A Resolution in Atlanta

Unknown-1The Atlanta Symphony’s two-month-long lockout ended over the weekend. With the help of federal mediation, musicians ratified a four year contract. The agreement halts ASO management’s attempt to gain “flexibility” by downsizing the orchestra, ensuring a compliment of 88 full time musicians by the contract’s final year. Read this article and visit Drew McManus’ Adaptistration for background and in-depth analysis.

The lockout (the second in Atlanta in two years) has delayed the start of the orchestra’s 70th season and raised questions about the stewardship of the ASO’s parent company, the Woodruff Arts Center. As Atlanta Symphony players scattered across the country to perform as freelancers in other orchestras, the Woodruff Arts Center board remained disturbingly ambivalent about the potential destruction of a world-class orchestra. In a rare and bold move, music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles spoke out about the potential destruction of the orchestra. It will be important for the community to continue to hold the Woodruff leadership accountable.

Mahler in the Mid-90s

In an earlier post, I highlighted a few of the Atlanta Symphony’s excellent recordings. As an addition to that list, here is Yoel Levi’s 1995 recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The Israeli-born Levi was music director of the ASO from 1988-2000.  The recording highlights the Atlanta Symphony’s trademark refinement and polish. Even in the most powerful fortissimos, the trumpets, trombones and horns remain singing and blended. In the first movement’s funeral march, the whispering strings seem to slowly awaken (1:08). The Telarc label’s microphone placement seems to capture the sound from the perspective of distance, as you would hear it if you were sitting in the hall.

  1. Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (0:00)
  2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) (12:51)
  3. Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Not too fast, strong) (27:41)
  4. Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slow) (45:32)
  5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch (Fresh) (56:37)

The Atlanta Symphony: A Tradition in Jeopardy

Unknown-3You could almost hear the classical music world’s collective groan on Sunday as the Atlanta Symphony became the latest orchestra to impose a lockout on its musicians. The lockout went into effect after both sides were unable to agree to a contract by an 11:59 Saturday deadline. This follows last year’s fifteen month long Minnesota Orchestra lockout, which resulted in the departure of the music director, executive director and numerous musicians.

At Adaptistration, Drew McManus provides excellent analysis of the situation, as well as some of the background:

In 2012, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) musicians were locked out after refusing to accept sharply concessionary terms. Approximately one month later, the musicians ostensibly caved and agreed to large reductions in wages, number of musicians employed, and a decline in weeks from 52 to 41. Two years later, that agreement has expired and the musicians have refused to accept an agreement that is, yet again, filled with additional concessionary terms even though the orchestra’s parent organization, Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), surpassed their most recent annual fundraising campaign and the ASO has trumpeted fundraising success to the tune of $5.5 million in corporate and anonymous donations since 2012.

Last week a leaked e mail, jointly written by Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, warned that the organization’s world-class artistic standing is in jeopardy. A tradition which took many years to build can be destroyed quickly. Leadership in past generations did not build the current great orchestra with a visionless, “bean counting” approach.

It’s easy to see the Atlanta situation in a broader context of fading local power and investment and the rise of a faceless globalism which guts communities and promotes private rather than public good…a world of consumers rather than citizens. Where is the equivalent of George Eastman in our current order? Atlanta, an “alpha-world city“, boasts the fourth largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the country. It is wealthy beyond measure. It will be incumbent upon the citizens of the Atlanta area to take ownership of their orchestra and demand that its proud tradition continues.

Atlanta’s Recorded History:

In 1967 Robert Shaw, founder of the lauded Robert Shaw Chorale, became music director of the Atlanta Symphony. His many recordings include the Faure and Durufle Requiems and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Here he leads the orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus in an excerpt of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem. Here is Brahms’ Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (Song of Destiny):

In the 1990s music director Yoel Levi made many excellent recordings with the Atlanta Symphony. Here is Samuel Barber’s Essay for Orchestra, No. 2, Op.17:

Here is Christopher Theofanidis’ Rainbow Body with current Music Director, Robert Spano:

An Orchestra and Its Community

Great orchestras gradually develop a unique sound and style of playing. This process takes place over time as conductors come and go, leaving their mark and new players are gradually assimilated. In the days when I was traveling between many orchestras as a free-lance violinist I could sense the “soul” of each organization. The ongoing lockout at the Minnesota Orchestra is tragic and frightening because it may ultimately show how quickly a great orchestra with a 110 year tradition can be destroyed. If you’re not familiar with the situation, take a look at this list of recent blog posts:

The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra’s devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog.

Managers and board members should view their orchestras as cultural treasures which belong to the community. They are entrusted with the sacred responsibility of nourishing the organization and investing in its future. This takes passion, determination and creativity. For a few thoughts on the importance of the management-musician relationship in regards to organizational success, read my 2006 polyphonic.org article, Moving Beyond the Music: Why An Orchestra Musician’s Job is Not Over After the Last Note.

In honor of the great tradition of the Minnesota Orchestra, here is the orchestra playing the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite: