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News: It’s déjà vu all over again as ASO and symphony musicians face September contract deadline

The opening of the orchestra's 70th season is threatened. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
For the second time in two years, ASO management is seeking concessions from its musicians. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
For the second time in two years, ASO management is seeking concessions from its musicians. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky, Jennifer Humphreys always dreamed that one day she would perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The first classical CD she bought, which she played over and over again, was the company’s recording with Yoel Levi of the Music Of Samuel Barber. Humphreys auditioned 13 times before she was finally hired as a cellist in 2011. Named as one of ArtsATL’s “30 Under 30” last year, Humphreys hardly imagined that three years after joining the ASO she would be packing her bags to play elsewhere.

“I can’t tell you how many people ask me, ‘Why are you moving?’” Humphreys said of her decision to join the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “Atlanta has an amazing reputation across the world, for recording and touring, but two years ago it took a dip. If it doesn’t focus on regrowth, what will ultimately happen, sadly, is what happened with me: people will leave.”

After a fractious 2012 labor dispute that saw musicians locked out of symphony facilities without pay, the ASO Players’ Association has less than two weeks to reach consensus with management on the 2014 contract. Amid the ongoing uncertainty — negotiations have been going on for more than eight months now — several musicians have retired, and some have taken positions with other orchestras.

Among the focus of disagreement are proposals to cut musicians’ pay and health care and scale back the size of the orchestra. Both sides have repeatedly declined to discuss details of contract negotiations with the media. Stanley Romanstein, ASO’s president and CEO, announced last week that the company ended its fiscal year 2014 on target and on budget, but he turned down requests for an interview. Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the Players’ Association, which represents musicians, would say only that they hope to reach consensus by the September 6 deadline.

Humphreys joined the ASO in 2011, but has joined the orchestra in Dallas. (Photo by R.R. Jones)
Humphreys joined the ASO in 2011, but has now joined the orchestra in Dallas. (Photo by R.R. Jones)

For management, the priority is safeguarding the financial health of the orchestra. In 2012, after running deficits five years in a row, the ASO’s accumulated debt reached $23 million. Facing a projected $5 million annual budget deficit, management forced musicians to accept a 15 percent cut in salary, amounting to a minimum of $27,000 over the last two years. The ASO dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the season from 52 to 42 weeks. For the first time in more than three decades, ASO no longer plays a full year — a marker of a top-tier orchestra. 

Since then, the company has made “significant progress” but remains in an “unsustainable position,” according to ASO spokesman Randy Donaldson. After devoting $18 million from its endowment to reducing its accumulated debt from operations, the company’s debt has dropped from $23 million to $5 million. Donaldson said that while the ASO has reduced its annual budget deficit from $5 million to $2 million, ticket sales and fundraising have declined in the last two years.

Musicians warn that further cuts will compromise their artistic output and jeopardize ASO’s standing as the leading cultural institution of the Southeast. “If you want to maintain a high-caliber orchestra, 88 is a bare minimum to maintain balance in all the key sections,” said Daniel Laufer, associate principal cellist and former president of the Players’ Association. “It’s a very painful process, when the orchestra worked so well for so long, to have the wheels start to fall off.” 

Two years ago, when the ASO Players’ Association announced that musicians had voted to accept a new collective bargaining agreement, resulting in $5.2 million in concessions, they accused management of wreaking “historic damage to the future of the orchestra.” The cutbacks, they claimed, would make it “all the more challenging to retain and continue to attract talent.”

Since then, an unusually high number of musicians have parted ways with the orchestra, either to retire or take on positions with other companies. Three senior members retired in 2012, one in 2013, and four more — with a combined service of 182 years — retired this summer. Two players, Colin Williams and Richard Deane, take on full-time positions with the New York Philharmonic in the fall. Another, George Curran, became bass trombonist for that orchestra last year.

Romanstein says the ASO's deficit has largely been erased, but more belt-tightening is still needed.
Romanstein says the ASO’s deficit has largely been erased, but more belt tightening is still needed.

Speaking from New York, Williams noted that the Philharmonic is “exactly the kind of place a musician wants to go”; not only does it play a full season, but it tours widely and has a management that seems committed to plugging in to the community. “Lately, it just feels that there’s not very much confidence in the institutional direction the Atlanta orchestra is heading in,” he said. “If someone asked me what ASO is doing to reach out to the community, I’m not sure. That’s a really disconcerting feeling.”

Humphreys’ move to Dallas Symphony Orchestra is especially troubling. Until 2012, musicians at both orchestras earned about the same, with salaries in the upper eighties and lower nineties, and Dallas would not have been seen as a step up. “Atlanta took a downward turn,” Humphreys said, “and that made Dallas a more advantageous place to be.” 

After so many departures, the orchestra now has key gaps in its sections; the viola and cello sections are currently at eight players, down from 11 and ten, respectively, a few years ago. The bass section has gone down from eight to five. Current openings include six contracted positions — principal bass, section bass, principal second violin, section viola, associate principal trumpet, and associate concertmaster — and four one-year positions — second trombone, first violin, second violin and cello.

The orchestra is also struggling to attract new talent. After two recent auditions, ASO declined to hire new players because candidates fell short of the usual caliber. “All this creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty,” said Murphy. “Everyone has serious concerns about where the orchestra is going.”

Across the country, many orchestras and performing arts companies are contending with financial deficits as a result of declining box-office revenue and increasing costs. Just last week, the New York Metropolitan Opera — the nation’s largest performing arts company — managed to avert a lockout and come to a tentative deal. With unions resisting management plans to cut workers’ pay by 17 percent, the Met extended its deadline and brought in independent financial experts to scrutinize the company’s finances. Earlier this month, the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera in California announced it was canceling its fall season for the first time in its 17-year history after shortfalls in fundraising; it remains unclear whether performances will resume in 2015.

Bruce Ridge says the ASO cannot grow if it diminishes its product.
Bruce Ridge says the ASO cannot grow if it diminishes its product.

Yet even amid such challenges, other orchestras are rebounding and some are even experiencing record growth. In 2013, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated unprecedented levels of attendance and fundraising, receiving the two largest gifts in its history, totaling $32 million. After locking out its musicians in 2012 before reaching a new agreement that cut musician salaries by 32 percent, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has reported surges of 19 percent in ticket sales and 30 percent in subscription sales. The Cleveland Orchestra, which experienced a labor strike in 2010, announced a balanced budget in 2013, as well as growing audiences and an increased endowment. Even the Louisville Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy nearly four years ago, reported a $20,000 budget surplus earlier this month.

Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, said that the more dynamic orchestras attribute their successes to a range of factors: higher individual giving, growths in ticket sales and subscriptions, and special student ticket sales. Atlanta’s management, he suggested, needs to be more creative in turning things around and building relationships in the community. 

“No business ever solved a financial problem by offering an inferior product,” he said. “Cutting the length of the season only diminishes the orchestra’s presence in the community. Cutting the number of revenue-generating events doesn’t help with ticket sales, because you can’t sell tickets to events you’re not putting on. Cutting the size of the orchestra — bringing in more subs and extras, no matter how talented — impacts the style and precision of playing.”

From Texas, Humphreys said she would be following the results of Atlanta’s ongoing contract negotiations with more than a passing interest. Under the terms of her departure, she has a one-year leave of absence from ASO, which allows the option of returning to Atlanta if circumstances change.

 “I’m just going to be seeing how everything goes,” she said. “I was very sad to leave because Atlanta has always been a very special place for me. I would really love to see growth built into the new contract.” 

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