The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has completed a $25 million campaign to restore its full complement of musicians — two years ahead of schedule — thanks to a $2.5 million gift from the Delta Air Lines Foundation.
The ASO’s Musicians Endowment Campaign will permanently endow 11 musician positions in the orchestra, bringing the total number to 88 by the end of next season. The announcement was made late this afternoon to a gathering of musicians, board members and staff outside Symphony Hall.
“It’s really tremendous,” Jennifer Barlament, the ASO’s executive director, said in a telephone interview prior to the announcement. “It’s not the last signpost on our way to success, but it is a tremendous milestone. It provides an influx of money that helps bring the artistry and size of the orchestra back to what it was. It gives us great momentum.”
The news is in stark contrast to the gloom of 2014, when ASO musicians were locked out of Symphony Hall for nine weeks after they refused to accept a contract that would fix the number of full-time musicians at 77, below the standard level of a major symphony orchestra. That lockout, the second in two years, delayed the opening of the season and led to the resignation of then-president and CEO Stanley Romanstein. He was replaced on an interim basis by Terry Neal, a retired executive of the Coca-Cola Company.
ASO management eventually reached an agreement with the musicians that would take the level down to 77 from a high of 95 in 2012, and then build the complement back to 88 through the endowment campaign. An orchestra of 95 is considered by many experts to be the standard requirement to play at an international level; permanently dropping under 88 musicians would put the orchestra in the middle rank of American symphonies.
There were those who viewed the lockout as a moratorium on the city’s commitment to a world-class symphony orchestra. In an interview with The New York Times during the labor negotiations, music director Robert Spano described the lockout as a “dire and critical juncture” for the city of Atlanta: “If the 10th-largest urban economy in America is incapable of sustaining its cultural jewel, what does that signal about our country?”
The number of musicians was the major battle point during the 2014 lockout. “We fought very hard to have the levels restored,” Daniel Laufer, president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association, said yesterday during a rehearsal break. “I’m quite excited by this news, it’s fantastic. Some people wondered if there would be community support for the ASO. This is a strong signal of the city’s commitment to music and to restore the artistic integrity of the orchestra.”
Barlament agreed. “It’s a resounding yes, especially given the focus of the campaign was to build the artistic level of the orchestra,” she said. “It’s a resounding vote of support for the ASO.”
The endowment fund had a four-year goal to reach $25 million, the life of the current labor agreement with the musicians. Instead, the endowment goal was reached in two years. Over the past year, nine new musicians have joined the orchestra. Barlament said the goal is to commit to 84 full-time musicians by the end of this season, and then 88 by the end of the 2017-18 season.
“There are 88 keys on the piano, and I think that’s a great analogy,” Barlament said. “You have to have all the pieces in place, and all the keys, in order for it to work.”
She said the ASO board, in addition to the Woodruff Arts Center board and leadership, have worked hard to rebuild the ASO’s relationship with the community. She also praised Delta for its gift, and for its support of the orchestra through the years. “This was not an isolated incident,” Barlament said. “Delta has consistently been supportive. They are a visionary partner, and we wouldn’t be who we are today without them.”
The Delta Foundation gift will endow the principal tuba chair, held by Michael Moore, who is now in his 49th year with the orchestra.
One important benefit of the successful campaign is the continued restoration of trust between ASO management and its musicians.
“That’s a huge part of my goal,” Barlament, herself a classically trained musician, said. “I give all the credit to the board and Terry Neal, who did a tremendous job with that. By the time I arrived, Terry had already rebuilt a lot of bridges. The vibe is better and a lot more healthy.”
Laufer said the early completion of the campaign is a great morale boost. “It signals a renewed, positive future as opposed to the negativity of [the lockouts],” he said. “We’re all trying to work together, it’s much more positive now. There’s no point rehashing what has happened. People learned from it, and this campaign speaks to how to rebuild trust and respect between everyone.”
Barlament compared it to a baseball game where the announcer notes a momentum shift in the later innings. “That’s what it means for us,” she said. “It feels like the wind was blowing at our faces, and now it’s blowing at our back. Something like this makes everybody feel good, and trusting in each other.”
That trust will be put to the test when the current labor contract expires in two years. Laufer said the musicians will push for salary hikes to offset the average 15 percent reductions they agreed to in 2012. “We understand the need for fiscal stability,” he said. “We took significant salary cuts in 2012; we were willing to sacrifice our own income to fight for the overall orchestra. We now want to move in the direction of being more competitive with other orchestras in terms of compensation.”
The overall financial health of the ASO appears to have turned the corner after 14 years of annual operating deficits. The orchestra has finished the last two years with a budget surplus.
“Our financial health is very good, and much stronger than it has been over the past two decades,” Barlament said. “We are positioned well, but that doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the journey. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to have our finances be in the black the past two years; we’d like to be in a position where that is no longer news.”