused by the lockout and contract concessions the musicians felt forced to accept.

The ASO and Chorus at Carnegie Hall on October 27. (Photo by Chris Lee)

Laufer said the musicians are determined not to allow their unhappiness with the contract to affect their performances. “A lot of damage was done to the ASO as an institution,” he said. “We are a high-caliber orchestra, and when we stepped back on stage, our responsibility was to do our best and try to maintain that status.”

Members of the ASO chorus produced black T-shirts with the phrase “The Music Is Ongoing” on the front, a play on the phrase “negotiations are ongoing” from the contract dispute. The chorus and orchestra now wear them at every dress rehearsal, including that for their October 20 concert at Carnegie Hall.

Before the dress rehearsal, incoming ASO board Chairwoman Karole Lloyd addressed the musicians and invited them to a board reception afterward. As first reported by Norman Lebrecht on the “Slipped Disc” blog, the musicians did not attend. Instead, Laufer and another ASO musician made a brief appearance to explain that the musicians would not be at the reception.

“It was obviously a last-minute invitation, and many people already had plans for the evening,” Laufer said. “It caught the orchestra off guard, yes. But I give her credit for reaching out to us and trying to repair the communications. That’s important.”

After the dress rehearsal, Romanstein was backstage in a hallway, waiting to speak with ASO Music Director Robert Spano, and the entire orchestra had to walk past him. Romanstein received a chilly reception from the musicians. “No one had really seen Stanley since negotiations had concluded,” Laufer said. “People have strong feelings, and seeing him, they had a reaction to that.”

Romanstein said he understands that the musicians feel frustrated and angry. “I have great admiration for them,” he said. “They deliver great music every week and are consummate professionals. The healing process will come when we deliver success to them, and the restructuring is designed to do just that, to make sure that we honor their dedication.”

One thing all sides agree on is that the orchestra has not been marketed strongly enough.

“There’s an old saying: it’s about location, location, location,” Levy said in an interview. “For the ASO, it’s about marketing, marketing, marketing. They need creativity in marketing and have certainly lacked that in the last 10 or 15 years.”

“We have to listen, ask the community what they want from us,” Romanstein said. “We have to become more effective storytellers about the difference we’re making in the lives of the community, that the ASO is good for business in Atlanta and essential to the cultural environment.”

Selling that story will be even more important once the orchestra renews its push for a new symphony hall. The state may be willing to invest $300 million in a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, but Georgia ranks 49th nationally in government support for the arts.

“Money is an expression of value,” Romanstein said. “We rank at the bottom in public support for the arts. We need to make a compelling case about what the arts bring to us and why it’s critical to invest in the arts.”

Laufer hopes that investment will help restore the ASO to what it was, a full-time orchestra with salary levels that make it competitive in attracting and retaining high-quality musicians. “If you continue to cut into the program you’re trying to sell, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” the cellist said. “There needs to be accountability. That’s very critical now.”

Romanstein would not comment on the chances of returning to a 52-week season in the future. “The orchestra is deeply committed and deeply rooted to the community,” he said. “We’ll find our place on how often we should play and where we should play.”

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